The Bengals are about to get back to work after enjoying a bye week, but there is still plenty of work to do for the rest of the season. If the Bengals want to take advantage of their favorable division circumstances this year, they absolutely must win more frequently in the second half of the season. A 9-6-1 record might be enough to win this division, strangely enough. But, that means that the Bengals will absolutely need to take as much advantage as they can of these key matchups in the weeks ahead:
LDE Carlos Dunlap vs Ravens’ RT Rick Wagner
The Bengals haven’t lost to the Ravens since November 10, 2013. That was Week 10 of the 2013 season and the first of their two matchups with the Ravens that year. Furthermore, the Ravens are performing on a level similar to the Bengals this year, currently sitting at 4-4 after beating the Steelers in a big AFC North clash in Week 9.
It wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that the Bengals can sweep this team for the third year in a row in 2016. The biggest reason for that is the fact that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been generally pitiful this year. Prior to Week 9, among quarterbacks with at least 130 passing attempts on the season, Flacco ranked 30th in average yards per pass (6.0), ninth worst in interceptions (six), 29th in touchdowns (five), and 29th in quarterback rating (75.4).
That said, Flacco has been sacked 15 times this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he has been under pressure for 35.1 percent of his snaps and hit more times than all other NFL quarterbacks but two (six). His 58.3 percent accuracy when under pressure ranks 19th in the NFL.
On the flip side, the Bengals haven’t exactly been consistent with their pass rush this season. But, defensive end Carlos Dunlap has continued to be a force as a pass rusher. His five sacks on the season rank 16th in the NFL among all players (prior to Week 9). Dunlap will be directly fighting off blocks from Ravens right tackle Rick Wagner, who has played well this season when healthy, but his most important matchup involves how he can throw Joe Flacco off his game in Weeks 12 and 17.
RB Jeremy Hill vs Texans’ LDE Jadeveon Clowney
The Bengals’ running game has started to pick up in recent weeks. After a pitiful 77 yard outing against the Miami Dolphins, the Bengals have put together near or above 100 yard rushing efforts in each of the last four weeks. The last two weeks in particular have seen dominant performances as the Bengals put up 271 yards and a touchdown in Week 7 against the Browns and 152 yards and two touchdowns in Week 8 against the Redskins.
A big reason for that has been Jeremy Hill’s ability to get going. He was responsible for 168 yards and both touchdowns against the Browns in Week 7 as well as 76 yards and one touchdown against the Redskins.
The Bengals still have a fairly sizeable problem in that of their right tackle, Cedric Ogbuehi, has simply not performed well this season. However, the team could get an interesting break in Week 16 when they travel to Houston for a Saturday night game against the Houston Texans.
Unfortunately, Texans left defensive end J.J. Watt is dealing with a season-ending back issue that will keep him out at least for the rest of the 2016 season. In his stead, edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney has been filling in and will probably be directly matched up with Ogbuehi in Week 16. In Watt’s absence, the Texans’ run defense has struggled mightily (125.8 yards per game - 29th in the NFL).
The Texans will be among the AFC contenders the Bengals can compete with for playoff seeding this season. If the Bengals can establish a solid ground game in Week 16, it could be a huge boost for the team as they seek a playoff bid.
WR A.J. Green vs Steelers’ CB Ross Cockrell
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Steelers’ struggles in 2016 is not the health of Ben Roethlisberger, the suspensions they have dealt with at times this season, or even the fact that they don’t have a true complement to No. 1 wide receiver Antonio Brown. Through the first eight weeks of the 2016 NFL season, it appears that the Steelers’ biggest problem is that they can not defend well against the pass.
Coming into Week 9, the Steelers ranked 26th in passing yards allowed per game (283.4), 31st in interceptions (three), and 26th in completion percentage allowed (66.4). In their first matchup with the Bengals this year, they allowed Andy Dalton to throw for 366 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. However, they were able to come out with the win by shutting down the Bengals’ running game and one other key aspect of the offense.
That aspect is wide receiver A.J. Green, who has arguably been playing like the best wide receiver in the NFL this year. On the season, he ranks No. 1 in total catches (59), No. 1 in yards per game (112.0), and has scored three touchdowns with no turnovers to boot. But, in Week 2 against the Steelers, cornerback Ross Cockrell kept him relatively quiet. He only recorded two catches for 38 yards on the day.
Green is a force of nature when he gets going. The only other offensive weapon on the team who you could make a similar claim about is Tyler Eifert, who has only actually played against the Steelers in four of seven possible games. In those four games, he has only scored a single touchdown and has never recorded more than 66 yards. Therefore, the Bengals will need to find some way to get Green playing like his normal self against Pittsburgh.
If the Bengals can take advantage of these matchups, it should help their outlook in the second half of 2016. Throw in a win over the abysmal Cleveland Browns in Week 14 and the Bengals might be looking at a scenario no worse than 8-7-1. Strangely enough, that could still be enough to win the AFC North with sweeps over two teams and a split with the Steelers. That’s also assuming the Bengals are unable to defeat the other three teams left on their schedule, the Giants, Bills, Eagles, against whom anything can happen.