If opening week in the NFL is the most exciting time of the year, then the Bengals' home opener is when things start to get serious for Bengals fans. Week 2 in the NFL means teams are beginning to gel after working out some of the more frustrating kinks from Week 1. For the Bengals, it means hosting the Chargers for the first time since that devastating playoff loss from the 2013 season, the wounds of which still feel fresh for many fans and players alike.
However, it's 2015 now. The makeup of both the Bengals' and Chargers' rosters have changed somewhat since then. Therefore, we're not worrying too much about the distant past and we're more focused on figuring out how to expect the teams to play this week. Here is what we've gathered so far:
Last week: 33-13 win in Oakland.
A few particular things to take away from that win included the official resurgence of Geno Atkins, Tyler Eifert's breakout performance, and Andy Dalton's impressive game. Overall, the win seems to have convinced enough people that they are at least worthy of being the 11th best team in the NFL. However, Pro Football Focus actually ranked them higher, at No. 9.
According to PFF, Atkins recorded his best overall score since his dominant 2012 season (+6.6). Granted, Atkins was not the only Bengals' lineman to have a good game in Oakland, but (as we saw last year) the pace of the defensive line is set by how well Atkins is doing. When he's doing well, they all do well. When he's struggling, they all struggle.
Eifert left Oakland last week with the fourth best score on the team (+3.3) as a result of recording 104 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches. If he can put up similar numbers against a Chargers defense that gave up a good game last week to Lions' TE Eric Ebron, Bengals fans could be in store for a very exciting game.
Dalton (+2.6) had a solid game last week throwing for 269 yards and two touchdowns. However, it's easy for howt well Dalton's offensive line played to get lost in the shuffle. Only six of Dalton's 35 drop backs included any pressure from the Raiders' pass rush, despite DE Justin Tuck (+8.2) and NT Dan Williams (+7.1) playing extremely well throughout the game. Another performance like that from Dalton will improve the Bengals' chances of winning significantly, but it would help Dalton to perform like that if Clint Boling (+4.5) and Andrew Whitworth (+2.8) can channel their performances from last week.
San Diego Chargers
Last week: 33-28 win at home against Detroit.
PFF ranked Phillip Rivers as the fourth best quarterback last week for his performance against the Lions. Rivers went off for 404 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Those stats came in the face of decent pressure by the Lions' pass rush and a terrible effort for the Chargers' offensive line (only D.J. Fluker recorded a positive score, and left the game with an ankle injury; he isn't expected to play on Sunday).
However, those stats were also inflated a bit by poor pass coverage by the Lions and 300 yards after the catch from Chargers receivers. On average, Rivers' throws did not travel beyond four yards to reach any particular receiver.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Chargers saw a very good game from CB Jason Verrett (+2.8 in coverage). Verrett allowed only one completion for six yards out of the four passes thrown his way. CB Patrick Robinson also recorded an impressive score (+1.7) as a result of recording an interception and forced fumble that helped to shift things the Chargers' way.
Keys to the Game
Run the Rock
Obviously Jeremy Hill's performance is important for every game in which the Bengals play, but the Bengals' other dynamic running back, Giovani Bernard, is quietly the most elusive running back in the league, according to PFF. Bernard boasts an elusiveness rating of 276.9 as a result of recording six yards after contact and forcing six missed tackles on eight carries. Anyone who watched the Bengals' game against the Raiders would have noted that the running game was rather un-important to the outcome of the game, but the Chargers' run defense gave up 7.1 yards per run to the Lions' Ameer Abdullah last week. Hue Jackson and the Bengals' offense should take advantage of the opportunity to find the maximum amount of success this week.
Dominate the Trenches
On the defensive side of the ball, we all know that Geno Atkins is expected to make big plays, but did you know that Carlos Dunlap joined Atkins on PFF's list of the top 10 pass-rushers from NFL week 1? Dunlap produced a sack, a QB hit, four hurries, and received a Pass rushing Productivity score of 14.0 (third highest in the NFL). Put that in with Michael Johnson's fumble recovery and you've got a defensive line reminiscent of the 2012/13 groups that were so dominant in the NFL. It shouldn't be too hard for the Bengals to stop the run, as the Chargers have the fifth worst run blocking team grade in the NFL (-5.4). Going up against Geno Atkins and his stellar grade against the run (+2.1) leads to a very favorable matchup for the Bengals, as well as Chris Watt's struggle against the Lions' pass rush. Watt's 6 QB hurries led to a very poor overall grade (-6.3). Given that the Bengals' most dangerous pass rusher comes from the inside, a good day for the Bengals' defensive line could lead to a rough day for the Chargers' offense.
On the offensive side of the ball, we already discussed how well Clint Boling and Andrew Whitworth performed against the Raiders. On the same note, Clint Boling was actually rated as the best tackle in the NFL, joining Willie Colon as the Guards picked for PFF's top players at every position for week one. Andrew Whitworth has actually been the model of consistency for the Bengals' offensive line, only receiving an overall negative grade once in 2014 (against the Saints). After last week, Whitworth's score (+2.9) makes him the fourth highest graded tackle in the NFL. However, Andre Smith (-4.2) and Russel Bodine (-1.9) will need to step it up this week if the Bengals want to have another dominant performance against the Chargers.
Stifle Keenan Allen
The Bengals had great performances from many players in the secondary last week. Not only did Adam Jones (+4.1) have a great game recording a team-high 10 tackles and one deflected pass , but Reggie Nelson got a pick, Darqueze Dennard recorded five tackles and a pass deflection, and backup safety Shawn Williams only allowed one reception for four yards despite playing 38 of his 47 snaps in coverage.
However, the Bengals' secondary is going to face quite a challenge this week going up against the prolific QB-WR tandem of Phillip Rivers and Keenan Allen. Allen recorded the Chargers' third highest overall score against the Lions (+1.7) due to recording 15 catches for 166 yards on 17 targets. Had he managed to take any of those receptions in for a touchdown, Allen might have had the best score on the team and may have had an argument to have one of the highest wide receiver scores across the NFL in Week 1.