The Bengals suffered a massive loss when quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season with a torn ACL in their Week 11 game against the Washington Football Team. However, the season rolls on and they must regroup to play the Giants this week. The loss of Burrow is a huge blow to their offense, which puts a tremendous strain on a defense that wasn’t great to begin with. Not only will the defense not have Burrow’s heroics to rely upon, but they will be asked to keep other opposing offenses in check so their own offense doesn’t have to press too hard.
Can they do it? Let’s take a look at what the Giants’ offense will face in Cincinnati.
Should the Giants fear their defensive front?
In a rare occasion for 2020, the Giants won’t be facing off against a formidable, fearsome, defensive front. The Cincinnati Bengals have some decent young players in their front seven, enough that the Giants can’t take them lightly. But we also shouldn’t mistake this front for what the other teams of the AFC North — or NFC West, for that matter — are able to bring to bear.
The Bengals best front seven players are their defensive ends, Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard. Both have good size, solid technique, and enough athleticism to beat unwary blockers on their own. Hubbard is a long, high-effort rusher who wins on competitive toughness and technique, while Lawson has good power in his first step and agility at the top of his rushes. But neither is a particularly dangerous rusher, with Lawson leading the defense with 4.5 sacks. He is playing a much higher volume of snaps than in previous years and is already close to eclipsing his career high in quarterback hits.
Hubbard was expected to be a breakout candidate after improving from 6.0 to 8.5 sacks in his first two seasons, but has just 1 sack on the year.
The potential wild cards in the Bengals’ front seven are Geno Atkins and Margus Hunt. Both are aging players who have battled injury this season, and have therefore not been significant pieces in Cincinnati’s defense. However, they are both still skilled and have some of the explosiveness which made them dangerous players earlier in their career. Atkins, in particular, has long been one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. He has dealt with a shoulder injury over the course of the season and missed the Bengals’ week 10 game to be there for the birth of his second child. The Bengals’ coaching staff has been adamant that they have a plan to work him back into their defensive front rotation, and the Giants should be on the lookout for Atkins to be a bigger part of their game plan than he had been previously.
Will the Bengals play their young players?
One of the more curious aspects of the Bengals games this season has been their reluctance to play their young defenders. Despite clearly being in a rebuilding season — the Bengals never had a realistic chance of competing with the Steelers, Ravens, or Browns this year — they haven’t given their third, fourth, or fifth-round picks much in the way of consistent snaps.
The Bengals have three potential long-term contributors in linebacker Logan Wilson, a third-round pick, fourth round pick outside linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither, and fifth round pick EDGE Khalid Kareem.
Wilson is a smart, instinctive, active, and tough linebacker with enough athleticism (nobody would mistake him for Luke Kuechly or Brian Urlacher in their primes, but he has some range to his game), but so far he has only topped 50 percent of the Bengals’ snaps twice this year. For the most part he has played roughly 30 to 35 defensive snaps per game, despite being regarded as a three-down player.
Likewise, Davis-Gaither has seen his snap counts drop consistently over the last four weeks, to the point where he played just 1 defensive snap against the Washington Football Team. Davis-Gaither is an undersized off-ball linebacker who is at his best playing in space, which is a must in the modern NFL. He is a fluid and explosive athlete who has the ability to cover tight ends and running backs in space as well as use his speed to threaten blockers as a blitzer. Davis-Gaither also has rare instincts for a player who had the ability to simply out-athlete most of his competition at the collegiate level. Considering how NFL offenses have embraced speed and spacing in their schemes, its curious (to say the least) that the Bengals haven’t made greater use of Davis-Gaither in their defense.
Finally we come to Khalid Kareem, who has rarely seen more than 20 snaps in a game. This makes a bit more sense considering Lawson and Hubbard are firmly ensconced as the starting defensive ends in Cincinnati’s defense. However, adding a third pass rushing threat would both let the starters get a bit of rest, as well as allow DC Lou Anarumo more flexibility in scheming pressures. Like Lawson and Hubbard, Kareem isn’t a dynamic athlete off of the edge, but he does have enough burst and bend to threaten blockers.
The fact that the Bengals have only played their mid-round rookies sparingly likely means that we won’t see much of them on Sunday. However, it also means that they do pose a threat of which the Giants should be aware. The fact that they haven’t been on the field often, but each has the ability to be a contributor, means they can affect the game and there isn’t much tape of them to study. The Giants will need to be careful not to be taken off guard, because with limited tape, the Giants won’t be able to go to school on their tendencies or on what packages or wrinkles the Bengals might deploy.
Safeties to be respected
The Bengals cornerbacks are ... Okay. LeShaun Sims has struggled with increased snaps, but William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander are fairly reliable cover players — though none of them are ball hawks. While that’s good news for the Giants, they are good enough to let the Bengals scheme for the real strength of their defense: Their safeties.
Strong safety Vonn Bell came over to Cincinnati from the New Orleans Saints on a three-year, $18 million contract in the 2020 off-season and is already proving to be worth the money. He isn’t much of a ballhawk either, but he’s a hard hitter who can rush the passer (he had 8.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits for New Orleans) and knock the ball loose to force fumbles. He’s stepped his coverage game up this year, already tying his career high of 5 passes defensed.
Jessie Bates III is emerging as a true starting free safety in the NFL, and is a player offenses always need to account for. He had three interceptions in each of his first two seasons, as well as 16 passes defensed, 7 and 9 in his rookie and sophomore seasons respectively. This year he’s taken another step forward and already has three interceptions in 10 games, as well as 13 passes defensed.
The Bengals take advantage of their talented safeties, using of a variety of man and zone coverage shells to force offenses to keep track of a shifting secondary. At times they will alternate Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells disguising whether they are in man or zone coverage on the perimeter, or using a late rotation to a Cover 2 or Cover 4 shell. Considering how good Bates and Bell are at creating turnovers, the Giants will need to keep close track of them and play a clean game.