It’s hard to make sense of how good the Bengals are in 2016. They had a tough start to their schedule which culminated in a 2-2 record, but the losses familiarly came against quality teams. They face another big test this Sunday against the Cowboys, but Dallas also has something to prove as they try to build off of a 3-1 start on a relatively easy start to the season.
The national spotlight is always on “America’s Team” because of their decorated history and current cast of stars, but the Bengals will want to use their own well-rounded roster to show they are still an AFC powerhouse this year.
Here are some of the biggest keys to a Bengals victory as the team gears up for an inter-conference battle against the Cowboys.
1) Capitalize on the extra rest:
There are pros and cons to a team playing on Thursday night. The Bengals were without starters Dre Kirkpatrick and Tyler Eifert last week, but one might be inclined to think that one or both could have suited up with the extra couple of days that come with the usual weekly schedule. Eifert has since suffered a back injury, making his anticipated return even more cloudy and he will not play this Sunday. But for the rest of the team, the extra few days of rest between last Thursday and Sunday should help.
Cincinnati’s offensive line is particularly a group that should be looked at this week, given the amount of ailments suffered—both before and during the season. Cincinnati could be playing it cautious overall, but getting healthy against an enigmatic Cowboys team will be paramount.
2) Stay in your lane, bro:
Even though we’ve relied on sound defensive line play from the Bengals over the years, a couple of areas have given them fits. Stout offensive lines, zone-blocking schemes and scrambling quarterbacks with limited pro tape all fall under that category.
In relief of Tony Romo, rookie Dak Prescott has played admirably, taking care of the football with zero turnovers this year. The Bengals’ pass rush came alive on Thursday night, but was sluggish in the three prior games, so obviously, anytime the Bengals’ front can impose its will, the better the outcome. However, before, during and after the Mike Zimmer era, scrambling quarterbacks have given a tough test for the Bengals’ defense.
Prescott hasn’t been a huge threat on the ground, per se, but his ability to avoid pressure and sliver out of trouble have been a key to the Cowboys’ early-season success. The Bengals’ defensive line will not only need to maintain their responsibilities on the front of the defense, but they will also will need to bring the rookie-signal caller down when they have their hands on him.
3) The Red-Green connection:
There has been a lot of chatter about the offensive personnel changeover this year, and rightfully so, but the best weapon in the Bengals’ arsenal still has made his share of plays. In games where A.J. Green has gone off statistically, the Bengals are 2-0 this season, continuing his march to being one of the best receivers in this generation.
While ancillary weapons will come into play, Andy Dalton’s immeasurable chemistry with his Pro Bowl wideout should be center stage on Sunday afternoon. Morris Claiborne has had a renaissance lately, but as long as Dalton feeds Green with competent throws, the Bengals’ offense should be in good shape.
4) Running the football:
Much is and will be made of the Dallas offensive line and the play of rookies Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott this year, but the Cowboys defense is suspect. Sure, feeding the ball to Green should be in Ken Zampese’s playbook, but grinding the clock and finding a way to dominate Dallas at home by running the ball effectively should be one of the other areas of emphasis this week.
The Bengals haven’t run the ball with consistency this year, but both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard have the ability to take over a game in a variety of ways. Hill seems to be more of the guy the Bengals would rely on late in the game, while Bernard’s multi-dimensional skill set must be used. The strength of the Cowboys is their offense, so using both the passing and running games to their respective strengths, particularly Hill, could be something that takes the Cowboys out of the game.
5) Tight ends:
Eifert won’t suit up on Sunday afternoon, so Cincinnati will need to rely on a couple of second-year players to pick up the slack. While Eifert’s 2015 production isn’t easily replaced, the trio of Ryan Hewitt, C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft are trying to do their part to fill in.
While they have stepped up in a relatively admirable way, they only have one touchdown reception, opposed to Eifert’s 13 in 2015, in games the Pro Bowler has missed in late 2015-to-early 2016. And, that came in 2015, not 2016. There’s a possibility that the Cowboys will bracket coverage to Green, so other ancillary weapons need to step up on Sunday afternoon.