The middle class of the NFL has never been more diverse. Super Bowl contenders and teams ahead of their rebuild find themselves in similar spots as we enter late October. No matchup in this week’s slate better represents this phenomenon than the one happening in Paycor Stadium.
At 3-3, the Cincinnati Bengals have kept their playoff expectations alive. At 3-3, the Atlanta Falcons have as many wins as some predicted they would have at season’s end. Instead of two franchises going opposite directions, this game figures to be as close as their records indicate. Here are the player matchups that will intensify the atmosphere.
Tee Higgins vs. A.J. Terrell
Through concussions and rolled-up ankles, Higgins is still standing seven weeks into the season. It’s easy to forget before Ja’Marr Chase retook the Superdome last week that Higgins was the team’s leading receiver after a hot start to the year. Now, both receivers are playing at full strength for the first time since last month.
Long before he was drafted by the Bengals, Higgins was a five-star recruit who committed to Clemson on the Fourth of July in 2016. Terrell, a four-star recruit, followed suit a little over a month later. The two started and finished their Clemson careers in the same timeframe. They emerged victorious over Tua Tagovailoa’s Alabama, and fell short to Joe Burrow’s LSU in back-to-back championship games.
The battles between the two on the practice field were surely intense. Now, one of Atlanta’s remaining healthy cornerbacks will face an old friend. He’ll likely see a healthy dose of Chase as well. You think he has memories of his last collegiate game?
Germaine Pratt vs. Marcus Mariota
In a game where contrasting strengths and weaknesses will collide, the Falcons’ pistol run game taking on the Bengals’ struggling run defense has captured most of the attention. Mariota has fended off rookie Desmond Ridder at quarterback well enough and has made the Falcons difficult to predict. He’s majored in RPOs, zone reads, and everything in-between as a dual-threat quarterback this year.
Cincinnati’s linebacking corps will be down their best player in Logan Wilson, which puts more of the onus on Pratt to provide the impact plays. Pratt is often put at the edge when the Bengals deploy odd fronts, and not as a decoy. He’s out there setting the edge or collapsing the backside. He’ll be faced with reading Mariota for most of the game, and likely be wearing the green dot in Wilson’s stead.
Jay Tufele vs. Chris Lindstrom
There was a lot to like from Tufele’s debut last week (we did a whole breakdown on it). The second-year player showcased the ability to take on double teams, play with perfect pad level, and get skinny in the gap. He’s quick enough to play 3-technique, and strong enough to go further inside at 1-technique. He’ll be asked to do both while D.J. Reader and. Josh Tupou watch from the sidelines.
His primary opponent will be one of the very best run blockers in the game. Lindstrom is a heck of an athlete at the right guard position and utilizes that quickness and explosion to generate displacement consistently. He’s undeniably been an engine to Atlanta’s ground attack, as his 87 run block grade from Pro Football Focus indicates.
Chidobe Awuzie vs. Drake London
When the Falcons do end up throwing the ball, the rookie London has been the primary target. His 42 targets are notable considering Mariota has only dropped back to pass 166 times. But the two haven’t been an efficient duo through the air. Mariota’s passer rating when throwing to the eighth-overall pick is just 76.3, per Pro-Football-Reference. Two of Mariota’s four interceptions have also been intended for London.
A 76.3 passer rating doesn’t look too bad compared to 58.1, the rating Awuzie has allowed when targeted. Cincinnati’s No. 1 cornerback has picked up right where he left off last year. The one drawback has been penalties. Awuzie was flagged just three times in 2021. He’s already exceeded that total with four this year; something to keep in mind when the 6’4” London lines up against Awuzie.