After coming from behind to beat the Lions in Week 1, the San Diego Chargers will now face the Bengals on Sunday. The last time these two teams met in Paul Brown Stadium, the Bolts took revenge from a regular season defeat in California and beat Cincinnati in the Wild Card game. That was two years ago.
The Chargers are still led by quarterback Philip Rivers, fresh off signing a 4-year contract extension, but will be without top target Antonio Gates and right guard D.J. Fluker, who was having a very good game before getting injured last Sunday. They were already a serious challenger to the Broncos for the AFC West crown and will be stiffer competition for the Bengals than the Oakland Raiders.
The biggest key to this matchup will be Cincinnati's ability to get to Rivers, but that is pretty obvious, so we are going to highlight the other players who are the biggest threats to the Bengals.
1) Keenan Allen
Without Gates, the third-year wide receiver out of California had to step up and did it so in a big way, bailing out San Diego against Detroit on plenty of occasions. He had a down season last year but looks focused and improved in 2015. Allen caught 15 passes, a career high and tied the franchise record, for 166 yards in 17 targets, which is incredible. Still only 23-years-old, the North Carolina native was unstoppable. One of his best plays came when the Chargers tried to ice the game late in the fourth quarter on 3rd&19. The guys at Bolts from the Blue did a great film study piece on it.
The 6-2 receiver took advantage of many shallow routes like this one, but was also catching balls elsewhere. CB Rashean Mathis - who, by the way, was only given a -0.4 pass coverage grade by the PFF - played poorly against him, leaving big cushions often, but Allen beat him close too.
Adam Jones will have his hands full on Sunday, but I expect the Bengals to do a better job covering the underneath routes than a Lions' defense that was without its top guy, linebacker DeAndre Levy.
2) Ladarius Green
The big 6-6 tight end manning the middle for the Chargers had a solid outing - many fans in Southern California have been waiting for him to break out for a couple of seasons - but most of it came from a good design by the coaching staff. He was allowed free reign just like in his touchdown catch in the final quarter, where he was wide open with nobody close with the game on the line.
The key to stopping Green will be slowing San Diego's ground game. While Melvin Gordon, their first round pick, is still getting used to the NFL, the Chargers have back Swiss Army knife Danny Woodhead, who had a terrific afternoon in Week 1. The Bengals will have to avoid biting on the Chargers' play action fakes to not open the underneath routes that killed the Lions last Sunday - 32 of 41 Rivers attempts were thrown behind or within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage with all of his passes travelling less than four yards in the air, per PFF.
3) Jason Verrett
I know his fellow cornerback Brandon Flowers had the tougheer assignment - guarding Megatron - but the former JUCO standout was great against Golden Tate, who had 99 catches for 1,331 yards in 2014. He was limited to 4 receptions and 24 yards in Week 1. Verrett's development could be key for the Chargers' playoff hopes, giving them a very solid secondary alongside Weddle, Flowers, Jaheel Addae and former Saints player Patrick Robinson. The 2014 first rounder had some help from Stafford, who was lingering after a big hit, but only allowed one catch for 6 yards. He looks like the real deal following an impressive - but injury-shortened - rookie campaign.
4) Eric Weddle
A five-time All-Pro that never gives up, the Chargers' free safety was key to stopping the Lions' passing game and almost had a pick in the end zone late in the game. He is the best defensive player and the unit leader, and showed no signs of being absent from most offseason workouts because of contract issues. Weddle had some trouble against Ameer Abdullah in the running game though, but that kid looks like he's going to give many defenses a lot of trouble. Some of it came from San Diego's personnel as well. Dalton better watch out for Weddle in the middle of the field.
5) Melvin Ingram
I know rookie fellow pass rusher Kyle Emanuel was the big story on Sunday, notching a sack and a pick, but a healthy Ingram can do wonders for this team and that showed against the Lions. The running defense was porous and the defensive line - plus Donald Butler and Manti Te'o - is okay at its best, but San Diego's pass rush could be effective this year. Ingram made Matthew Stafford's first interception and had a big hit that, again, our friends at Bolts from the Blue have dissected beautifully.
Of course the Bengals' offensive line is better than the Lions', which was returning only one starter from last season, but Andy Dalton has struggled under pressure in the past, and those blitz zones the Chargers were showing could really give Dalton a run for his money this weekend.