The Bengals were dealt a serious blow last week as they fell to their hated rivals in Cincinnati. In addition, Andy Dalton left the game with a fractured thumb. Dalton is hopeful to make a full recovery in time for the playoffs, but for now the team is forced to contend with AJ McCarron under center.
A win this week keep the Bengals on track for the AFC North crown and in contention for a bye-week in the first round of the playoffs, which could be crucial now that injuries are starting to pile up. However, a loss would show that the Bengals aren't yet ready to contend without their star quarterback. The statisticians at Pro Football Focus have shared a few pages from their records to help us preview the Bengals' matchup with the 49ers.
Last week: 33-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
According to Pro Football Focus, Andy Dalton's injury was the single most important thing to know about last week's slate of games. Not only did the injury make it very difficult and, ultimately, impossible to put together a comeback and put the Steelers away in the division race, but it also made the team's postseason expectations shaky. You can listen to their thoughts on Dalton's injury on their Week 14 podcast.
Through 14 weeks, he was the seventh highest graded quarterback in the NFL and near the top in terms of passer rating - factoring in his relatively poor performance against the Steelers. Before the injury, the Bengals were considered PFF to be the best team in the AFC. After the injury, they are projected to enter the playoffs as the AFC's #3 seed - and that is primarily because they are mathematically unable to fall to the #4 seed.
Weirdly enough, despite the injury to Dalton and the question of whether or not the team will even hold onto a playoff bye, the team clocks in at #3 in PFF's Week 15 Power Rankings. That is probably due to the fact that A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler, Geno Atkins, and Adam Jones are all putting together Pro Bowl caliber seasons, according to PFF.
San Francisco 49ers
Last week: 26-20 win over Chicago Bears.
It hasn't been nearly as good of a season so far for the 49ers. After what many have called the worst offseason in NFL history, they have only managed to win four games so far this season. A lot of that has to do with the fact that their original starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, played poorly enough to be benched in favor of former Jaguars first round pick, Blaine Gabbert.
Under Gabbert, the 49ers have been slightly better, winning two of their last five games (as opposed to two of eight under Kaepernick). But, it's still been pretty bad for the most part. Ever true to their trademarked name, the 49ers are currently 4-9, which sets them squarely at #31 in PFF's Week 15 Power Rankings. At this point, it seems like it's time for them to focus on their offseason plans, but for now they're tasked with the goal of spoiling AJ McCarron's first start in the NFL.
Keys to the Game
Run the Rock
Despite the fact that the 49ers have recorded a positive grade against the run this season (+8.8), it hasn't been a great season for the 49ers against the run. Just ask safety, Eric Reid, who has missed eight tackles against the run this season, which ranks 55th among 57 qualifying safeties. Don't forget NaVorro Bowman who made only four stops on 42 rushing plays last week against the Bears.
The 49ers are tied for the ninth worst in yards per run in the NFL (4.3) and have allowed the third most touchdowns on the ground all season (16). Hue Jackson has already said that he won't slow the offense down for McCarron, but they might decide to go with a run-heavy strategy anyway just because the matchup is so tempting.
We all know all about Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins' dominance this year. Combined, they have 18.5 sacks on the season which is the most for any two players on any team in the NFL. On the flip side, the 49ers have had some serious problems against the pass rush. Although Joe Staley was graded as the best tackle in the NFL last week, that had more to do with his run blocking than his pass blocking - in which he allowed a few pressures.
There's also the 49ers' center, Marcus Martin, who has recorded extremely bad grades all season (-42.1). Granted, that has more to do with his run blocking (-31.1), which ranks as one of the lowest grades ever recorded at the position by Pro Football Focus, but his pass blocking grade is pretty close to average on the season (+9.4). A strong interior pass rusher like Geno Atkins should be able to handle him easily and overwhelm the still adjusting Gabbert.
Don't get Beaten
This applies specifically to the defensive players, who will be dealing with some rather favorable matchups this week. For example, the only qualifying receiver on the 49ers with a positive grade this year is Anquan Boldin (+7.7), who will likely be going up against Adam Jones. PFF notes that Jones is the only cornerback in the NFL to allow more than 30 catches on the season without allowing any passes over 24 yards. As long as Jones can keep Boldin from making big plays, the rest of the receivers shouldn't be too much of a problem for the Bengals' recovering secondary.
Let' not forget about the offensive line, who have had a generally solid year, but with some particularly poor performances here and there. They will be tasked with the goal of blocking Arik Armstead (+15.4), who ranks as the 24th highest rated interior defensive lineman in the NFL and second highest rookie at the position behind only Leonard Williams. All of this is to say, as long as the Bengals play the way they're supposed to, it should be a pretty straight forward game for the whole team and a great learning experience for McCarron.