Coming off extra rest from their dominating win against the Ravens, the Bengals head to Carolina looking to improve to 3-0.
On Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bengals showed a glimpse of how dangerous this team can be. Firing on all cylinders most of the game, both sides of the ball had their flashes of dominance. Exposing the famed Ravens’ defense and holding their efficient offense to only 23 points, the Bengals have a commanding 2-0 division lead and a 1-0 division game lead.
Their opponent, the Carolina Panthers, are 1-1 on the season after losing to division rival Atlanta last week 31-24. Led by quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers try to knock the Bengals out of the unbeaten ranks. It will definitely be a test for the Bengals, as they come into Carolina battered from injuries suffered in week 2. That is only one of the things to watch for in week 3.
Green vs. Panthers’ Secondary
Last week, A.J. Green showed why he needs the ball in his hands, dismantling the Ravens’ secondary by scoring three touchdowns on five receptions for 69 yards. While fellow receiver Tyler Boyd and tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Eifert also had big receiving games, Green was on another level. Making most of these plays while in the slot, Green proved he can basically line up anywhere and cause havoc.
Facing the Panthers for the first time in his career, Green will be facing a secondary that is young but ready for the challenge. After holding Falcons wideout Julio Jones to only 64 yards on five catches, the struggle with Green is a similar caliber of play, but more versatile. James Bradberry is the go-to cornerback for the Panthers, and will be tasked with following Green on the outside, and even in the slot. Captain Munnerlyn will join Bradberry and will also be helping with coverage. I expect Green to not have as many touchdowns as last week, but he will still find the endzone, and a way to make an impact.
Offensive Line Momentum
One of the biggest questions of this team gave the most answers last Thursday against a stingy Ravens’ defense. Not allowing a single sack on quarterback Andy Dalton as well as over 100 yards rushing, the offense showed glimpses of the dynamic offense they had in 2015. The line was clicking on all angles and created holes in the defense all night. For as young as they are, this group really impressed.
While they did their job against the Ravens, a crucial blow was dealt in rookie center Billy Price who injured his foot. Price will ultimately be out the next two weeks, and makes you wonder if the line can continue to gel and if Price can pick up where he left off when returning. Lineman Trey Hopkins proved to be a good fill in and will most likely be the starter until Price returns. If he can continue like he did last week, the Bengals will be in great shape. We know what Dalton can do with protection. The struggling Bobby Hart has also been limited in practice with backups Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher taking the snaps.
How can the Defense contain McCaffery
Arguably the Panthers’ most dangerous weapon besides Newton is running back Christian McCaffery. A dual threat out of Stanford, McCaffery can run the ball and catch the ball even better. Last week against the Falcons he had 102 yards receiving on 14 receptions and is shifty when in space. McCaffery likes to set blocks then pop as an option for Newton, so it will fall directly on the linebackers. Since the defense likes to prevent the downfield plays by allowing short passes, this could pose a threat early on.
As McCaffery likes to sit in the middle of the field or even the sidelines for screens, the defense is going to have to always have eyes on him. With veteran linebacker Preston Brown questionable with an ankle injury, that duty will fall on tackling machine Nick Vigil, Jordan Evans, Hardy Nickerson, and even Vincent Rey at times. The secondary will also need to step up, and could blitz at times to contain him.
It’s not Mixon at Running Back…
With workhorse Joe Mixon out for two weeks recovering from a knee injury, Giovani Bernard is going to be taking most of the snaps. Bernard is a shiftier scat back and prefers the corners, as opposed to Mixon who is more of a downfield runner. In order to fill the void left by Mixon, Bernard will need to be a receiver just as much as a runner and provide that option to Dalton.
The team also recently signed Thomas Rawls to provide some veteran depth since backup running back Tra Carson also went down in practice. With Carson expected to be put on injured reserve, Rawls was a much-needed pick up. Formerly with the Seattle Seahawks, he could see some playing time against the Panthers with Bernard. Depending on performance the team could even keep him even with Mixon returning, but it was more of an insurance signing until then. Mixon has been doing it all these first two games, the hope is that Bernard and Rawls can pick up the slack and give the Panthers’ defense a headache.
On the defensive side of the ball, the linebackers are going to have their hands full with McCaffery and Newton. That being said, I think middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson will have a productive game. Replacing Brown with that ankle injury, Nickerson will be tasked with keeping his eyes in the Panthers’ backfield at all times for Newton scrambling out of the pocket and McCaffery releasing for a short pass.
On the offensive side of the ball, the focus will be in the wide receiver group. With all attention on Green, receivers John Ross and Tyler Boyd need to use that to their advantage. With the speed of Ross and the route running of Boyd, expect one or both to have a productive game. Ross hasn’t been targeted much and has only found the end zone once. With his consistent drops, Ross will need to make the most of his targets and the 1:1 coverage he will receive at times.
Will the Bengals Leave Carolina 3-0?
This will be a tough test for the Bengals as they face their first team with a truly mobile quarterback and a running back who can also pose a threat receiving. If the team can start out strong like they did against the Ravens, the Panthers will have a hard time stopping them. The goal will be to maintain momentum in both halves, and capitalize on any mistakes the Panthers make. Both sides of the ball are going to have their hands full, but the swagger they have is no fluke. I expect this game to be close, with the Bengals winning a close one 31-28. The game is at 1:00 pm ET on CBS.