That matter at hand this week is Carson Palmer and the Arizona Cardinals. The last time the Bengals met the Cardinals in the regular season was 2011. You might remember it as the game where Jerome Simpson flipped over former Cardinals' linebacker Daryl Washington for a touchdown. The Bengals won the game 23-16 and improved their record to 9-6, which would prove to be enough for a playoff bearth as they lost their final game to finish the season 9-7, but still found themselves in possession of the AFC's #6 seed. It was the third playoff berth of Marvin Lewis's tenure with the Bengals and Andy Dalton's first.
All eyes will be on how the Bengals perform against one player - Carson Palmer. Palmer began his career as the Bengals No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003 after an abysmal 2-14 season in 2002 that cost Dick Lebeau his job. Palmer led a revival for a Bengals franchise that hadn't seen a playoff berth or a winning record in over a decade, but things began to sour as the team struggled again and Palmer demanded to be traded following a 4-12 season in 2010.
Although only a few players remain from Palmer's tenure with the Bengals, the feeling that he "quit on his team" seems to be as strong and abrasive as ever. Just as it would be silly to suggest that the Bengals want to win this game out of spite for Palmer, it would also be silly to assume that it is not a motivating factor on some level. It's bulletin board material, if you will.
Last week: 10-6 loss vs Houston Texans
Last week was not a good week for a 2015 Cincinnati Bengals team that has yet to experience the disappointment of losing. That said, this is still a contending team that enjoys a comfortable lead at the top of their division. The Bengals will be looking to bounce back this week to improve to 9-1 and secure a three game lead in the AFC North with the Pittsburgh Steelers on bye.
Despite the abysmal loss in which the Bengals only managed to put up 256 yards of total offense and no touchdowns, PFF still ranks them as a top five offense.They posses a top four player in rushing touchdowns with Jeremy Hill's five, a top four quarterback in passer rating with Andy Dalton's 104.6, and the NFL's leader in touchdown receptions; Tyler Eifert with nine.
Combine all of that with the NFL's leading defense in points allowed (152), the team has performed well enough over the course of the season to come in at No. 3 in PFF's weekly Power Rankings. That's one rank ahead of their opponents this week, the Arizona Cardinals, so you know this week is going to be an interesting match up.
Last week: 39-32 win vs Seattle Seahawks
The Arizona Cardinals are off to an impressive 7-2 start to their season that puts them comfortably in the driver's seat in the NFC West. That comes as a result of incredible coaching by the highly decorated Bruce Arians and a roster full of players that are having a fantastic season.
For example, offseason free agent signing Mike Iupati is currently ranked as the seventh highest graded run blocking offensive guard in the NFL (+10.5). Unfortunately, that hasn't translated to running success as Chris Johnson ranks as the lowest graded running back in the NFL (-8.8). Against the Seahawks last week, Johnson didn't have a great game (-2.4) and he fared even worse in Week 8 before Arizona's bye when they played the Browns (-3.4).
However, the story for the Cardinals this year has been Carson Palmer and the passing game. Palmer ranks as PFF's best quarterback through Week 10 as a result of unbelievable accuracy on deep throws (75.0 percent). Even with his turnovers against the Seahawks last week, he made up for it with deep field accuracy and a big play potency that helped the Cardinals to snatch a victory from their division rivals.
Make Palmer Pay
To clarify: I am not suggesting that the Bengals should try to win this game by focusing solely on Palmer because of their history. I am suggesting that the Bengals should try to win this game by focusing a lot on Palmer because he is having an incredible season, but is still prone to the kind of mistakes that Bengals fans remember all too well. Last week, a decent Seahawks' pass rush created two fumbles and an end zone interception on Palmer, but, when he wasn't being harassed, he was absolutely decimating the Seahawks in the air.
Geno Atkins is the fifth best pass rusher in the NFL right now, according to PFF. That's regardless of position. Geno Atkins has 40 total pressures this season, which makes up 13 percent of every pass rush snap he's taking. That means that a little more than one in every 10 pass rush snaps for Atkins results in a pressured situation for the opposing quarterback. That's insane for a defensive tackle and provides a key opportunity for the Bengals to fluster Palmer into making poor decisions.
To make manners better, Atkins has plenty of help, such as from Carlos Dunlap who currently ranks third overall in total sacks (8.5). Cardinals' left guard, Mike Iupati has been having a decent season as PFF's seventh highest graded run blocker in the NFL among offensive guards (+10.5), but is only 49th in pass blocking (-2.9). Palmer has been sacked relatively little this season (14), but this is an area that the Bengals could use to exploit and create pressure for the Cardinals.
Get Eifert Going
Last week was an awful effort from star tight end, Tyler Eifert. He had three key drops against the Texans last week on Monday Night Football that helped to destroy any hopes for victory that the Bengals had, especially in the fourth quarter. To be fair, A.J. Green was the one who recorded the final key drop and fumble that stick in the hearts and minds of Bengals fans, but a better game from Eifert could well have resulted in a more positive game for the Bengals under the bright lights.
However, he still ranks as PFF's third best tight end in the league, despite his performance last week. He still leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns with nine and could easily be a dangerous weapon for the Bengals this week. Tyrann Mathieu (+18.5) ranks as the best cornerback in the NFL so far this year, tied with Josh Norman of the Carolina Panthers. As a result, the Bengals will probably need to rely on weapons other than Green to drive the offense this week.
Dalton has been sacked one more time than Carson Palmer so far this year (15). Compared to the rest of the NFL, that's not bad.The Bengals' pass blocking is graded ninth best in the NFL, according to PFF.
The biggest problem is that the Cardinals have a dangerous pass rusher of their own in Markus Golden, who also ranks on PFF's list of top pass rushers. Golden has recorded the best pass rushing productivity in the NFL for all non-edge rushers (12.4). That's better than Geno Atkins, but, the Cardinals actually rank near the bottom of the NFL in total sacks (14). That means based on trends, the Bengals have a significant advantage here that, if exploited, could provide a useful outlet to revitalize a Bengals offense that struggled in Week 10.