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5 Questions with the Enemy: Evan Craig of Turf Show Times previews Bengals - Rams

We ask the Rams analyst within the SB Nation network some big questions ahead of a pivotal primetime game for both teams.

NFL: AUG 27 Preseason - Rams at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Is it must-win time yet? It’s certainly feeling like it, and coming to the Queen City is a team that is rarely seen around these parts, but it is a club with a lot of recent familiarity.

We had a chat with Evan Craig of SB Nation’s Rams site, Turf Show Times to help us preview the Cincinnati Bengals’ Week 3 showdown with the Los Angeles Rams.

1.) AC: Talk to me about Puka Nacua. With Cooper Kupp on I.R., Nacua leads the league in receptions and is second in the NFL in receiving yards. Kupp is amazing when healthy, of course, and in watching Nacua last week and in his PAC-12 time, he’s shown the talent, but how much of his early success is Sean McVay’s wizardry in his schemes and volume versus another potential budding star Rams wide receiver?

EC: “What else can I really say about the kid? He’s been a marvel and really fun to watch. The entire fanbase was unsure how the young receivers would do in Kupp’s absence, and they’ve proven that LA might have a better core of receivers than the league thought. Puka is practically Kupp reincarnated.

Much of his early success has been Sean McVay’s ability to get him involved. Last week, Nacua was targeted 20 times and caught 15 of those targets. That amount of targets is insane especially for a fifth-round rookie pass catcher. McVay clearly trusts him, and Nacua is rewarding that faith and then some.

Nacua has caught 25 passes, and not one of them has gone for a score. There was an interaction I had with a fan who was saying that we don’t know how good Puka is, with his lack of touchdowns being a problem. I honestly don’t find it a problem, as Nacua consistently moves the chains and has a good nose for the ball.

He has incredible chemistry with Matthew Stafford, and I can’t wait to see how this offense looks with Kupp playing alongside him. I have a feeling the scores will come. You can’t be targeted that many times per week without expecting one to break into the end zone.

For a player who was hyped all training camp and preseason, it’s great to see him deliver on the hype. If he keeps up a fraction of this play for the rest of the season, the Offensive Rookie of the Year award will be firmly in his grasp.”

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2.) AC: What’s the sense around Matthew Stafford right now? From a mile-high view, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns versus 10 interceptions in games played from 2022-2023. He has two 300-yard passing performances this year but just one touchdown pass against two interceptions. Is he playing better than some of the stat lines show, or is Father Time catching up with the veteran?

EC: “This is where I believe stats can be misleading. Aside from his two picks against the 49ers, Stafford has done everything you can possibly ask of him.

In Week 1, Stafford may not have thrown a touchdown, but he completely shredded Seattle’s defense. That was the game where the veteran QB proved that he was finally healthy coming off a significant injury, and still has plenty left in the tank. When watching Stafford play, his arm is still as strong as ever. He has the zip and power to fire the ball into whatever window he chooses.

I’m not sure how much longer Stafford will be in L.A., but if he can continue performing at a consistent level, he no longer needs to play the role of Superman. It’s just been satisfying to watch him perform without Cooper Kupp in the lineup. His production should gradually get better once Kupp returns.

Plus, with a revamped O-line protecting him, Stafford should be kept relatively safe. The line has only given up a single sack through two games. Aside from the defense, that was the unit I was most worried about heading into the opener, and they’ve more than delivered. Assuming that line can keep Stafford upright and limit the hits on him, Father Time can screw off and go mess with someone else for a while.”

3.) AC: It appears as if the Rams have had some inconsistencies in the ground game through the first two contests. Kyren Williams has been more consistent than Cam Akers, who is reportedly on the trading block. L.A. has a long rush of 12 yards this year, so big plays have been at a premium. So, a few things here: what should we expect to see in this facet on Monday? Is Akers fully expected to be shipped out, and if so, does that mean he’ll have limited touches so as to not risk injury and hurt trade stock?

EC: “I’d say expect to see a lot more of Kyren Williams on Monday. Williams right now is the more consistent back, and really it’s not even close. Against the 49ers last week, he scored through the air and on the ground.

He appears to be the type of running back McVay prefers which is why his snap count will continue to grow as the season goes on. I really like what I’ve been seeing out of him this year, and he’s definitely improved compared to where he was in ‘22.

I would be stunned if Akers plays. As much as I wanted his stretch of 100-yard games to end 2022 to be the start of something bigger, Cam has never been able to put it together in the NFL. In fact, that stretch where he had over 100 rushing yards in three-straight games was the most consistent Akers has ever been in the pros.

I had a sinking feeling his burst in production wouldn’t last. He desperately needs a change of scenery, and I wish him the best of luck wherever he lands next. Week 1 in Seattle was the last time he’ll ever be seen in a Rams jersey.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Akers was traded to Minnesota on Wednesday evening after this conversation was had).

4.) AC: Unfortunately, with inter-conference play pitting teams against each other every four years, it can sometimes be hard to become intimately familiar with some teams because of irregular matchups. Who’s a player on offense and defense Bengals fans should be aware of this week, who might not be overly spotlighted?

EC: “Lost in all the Puka excitement has been another youngster: Tutu Atwell. Atwell has received a ton of hate from the fanbase for not being Chiefs center Creed Humphrey, his draft classmate. Ever since he was drafted, Tutu has been overhyped and always disappointed.

Then last season, he finally flashed, only for McVay to barely play him. Through the first two games, Atwell is quietly second on the team in receptions (13) and yards (196). He has immense big-play ability, given his speed. With Van Jefferson disappointing as the expected WR2, it’s nice seeing Tutu getting the opportunities that have long alluded him.

On the defensive side, I’ll go with rookie linebacker Byron Young. The rookie has notched a sack in his first two games, becoming the first Rams player to ever do so. He has ridiculous speed, which is what the team was severely lacking at the position prior to his arrival. Young has all the makings to be a solid playmaker and was even listed as LA’s biggest X factor by ESPN back in August.”

5.) AC: DraftKings currently has the Bengals as -2.5 at home, with the over/under at just 43.5. What’s your take on this game, as the line changed dramatically early this week, and who do you see coming out victorious?

EC: “If you were to ask me this before the season, I would tell you the Bengals win this one easily. After watching the first two games, I’m feeling a lot more confident about this Rams team, given the fight they’ve shown on the field so far. Of course, I never really expected L.A. to not be reasonably competitive under McVay.

This game is almost too close to call for me. On one hand, this seems like the ideal get-right game for Cincy. On the other, I expect the Rams to be feisty coming off such a tough loss to a hated division rival.

As much as I hate to bet against Joe Burrow, I did it prior to the Super Bowl, and I’m going to do it again. The Bengals are the far more talented team, but L.A. has been more consistent to start the year. That is why I pick the Rams to squeak by in a major upset on the road.”

Go to Turf Show Times to catch the other side of our conversation. Our thanks to Evan Craig and TST for the chat!