For all intents and purposes, the Bengals’ season is over, and their game against the 9-3 Chargers this Sunday could further hammer that final nail in their coffin. Right now, the team as a whole is not at the level of competitiveness required to win in the NFL, but we should never doubt the will to win from professional athletes, especially from the younger players that make up this roster. They don’t believe that the season is all but done, and how they continue to fight in these last four games will be indicative of their commitment to the team.
There are numerous players on the younger side with much to prove in this game, here are five that we think you should pay attention.
RB Giovani Bernard and TE C.J. Uzomah
In Jeff Driskel’s first game as a starter last week, Bernard and Uzomah finished right behind Tyler Boyd in targets with seven and six, respectively to Boyd’s eight. Boyd will obviously act as the offense’s No. 1 receiver with A.J. Green now on injured reserve, but it will be interesting to see how Bernard and Uzomah’s usage will look with Driskel running the show. Just in the past two weeks, Uzomah has received 18 of his 50 targets on the season, and Driskel dumping the ball off to Bernard was a common occurrence that should probably be expected to continue.
Bernard may also get more exposure as a runner depending on the health of Joe Mixon, who was limited for Wednesday and Thursday’s practices. If Mixon is able to play, then Bernard the receiver is what we’re watching for, especially if the game gets out of hand relatively quickly.
RT Bobby Hart
Facing Von Miller last week was an impossible challenge for Hart, and his adversaries this week won’t be much easier. Joey Bosa returned the Chargers defense just three weeks ago and hasn’t looked like he missed a beat. The third-year edge rusher has three sacks when coming off that left edge of the defense since his return from his foot injury, and the Chargers’ defense went from good to great upon his return.
Hart can’t be expected to handle Bosa any better than he failed to handle Miller, but at some point he’s got to start putting some decent games on the resume if he wants to earn another contract with Cincinnati. Cedric Ogbuehi, Jake Fisher and him will all be entering free agency and Hart figures to have the best chance at coming back, but that can’t be justified if he proves to be just as bad as the other two.
CB Darius Phillips
After injuring his ankle last Sunday and returning mid-game, Dre Kirkpatrick hasn’t practiced this week and probably isn’t expected to play. When Kirkpatrick went to sidelines, Phillips replaced him and gave up the Broncos’ second touchdown of the game on his second and final snap on defense. Hopefully Phillips will be more prepared to play this week as he’ll likely be expected to play from the beginning to the end of the game.
Kirkpatrick missed Week 12’s matchup against the Browns with a concussion and Phillips effectively replaced Darqueze Dennard in the slot, while Dennard was the one who replaced Kirkpatrick on the left boundary. That plan is probably what the Bengals’ defense will resort back to if Kirkpatrick is inactive. Phillips will continue to get valuable playing time defending the slot, which could be the expectation for him next year with Dennard becoming a free agent this upcoming March.
FS Jessie Bates
About a month ago, Bates was considered one of the front-runners for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Now, the utter collapse of the Bengals’ defense has all but obliterated his case, but he can still make a statement in this game specifically.
The likely winner of the award is Derwin James, who happens to play for — and at this point lead — the Chargers defense. James has truly done it all in his rookie season: he’s rushed the passer, defended the box, the slot and provided lockdown coverage deep. He’s probably the most versatile defender we have in today’s NFL, and there may not be a close second.
With all that said, Bates’ rookie season has been nothing to scoff at, and a good game against a Philip Rivers-led offense with James watching on the opposing sideline could swing some momentum back towards Bates.