Week 5 brings the first AFC North match-up of the season as the Cincinnati Bengals visit AT&T Stadium. This is an offense that has very similar personnel to a recent opponent, the Giants, in that their passing game is built around an elite receiver, along with a handful of decent but not great receivers, including a talented rookie. They also have an inconsistent running game but a very dangerous receiver out of the backfield. The primary difference is that the Bengals have a better offensive line to the Giants, as well as an elite tight end, although he will miss this game. Let’s take a look at their strengths and weaknesses.
The leader of the offense is Andy Dalton, a six-year veteran who has had his ups and downs since entering the league, although he seemed to emerge as a franchise quarterback with 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions in 2015 before suffering a thumb injury that forced him to miss the last few games of the season and the playoffs. Dalton is something of a rich man’s version of Kirk Cousins in that he is more likely to attempt shorter range, more conservative types of passes, while taking a few low-risk deep shots off play-action, usually to superstar A.J. Green.
He is not necessarily a player who will beat you outside of the design of the play, but if you don’t pressure him and allow him to get comfortable he is certainly capable of moving the ball on a defense all game long. Prior to 2015 Dalton was quite turnover prone with 66 interceptions in just four seasons, so it’ll be interesting to see whether or not he reverts back to that or if the step forward he took in 2015 becomes the norm. He only has two interceptions so far this season to go along with just three touchdowns, although he is currently third in the league in passing yards.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
When healthy the Bengals have what is likely the best WR/TE combination in the league in A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, although fortunately for the Cowboys Eifert will miss Sunday’s contest with a surprising back injury suffered recently in practice. Green is an absolute superstar and one of the top five receivers in the league, capable of beating defensive backs and double teams with deep routes, in-breaking routes, stops, fades, and just about any route imaginable. He has great size at 6-4, 210, a huge catch radius, and good speed for a man his size. He has never had less than 1,000 receiving yards or six touchdowns in a season, and has accumulated over 6,000 yards and over 40 touchdowns in his first five seasons. Green has made the Pro Bowl every year since entering the league in 2011 and is currently third in the league in receiving yards.
Eifert on the other hand had a quiet first two seasons before exploding last season with over 600 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 13 games. You could say that Eifert is a poor man’s Rob Gronkowski as he has terrific size at 6-6, 255, soft hands, runs good routes and is a nightmare to defend in jump-ball situations. He was expected back this Sunday after missing the first four games of the season with an ankle injury suffered in last year’s Pro Bowl, although that won’t be the case after the recent injury. Eifert is a huge loss for the Bengals offense as he will be replaced by the generally ineffective C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Kroft.
Behind Green is veteran journeyman Brandon LaFell and promising rookie second-round pick Tyler Boyd out of Pittsburgh. LaFell is what he is at this point, a solid veteran receiver who can hurt a defense at times, but he isn’t a game-breaking threat who will beat you consistently. Boyd on the other hand is a high-ceiling prospect with terrific hands and jump-ball ability who could form a scary combination with Green once he gains experience. He is still just a rookie though and is not quite there yet. Neither LaFell nor Boyd has the ability to play the alpha-receiver role, but with Green soaking up attention and coverage they can really hurt a defense if matched up against a 2nd, 3rd or 4th cornerback.
The Bengals have something of a thunder/lightning combination in their backfield in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Hill, a former second-rounder, is the thunder, while Bernard, a former third-rounder, is the lightning; although in combination they may be less of a threat than their reputation indicates.
After a fantastic rookie season Hill has averaged less than 4.0 YPC over the 2015 season and the first four games of 2016. He is a bruising back with great size and good enough speed but for whatever reason he just has not lived up to the expectations that his rookie season set. One possible reason for this could be that he only gets about 15 touches per game and may never be able to get in a rhythm as the Bengals usually try to evenly split touches between him and Bernard. Hill is not much of a threat as a receiver out of the backfield.
Bernard on the other hand is probably one of the best receiving backs in the league. He usually gets no more than about 10 carries a game, although he can be productive with those carries, averaging a healthy 4.7 YPC in 2015, but where he can really hurt you is as a receiver out of the backfield. In his first three seasons Bernard has nearly 1,500 combined yards receiving, and is on pace for over 600 so far in 2016, which would be a career high. Part of his production in the passing game is undoubtedly because Eifert has missed time, but Bernard is a real threat to pick up chunk yards on low-risk, easy passes.
Since the roles between Hill and Bernard are so clearly defined, one thing to watch here is that the Bengals can sometimes tip off the defense as to whether it will be a run or pass play depending on which back is in the game.
The Bengals offensive line is anchored by 2015 First-Team All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth, and one of the better young guards in the league in Kevin Zeitler. At 34 years old Whitworth is defying age as he remains one of the better left tackles in the league, while Zeitler, a first-round pick in 2012 has developed into a top guard in the league. The fact that Zeitler hasn’t made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team yet is completely mystifying. At left guard the Bengals start sixth-year veteran Clint Boling, a dependable, consistent, if unspectacular player who is solid in the run game and in pass protection.
After those three there is a bit more uncertainty. At center the starter is Russell Bodine, a replacement-level player who is the weak link on the unit. This is Bodine’s third year starting for the Bengals but he struggles in pass protection. The starter at right tackle is 2015 first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi, an impressive prospect who tore his ACL late in his final season at Texas A&M and missed the majority of last season. He did fill in at times last year but he didn’t step in as the full-time starter until 2016. He is a talented prospect but lacks experience and refinement.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:
- The Bengals running game struggled throughout 2015 and so far this year, if the Cowboys defense can stop the run early and force Dalton into long down and distances he will force throws and possibly make mistakes
- Try to isolate Bodine or Ogbuehi 1-on-1 in pass protection
- Clearly defined roles between Hill and Bernard could tip off play calls
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- A.J. Green has the ability to wreck a game by himself, as seen against the Dolphins last Thursday
- Bernard matched up with a poor coverage linebacker or safety
- If given time Dalton should be able to pick apart the defense