In what will be the biggest game of the Bengals’ season so far, the team’s primetime matchup with the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium will have something for everyone’s taste. How will Cincinnati’s quarterback play under the lights with a narrative chasing him? Can the team’s most explosive offensive weapon remain healthy to help out his quarterback? What about the young pass rusher who has flashed but hasn’t put together a full game yet?
There are plenty of names to watch for when the Bengals take on the Chiefs, but here’s the five that will attract our attention the most and who the team is relying on to bring home a win.
Every week now, the Bengals have a chance to win because of their quarterback. In seven in and a half years of the Dalton era, how many times could we comfortably say that?
Dalton’s 94.4 passer rating and 6.39 adjusted net yards per attempt place him 14th and 15th in the NFL respectively due to the boom the passing game has seen this season, but his consistency is what has kept the Bengals competitive all year against a decently tough strength of schedule. And while he already played well in one primetime game this year, the Sunday night stage is one that Dalton’s Bengals have yet to conquer.
It’s been three years since the Bengals have been featured on Sunday Night Football, but the last time they were, Dalton played well enough for them to win. Against the Cardinals in 2015, Dalton threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns and finished with a passer rating of 99.8.
The primetime narrative has played itself out and over the last few years, playing under the lights hasn’t been as big of an issue for the Bengals quarterback as the narrative would make it seem. Now, Dalton gets to go up against the defense that is in the bottom three in the NFL in expected points added.
Team Expected Points Added (EPA) per game. Offense is the horizontal axis. Defense is the vertical axis. Up and right are good. pic.twitter.com/ym0RTmbQS0— Brian Burke (@bburkeESPN) October 17, 2018
The Bengals aren’t going to win this game if they can’t keep up with the Chiefs offense, and that falls on Dalton’s shoulders. He should have little problem doing so, but it’s just another hurdle he and the team have to get over.
Helping out Dalton will be Ross, who should be active for the first time since Week 4 against the Falcons when he scored his second touchdown of the season.
When the Bengals offense struggled to sustain drives against the Dolphins, it was obvious the lack of a deep threat crippled the Bengals enough where 112 yards from A.J. Green wasn’t enough to score more than 13 points on offense. They did better against the Steelers a week later, but Ross’ absence paved the way for Cody Core and Josh Malone to play and do absolutely nothing as compliments to Green and Tyler Boyd.
Ross’ durability issues are an annoyance from an outsiders perspective, but his impact on the offense is worth dealing with it. With a clean week of practice under him, he should be salivating for a chance to go up against a weak Kansas City secondary to, once again, get back on track.
The Bengals defensive line remains talented even with defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow on injured reserve, but some of that talent needs to be producing at a more consistent rate. Hubbard is no exception.
10 of the Bengals’ 13 sacks have come from Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, along with the majority of pressures too. The three other sacks have come Carl Lawson, Shawn Williams and Hubbard. While we all expected more than one sack from Lawson by this point, he’s still accumulating consistent pressure on the quarterback. Hubbard cannot say the same, despite similar opportunity against the pass.
Hubbard has a chance to put a solid game together against a Chiefs interior offensive line that’s playing a backup at right guard and will likely be playing a backup at center. Collapsing quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ pockets from the inside will be crucial to limiting him, and Atkins can’t do it alone. Hubbard needs a big game.
The most underwhelming part of the Steelers game last week was how lost the Bengals’ linebackers looked. There was a reason why Evans was starting for Vontaze Burfict in the first four games of the season instead of Vincent Rey. The second-year player provides at least some sense of athletic ability when playing in space over the veteran Rey, but you could see that mental mishaps still limited his effectiveness. Perhaps this was why Rey filled in for Nick Vigil last week when he went down with a knee injury.
In predictable fashion, Rey played terribly and Evans was once again forced onto the field to salvage anything at the position. Vigil will remain out for the next few weeks and Evans will once again see playing time in relief, this time at SAM linebacker instead of WILL when he replaced Burfict. This will give him plenty of meetings with tight end Travis Kelce entering his zone.
Williams has a chance to play in this game, but Darqueze Dennard will miss the matchup. Because of this, the team promoted cornerback KeiVarae Russell off the practice squad and subsequently waived wide receiver Auden Tate. Russell will help the depth in the secondary, but McRae will get the call to start in the slot once again.
When the Steelers saw McRae take over for the injured Dennard, they went after him multiple times and eventually won the game because of it. A lack of communication with McRae and William Jackson mixed with a bad play call by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin led to the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown. Fortunately for McRae, his day was about as bad as Dennard’s was, and how he responds against a much more formidable opponent will be significant.
The Bengals need McRae to hold his own when matching up with whomever the Chiefs put in the slot. His competence will allow the Bengals to stay in their nickel personnel to counter the Chiefs’ passing game and keep their best pass rushers on the field. If he can’t perform up to expectation, it could be Darius Phillips’ turn to try until Dennard returns.