The Bengals are not a good football team right now, but that’s just a bad way of saying they can be much better. A lack of coaching and a surplus of injuries have become the cruxes to a season that started so strong and has dwindled to nearly nothing, but excuses are not for winning teams.
On Sunday, Cincinnati hosts the Denver Broncos’ potent running game and suffocating defense to kickoff the month of December and the final third of their season. These four matchups are who you should be highlighting throughout the game.
WR Tyler Boyd vs. CB Chris Harris Jr.
In all honesty, this may be one of the more premier matchups for the entire league on Sunday. Boyd has established himself as one of the most efficient slot receivers in the NFL even without A.J. Green on the field. He didn’t deviate much from the slot when Green missed the last three games, and he’s made a strong case for being the best at that position this season.
Top 5 WRs on 3rd down according to PFF grades:— Cole Brown (@PFF_Cole) November 28, 2018
1. Julio Jones (90.2)
2. Odell Beckham Jr (90.0)
3. Tyler Boyd (86.6)
4. Corey Davis (84.6)
5. Adam Thielen (84.6)
His opposition for this game just happens to be just as good as defending the slot and has earned that reputation from years of dominance. Harris Jr. has been the league’s best slot defender for last five or so years and just doesn’t allow big plays from opposing slot receivers. We’re going to find out early on if quarterback Jeff Driskel has trust in Boyd in this offense and if Harris Jr. allows him any room to operate.
C Billy Price vs. NT Domata Peko
In the trenches, the Broncos have two absolutely lethal edge rushers in Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb, but Peko has been anything but a slouch in their defense for the past two seasons. He hasn’t been as good this season as the centerpiece to their front, but you can bet he’ll be playing with optimal effort in his first game back in Cincinnati since he left following the 2016 season.
Peko is still not a true threat to collapse the pocket, but Price is not a bad pass protector either. The true challenge for him will be getting movement on all 325 pounds of the 12-year veteran in the ground game. Price’s shortcomings this year have been in run blocking, and it would not shock anyone if the Bengals offense tried to lean more on running the ball with Driskel at quarterback. Price doesn’t have to be dominant against Peko, but he can’t get pushed back for 60 minutes either. Somewhere in the middle is where he needs to be.
LB Nick Vigil vs. RB Phillip Lindsay
Vigil’s return to the defense might just be as important as A.J. Green’s return to the offense. Considering the Bengals’ linebacker play being more dreadful than usual this season, getting Vigil back on the field should at the very least halt the bleeding to the defense as a whole. After all, Vigil was the team’s best linebacker in the first five-and-a-half games he appeared in.
But we don’t know if Vigil will be picking up where he left off, and if Vigil is the best linebacker on your team, that’s an indictment on the entire group. Lindsay, on the other hand, is playing like one of the better running backs in the game despite being a rookie who went undrafted this past April. The Broncos managed to beat the Steelers last week while riding behind Lindsay’s 110 yards on the ground. If he and the Broncos’ offensive line can carve up the Steelers like that, what can they do against the Bengals?
Someone has to stop Lindsay if and when he gets through the first level of blocking. Vigil’s name will be called upon many times to do so.
CB William Jackson vs. WR Courtland Sutton
Vigil’s fellow linebackers have been picked on in coverage at an appalling rate this season. Because of this, Jackson and the rest of the secondary haven’t had as many balls come their way and their production is indicative of this fact.
#Bengals' William Jackson III and Darqueze Dennard allowed just 27 yards in coverage as a duo against the #Browns in Week 12.— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) November 26, 2018
Cincy's linebackers, however, allowed 135 yards and two touchdowns in coverage.
Jackson has continued to be a solid cover corner in this less-than-stellar unit, but he gets an interesting matchup with the sizable and graceful Sutton on the perimeter. Sutton has effectively taken over Demaryius Thomas’ role with less volume in their offense, and he has a knack for high-pointing jump balls and using his large frame to his advantage. Jackson needs to utilize his inordinate ball skills for a cornerback to the fullest when quarterback Case Keenum targets Sutton down the field.