October 25, 2014

Preview: 49ers @ Bengals

With 25% of their road games already behind them, the Bengals finally come home on Sunday to host the enemies-for-life, ring-stealing 49ers, who are playing their first game away from Journey’s famous “City By The Bay” of the season. SF is the Bengals’ third opponent in a row with a new head coach. Time will tell if Jim Harbaugh is as good as his brother, John. There were questions about his decisions after letting a 10-point lead slip away late in the game in an eventual OT loss to Dallas on Sunday. (Mike Brown has proven that being related to talent is no guarantee that the talent will rub off.)

SF is ranked a few spots ahead of the Bengals in most power rankings, so this game is not a gimme for either team. Both teams lead with their defense, and the game will come down to Dalton as a passer vs. Ted Ginn as a punt/kick returner. Let’s take a closer look at how the teams match up.

(Before going any further, I will give a shameless plug for Football Outsiders, a fantastic site for seeing how teams have performed this year. With only two games played this season, stats can still be a little skewed by a few good/bad plays. But the info is still great.)

When San Francisco has the ball…

Once upon a time, the 49ers defined offense. Even if you knew exactly what they were going to do, you still couldn’t stop them. But no longer. In two games, the 49ers’ offense have scored 43 points (4 TDs, 5 FGs) on a meager 462 yards of offense. (Ted Ginn has also scored 14 points on returns.) That is quite a stat, since the Bengals have scored 49 points on 716 yards of offense. Obviously the 49ers have taken advantage of short fields. In fact, they have only scored 13 points on drives starting on their side of the field.

QB Alex Smith v. Weak Production. The guy just isn’t very good. He is in his 7th season, and he still does not have 10,000 yards passing. He has more interceptions than games started or TDs. His career passer rating is 72.8. (That is 3.8 points better than Carson Palmer’s rating in 2008… when he was injured.) His career completion rate is 57.4%. After 2 games, he has fewer yards passing (303) than Andy Dalton put up in the game in Denver (332).  How else can I say it? SanFran keeps waiting for his 1st round potential to surface. And waiting. And waiting.

For 2010, FO rated Smith as slightly below average in value. And that rating is continuing into this year. The Bengals need to get into his face regularly to make sure that this trend continues.

Offensive Line:

In two games, the 49ers have passed for 303 yards and run for 159 yards. Look again at those numbers. Those are for TWO games (one against the Seahawks). Their O-line is just not getting it done. If the Bengals’ D-line plays to their potential, they should be in for a good game.

LT Joe Staley v. RDE Michael Johnson. After already going up against 2 of the top 3 left tackles in the game according to ESPN, Johnson now gets to go up against a guy who does not even appear in the top 15. Staley worked in the offseason to get back to his college playing weight in an effort to improve his play. After battling Joe Thomas and Ryan Clady, this should be welcome news to MJ. This matchup should definitely favor the Bengals.

LG Mike Iupati, C Jonathan Goodwin and RG Chilo Rachal v. DTs Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Pat Sims. This crew has opened up the running game to the tune of 80 yards/game. That is 5 less than the Bengals gave up to the Browns. Football Outsiders ranks the SF O-line at #26 in rushing (really only being effective in 3rd-and-short) and #30 in passing. The Bengals’ interior needs to bounce back from the gashing they got from Willis McGahee and show what they are worth.

RT Anthony Davis v. LDEs Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. Davis seems to resemble Andre Smith in that fans did not like the pick when he was drafted but, now that he is playing, they think he can be an above-average player. (Then again, fans are prone to over-rating their own, as shown by the fact that they also rate Joe Staley as above average.) He will get quite a test of his sophomore skills with Geathers and Dunlap.

Running Game:

RB Frank Gore v. LB Rey Maualuga. Gore has been a sturdy back for several years. But entering his 7th season, I can’t help but wonder if time and all the hits are catching up with him. His numbers this year just don’t look right. Football Outsiders puts him at the bottom of the list of primary backs this year and shows him as a significant liability (39.1% below average). The defense needs to hold SF to their 80 yards/game average so far this year. This game will be the perfect opportunity for Maualuga to bring the pain and atone for those whiffs in Denver.

Passing Game:

The Bengals’ secondary is prone to give up the big play, so teams will continue to go to it until the Bengals can stop it. Then again, it helps when Reggie Nelson tackles the wide receiver instead of his teammate.

WRs Ted Ginn Jr., Joshua Morgan, Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree v. CBs Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings. None of these guys are exactly lighting it up. Morgan leads all WRs with 5 receptions for 63 yards over two games. Football Outsiders has him as their highest ranked wideout at #32 out of 83 ranked, with Ginn trailing him at #54. (A.J. Green is #16.) Everyone gets a little, but no one gets a lot. Pressure from the D-line will help the DBs keep the passing game in check.

TE Vernon Davis v. LB Thomas Howard. Covering the tight end has been a weakness for the Bengals for as long as I can remember. FO rates Davis as being slightly below average value, but that seems to be only because the ball rarely comes his way. If the D-line generates the pressure that it should, Smith will be looking for his safety valve, Davis, often. The Bengals’ LBs must make him an unattractive or ineffective option.

When Cincinnati has the ball…

Despite being led by a rookie QB, the Bengals’ offense has been significantly more productive than has the 49ers’ offense. But what SF lacks on offense, they make up for on defense. I suspect that FO’s ratings for their defense are inflated right now (which I will explain below), but I am not trying to downplay them a lot. Whitworth and Co. are in for their biggest test yet. SF also marks their first opponent running a 3-4 defense.

QB Andy Dalton v. Rising Expectations. Two nice showings have some Bengals fans beginning to ask “Carson who?” Football Outsiders has Andy Dalton at #14 in value at QB, being 20.3% above average value. (By contrast, Alex Smith is #27 at 7.5% below average value.) The Bengals cannot abandon their commitment to the running game. But the 49ers will expect the Bengals to open with the run, and they will be plenty ready.

Gruden should use his emerging weapon by opening with the pass and going with the hurry-up to put SF on their heals early and dictate the game to them. And with SF’s D-line rated by FO at #1 against the run (significantly better than either Cleveland or Denver), Gruden will have to rely on Andy’s arm more than he normally will, especially since the SF defense ranks #19 against the pass.

Offensive Line:

FO rates the Bengals as better than either of SF’s previous opponents (SEA & DAL) in playing the run, although at #18 they are still in the bottom half of the league. The OL must bring a better game than they brought to Denver if they want to maintain their commitment to the run.

LT Andrew Whitworth v. RDE Justin Smith and  OLB Parys Haralson. Whitworth will find a familiar face across from him this week in Justin Smith. Smith seems to have found a happier home in SF. This should be an interesting matchup. With Whitworth locked on Smith, look for SF to follow Denver’s lead and load up the left side, since the Bengals lean heavily to run that way.

LG Nate Livings, C Kyle Cook and RG Clint Boling v. NT Isaac Sopoaga and ILBs NaVorro Bowman. Football Outsiders rates the Bengals’ O-line as #18 in rushing and #22 in passing, both 8 spots above the SF O-line. Boling has to give them the option to run right, or the running game will be completely neutralized.

RT Andre Smith v. LDE Ray McDonald. Smith had his hands full with Robert Ayers last week, and he may well again with McDonald. McDonald has only recorded 7 sacks in his career, but 2 of those have come in the first two games of this year.

Running Game:

After running over Cleveland for 139 yards, the running game bogged down in Denver for just over half that (72 yards). The SF defense is built to stop the run. They are currently rated as #1 against the run. [You could argue that the rank is inflated given that they have only faced the #30 (SEA) and #32 (DAL) rushing offenses so far.] The Bengals can’t abandon the run, but they will have to be crafty about how they use it.

RB Cedric Benson v. ILB Patrick Willis. According to Football Outsiders, Ced’s value fell several spots this week after a rough showing in Denver. He is still ranked as an asset, though, at 25 spots above SF’s Frank Gore. But Cedric will have to be well above his usual level to be effective against the SF D-line. Gruden will need to help him by passing to hopefully open up the run.

RB Bernard Scott v. SS Donte Whitner. I do not understand the Bengals’ strategy with Scott one little bit. Six carries in two games? An occasional two-back set to sell Benson up the middle while Scott takes the ball to the edge would be interesting.

Passing Game:

The Bengals’ advantage against the 49ers is in the passing game, matching the #14 passer (20.3% above average value) and #16 receiver (31.0% above average value) against the #19 passing defense (18.8% below average value). Conventional wisdom says that relying on a rookie’s arm is not a safe strategy, but Dalton’s 332 yards passing against Denver allows for some confidence, especially considering that the 49ers’ pass defense pretty much as bad as Denver’s.

WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. If the O-line can give Dalton enough time to throw (and that is a good-sized IF), speed will win this matchup. Play action will be a great tool to open up the passing game even more, as SF’s safeties are prone to biting on the run.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. OLB Ahmad Brooks. Gresham is normally a matchup nightmare, but Denver held him in check, limiting him to 8 yards on 2 catches. Assuming that the O-line has all it can handle and then some, Dalton will need to get the ball quickly to Gresham (and Andre Caldwell) on a regular basis.

Special Teams…

K David Akers v. K Mike Nugent. Akers, who has put the ball through the uprights in Philadelphia since the 60′s I think, tries on a new team in the 49ers this year. He will turn 37 late in the season, but really, how much physical abuse does a kicker get? So age isn’t a factor. He probably has a few good seasons in SF before he hangs up the cleats. Dude is money under 50 yards.

P Andy Lee v. P Kevin Huber. Another matchup of kickers with big legs. Either of these guys can flip field position in about 4 seconds.

KR/PR Ted Ginn Jr. v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. Tate has big play potential, but Ginn has already returned a punt and a kickoff for TDs. Ginn is the reason that SF has had short fields to capitalize on. If special teams cannot contain Ginn on returns, they will not win this game. Teams cannot allow one guy to undo the work of 22 starters.

Bottom line, the 49ers will struggle to move the ball because neither their running nor passing games are effective, and the Bengals’ D-line will create pressure regularly with minimal blitzing. The Bengals will struggle again to run the ball, but they have an opportunity to move the ball through the air with good play calling (quick strikes) and a little time for Dalton. If the O-line allows pressure regularly, we could see Dalton’s first lost fumble this week. Whether or not special teams limit returns by Ginn will make the difference between long fields (and punts) or short fields (and points).

FINAL SCORE: San Francisco 16. Cincinnati 20.