The Cincinnati Bengals travel to the west coast to face a 49ers team they've been expected to crush all season. However, with Andy Dalton out and AJ McCarron under center in a hostile environment, what types of adjustments will be made? Regardless, we're about to see just how steep McCarron's learning curve really is. Sunday could see the first victory by a starting quarterback out of Alabama since 1987. Or, it could be the biggest letdown of the season amid an intense late-season AFC playoff push.
Alex: Kyle, thanks for joining me today. Let's not leave the elephant standing naked in the room for too long. McCarron will be starting his first NFL game on Sunday after he filled in for most of the game last week against the Steelers. Based on last week's performance in relief, what are your expectations for his learning curve coming into this game, and what will you be looking for now that he's had a full week of practice to gel with the starting cast?
Kyle: Hey Alex, I think we can all agree that McCarron starting is not ideal, but he definitely flashed potential against the Steelers. What we saw last Sunday was a clear lack of chemistry with virtually every receiver other than A.J. Green, to whom he threw a beautiful 66 yard touchdown pass. Green was McCarron's favorite and most effective target by a wide margin, and that touchdown pass brought the team within a touchdown in a game that they ultimately lost control of and lost by 13. But, we've already heard McCarron and the receivers have been putting in extra work this week. This isn't your average backup quarterback. He seems hell bent on proving himself this week.
With all that said, McCarron's primary focus this week is to read the defense better. Both of his game killing interceptions came against vaguely disguised coverages that a veteran quarterback would have recognized. Granted, the Steelers are a much better team with more established players than the 49ers, but they're still going to try to confuse him at any chance they get.
My first question for you has to do with McCarron's supporting cast. Which offensive weapon do you think will be the most crucial to his success, other than the security blanket known as A.J. Green?
Alex: I actually wouldn't necessarily tag Green as the Bengals' safety blanket, Kyle. To me, that position is effectively filled by Giovani Bernard. While Green acts as the deep threat, Bernard is the slippery receiver that burns the defense out of the backfield. I know that you mention the connection between McCarron and Green, but I think the long bomb for the touchdown made the chemistry margin appear to favor Green a lot more than it actually does. For the upcoming contest against the 26th ranked San Francisco pass defense, I'm going with "Magic" Marvin Jones. Jones had six catches for 61 yards last Sunday, and I think that chemistry continues to develop. My statline prediction: six catches (on eight targets) for 74 yards and a touchdown. Bank on it.
I know that Hue Jackson has already promised the Bengals offense won't slow down for McCarron, but let's look at the facts. The 49ers may have an awful pass defense, but their defense against the run is even worse, clocking in at second worst in the league. Jeremy Hill looked to be finding his groove until the Steelers game when he posted just 16 yards on seven carries. Against such a weak run defense, is this a game where the running game can find needed momentum behind a rookie quarterback?
Kyle: Well Alex, I'm actually going to have to disagree with your reasoning a little bit. As bad as the 49ers have been against the run and in the pass rush (fourth lowest sack numbers in the NFL), they've actually been pretty good defending against the pass. They don't put much pressure on the quarterbacks, but they have been decent against the pass when it matters the most, only allowing 18 touchdowns in the air this season which is tied for the ninth fewest in the NFL.
Granted, that has to do a lot with the fact that they've allowed the third most rushing touchdowns in the NFL so far (16). Interestingly enough, that is very similar to how the Bengals' offense has operated this season. While Andy Dalton and Giovani Bernard have been eating up most of the field, it is Tyler Eifert (12) and Jeremy Hill (9) who have been eating up all of the touchdowns this season. Both rank top 10 in touchdowns among all non-quarterbacks this season, so the Bengals really don't have much of an offense without both of them.
So, yes, I do think that it is imperative for them to get the running game going this week, with a rookie quarterback under center. Part of it has to do with taking advantage of a key matchup with the opposing team, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that the team's primary touchdown scorer (Tyler Eifert) will be unavailable. When it comes to the red zone this week, expect to see McCarron ride Hill to the promised land. If they can accomplish that, it should be a pretty straight forward game in San Francisco.
Alex, you mentioned that you like Bernard as McCarron's safety blanket. While I see your point and definitely agree that he is a big factor to McCarron's ability to keep the offense roaring strong, I'm still a bit skeptical as to his overall impact as opposed to Green, who seemed to be a target McCarron could consistently throw the ball to last week. What do you think Bernard brings to the table that other players don't in relation to helping McCarron pilot the offense?
Alex: With regard to your thoughts on the 49ers' pass defense, they've been decent when it counted, but at the same time, they've also allowed a significant amount of yards in between the red zones. If you were to argue they employ a bend-don't-break secondary, I'd counter by suggesting that they bend over backwards while doing it.
For the connection with AJ to A.J., his long touchdown skewed the numbers. He also went to Jones quite a few times. Of course, I think he definitely looks take a few deep shots to Green in this game. Now, I think we may have different definitions of what a safety blanket is to an offense. Green wouldn't be my first or second choice for a safety blanket. To me, it's Bernard first, then Eifert. Eifert is second simply because of the matchup nightmares he creates and his sure hands in traffic while doing so. But, Eifert isn't playing this week.
Bernard is my ideal safety blanket because when the first and second reads go are covered, I have a lot of confidence in Bernard being able to make a play with a quick pass out of the backfield. That type of safety valve gives a quarterback - especially a young quarterback - a lot of confidence. In other words, Green is the biggest threat for the big play, Bernard is the gadget player who doubles up as a great safety blanket. And it's the type of player like Bernard that can keep the pace of this offense. I think that's exactly what he does here.
Now, to focus on the 49ers for a moment, what are your thoughts on Blaine Gabbert? He's been under pressure quite a bit, including nine sacks last week against the Browns, a franchise high. However, he also has a much different skill-set than Colin Kaepernick. How does the Bengals defense approach this game against Gabbert and the 49ers offense?
Kyle: Well, Alex, in relation to the discussion of AJ Green and Giovani Bernard as a security blanket, I was entirely referring to Green as McCarron's security blanket, not the entire offense. Green was by far his most targeted receiver, so it seems like the two have more chemistry than McCarron and just about any other weapon.
As far as Blaine Gabbert goes, I have to admit that I've not exactly had the best history of evaluating him. In the 2011 draft, I was convinced that he would be the next great quarterback and that the Bengals should draft him instead of that A.J. Green guy. Obviously, I was wrong on that end, but I still feel like Blaine Gabbert has a certain level of talent that a struggling franchise like the Jaguars didn't have the infrastructure to cultivate. When he was traded to the 49ers, I figured his career was over and we'd likely never hear from him in any significant capacity again. Now, the 49ers aren't exactly a model franchise at the moment, but they've historically been run well and haven't been down for very long,
Also, don't forget that Gabbert is currently playing well enough that this would have been his best season had he started Week 1. Since replacing Colin Kaepernick five weeks ago he has thrown for 1,157 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions, and the best completion percentage of his career (63.2 percent). Kaepernick was an effective band-aid for the 2012 49ers in the absence of Alex Smith, but since then he has proven that he is not ready to run an NFL offense while Gabbert, to an extent, has.
What the Bengals' defense needs to do is stick to the blitz. The best way to really shut down the 49ers' offense is to overwhelm Gabbert, who is still learning and adjusting to his new offense.
:Let's cut to the predictions here. I'm going to have to agree with most people and say this will be a win for the Bengals. Yes, Eifert and Dalton are out, but with so many other weapons available on both sides of the ball and with the AFC North on the line, I think it's hard to imagine that the Bengals will let a struggling 49ers squad roll over them. I think McCarron uses this game as a chance to put the final touches on his control over the offense and the team ends up winning in a blow out.
Final Score: Bengals 35, 49ers 10
What about you? How do you think things will play out this Sunday?
Alex: I think the Bengals win this game. McCarron showed enough flashes of leadership last game that I don't think he'll have too much trouble against the 49ers. San Francisco gets a late touchdown to make the score look closer than it actually was.
Final score: Bengals 20, 49ers 14
Chime in with your thoughts in the comments below!