October 30, 2014

Preview: Cardinals @ Bengals

A month ago, playing the Cardinals on Christmas Eve looked like a mulligan for the Bengals. But a funny thing happened on the way to the postseason hunt: the Cardinals got kinda good. Not great, but better than the struggling team we left for dead and forgot about at mid-season.

Their returning to a .500 record after starting the season 1-6 is the best story you’ve not heard about, being overshadowed by the Denver Tebows. In fact, the Cards have only lost once (to the 49ers in SF) since that crazy game against the Ravens where they were up 24-3 before collapsing and losing 30-27.

The Cardinals have proven to be a pesky, hang-around-till-late kind of team. In their current 6-1 run, three of the victories have come in OT. I’d call them the Cardiac Birds, but there is just no ring to it.

When the Cardinals have the ball…

The Cardinals made the highly-anticipated deal to get Kevin Kolb from the Eagles, who promptly took them to 1-6.

They turned to Skelton after Kolb suffered a turf toe injury in Baltimore. They are 5-1 with Skelton under center. It is possible that the Cardinals will try to put Kolb back on the field against the Bengals, but I don’t see why.

QB John Skelton v. improbable run. John Who? In case you are one of the 99% of non-AZ fans who missed the kid being drafted, he is a 2nd year guy out of QB-powerhouse Fordham.

Skelton is used to playing from behind, having attempted a grand total of FIVE passes with the lead… in six starts and five wins. Three OT wins will do that. But it shows that the kid has the knack for the comeback, and the Bengals will do themselves a huge favor if they can maintain a two-score margin as time gets short.

Offensive Line:

FO gives the Cardinals fair marks for run-blocking, bettering the Bengals by 6 spots. But they have given up a whopping 47 sacks. (Only the Bears have given up more with 49.) Pressure is the name of the game for the Bengals.

LG Daryn Colledge v. DT Geno Atkins. Geno’s 8 sacks match the record by a Bengals D-tackle since “Big Daddy” did it in 1995. If he has trouble adding to that total because Dunlap, Fanene & Co are getting their first, I won’t mind. But he can’t do it alone.

Running Game:

The Bengals and the Cardinals have similar running games: respectable, but not potent. (Although, the Bengals have faced more good run defenses.)

RBs Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling v. LB Rey Maualuga. Wells, a favorite among OSU fans, has numbers that are similar to Cedric Benson’s for 2011. He has 35 more yards on 13 fewer carries. But he has been slowed by a knee injury, gaining only 145 yds in the past 3 games. And there does not seem to be another option that the Cards are turning to, because the other three RBs only have 28 yds total between them in those same 3 games.

Stephens-Howling may not be a big threat running the ball, but he does damage receiving out of the backfield. His 12 recs for 232 yds, 2 TDs are twice as effective as Brian Leonard. They don’t hit him often, but when they do… wow!

Passing Game:

The Cardinals and Bengals also have similarly effective passing games, with each having a dominant receiver that demands attention. Ken Whisenhunt will likely want to test a Bengals’ secondary that is not as strong as it was earlier in the year.

WRs Larry Fitzgerald, Early Doucet and Andre Roberts v. CBs Nate Clements, Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings. When you think of the Cards, you think of Fitzgerald. And why not? The guy is phenomenal. He will test the skill of Clements and Jones all day.

It’s rare that I can do this, but let me make slight overly-simplified comparison of their receivers, because the numbers are close:

  • Larry Fitzgerald = A.J. Green
  • Early Doucet = Jerome Simpson
  • Andre Roberts = Andre Caldwell

TEs Todd Heap and Jeff King v. LB Thomas Howard. Man, was I glad when Heap left Baltimore. (Almost as glad as I’ll be when Heath Miller is done in Pittsburgh.) His numbers may not be this year what they used to be, but he will still tear into the Bengals just like he used to if given the chance.

When the Bengals have the ball…

While the Cardinals will face a defense whose rankings have been slipping due to injury (and better opponents), the Bengals will be facing a defense that is slowly gaining in the rankings. The Cardinals have only allowed more than 20 points once in the last 7 games (23 to the 49ers in SF).

QB Andy Dalton v. fatigue. I have voiced this concern a couple of times over the past few weeks, and it continues to be an issue with me. Andy has not had 200 yds passing in the last 3 games. Not looking good against the Steelers or the Texans is understandable, but he did not look at all sharp in St. Louis, either. Maybe it was just an off day. Those happen. But given that he has already played 5 more games than he did in 2010, it’s a concern.

Offensive Line:

I look at the line for the lack of punch in the run game. After re-recommitting to the run again, opponents are not afraid of the Bengals running the ball on them. They are afraid of A.J. Green, but not Benson or Scott. It is because the line is failing. And I suspect the increase in penalties is a direct result of that.

Ominous stat of the day: the Bengals are 1-5 against teams running a 3-4 defense. Then again, the Cards are closer to the Bills (the 1 win) than the 49ers, Texans, Ravens or Steelers (the 5 losses).

RT Andre Smith v. LDE Calais Campbell. Campbell owns 7 sacks this season. The rest of the line combined has 4.5 sacks. Containing Campbell (and LB Sam Acho) is imperative to keeping Dalton clean.

Running Game:

If you can’t tell, I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the running game. It has all of the power of a cork gun lately.

RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LBs Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon. These two linebackers have 84 tackles apiece. (Rey Maualuga has 76.) While the Cards are averaging giving up 117.4 yds/game on the ground for the season, they are averaging only 90.2 yds/game over the last 5 games, with only Cleveland exceeding 100 yds last week (getting 99 yds from Hillis).

For the Bengals to stay in control of this game, they must be able to run the ball enough for the Cardinals to respect it. They must be able to move the chains by running on 3rd down.

Passing Game:

The Bengals are slowly moving their way up the ranks in passing offense. Unfortunately, they are becoming increasingly one dimensional in the process.

In the last four games (since he missed the game in Baltimore), Green has more yards than Simpson, Caldwell and Hawkins combined in three of them, and he has more yards than those three WRs and Gresham in two of them. One guy outperforming four combined? That’s incredible. And pitiful.

WR A.J. Green v. CB Patrick Peterson. Our guy Nate’s love of Peterson before the draft has been justified. Even as a rookie, he is being used as Arizona’s shutdown corner. He will go wherever Green goes all game long, just like Johnathan Joseph did. If Simpson and Gresham don’t make them pay for that, this game will be a lost cause.

Of course, I’m assuming that Green gets on the field after separating his shoulder last week. If he can’t go, I’m guessing the plan will be simple: throw wherever Peterson isn’t. Everyone else’s numbers are weak enough that the Cardinals might not be confident where to put him.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Clark Haggans. ”Hair trigger” has to keep his composure this week after getting nailed for three false starts last week. If Gresham can be the force we want him to be, he can control this game for the Bengals. If he puts up his standard 40 yds, this game will be a dogfight.

Special teams…

P Dave Zastudil v. P Kevin Huber. Zastudil’s average kick is nearly 2 yds longer than Huber’s, but his net average is nearly 2 yds less. The Bengals are holding opponents to 4.9 yds/ret, while the Cards are allowing 8.3 yds/ret. That is a nice hidden advantage.

PR Patrick Peterson v. PR Brandon Tate. With 4 TD punt returns, kicking to Peterson is flat-out stupid. Or suicidal. Tate, however, did redeem himself last week with a nice return that shifted the momentum of the game.

K Jay Feely v. K Mike Nugent. Feely has missed 5 FGs in 20 attempts, twice missing 2 in the same game. And he only has 16 touchbacks on the season, just over 1 per game. By contrast, Nugent has only 1 miss and 1 block in 29 attempts. Nugent also has 32 touchbacks, although he has only forced 1 in each of the last 4 games. On balls returned, Nugent’s average is 3.2 yds/ret lower, another spots for a few hidden yards.

KR LaRod Stephens-Howling v. KR Brandon Tate. Both are good; neither is great. Call it a push.

The Bengals’ win last week left us more relieved than happy. If they don’t bring a better game this week, they are toast.

The Cardinals are allowing their opponents a 3-minute advantage in time of possession. If the Bengals leverage every bit of that (or more), that should be a good indicator because 1) the offense is moving the ball and 2) Skelton and Fitzgerald are on the sideline watching.

ToP is predicated on 3rd down conversions, a sad stat for the Bengals, who are now converting only 35.6%. Fortunately, the Cards are only converting 31.6%. If those hold, we’ll see a lot of punts. The team that can find a chain-mover will win this game.

With Wells dinged up, the Bengals’ D-line and Maualuga must shut down the run game with minimal help. If they do, bracketing Fitzgerald, accounting for Heap and pressuring Skelton get easier.

The great equalizer: turnovers. The Cardinals are -11 on the season, while the Bengals are even. Zimmer’s sermons about takeaways was effective against the Texans. Preach it again, Reverend Mike.

One more small factor. The Cardinals arrive late on Friday for a 1:00 PM Sat kickoff in weather about 20 deg colder than they are seeing in AZ this week. While those won’t decide the game, they won’t help the Cardinals.

This will be a hard-fought match between two similar teams. The offenses are nearly identical. The one difference is that the Bengals have a stronger D-line. Add in some hidden yards from special teams, and the Bengals edge the Cardinals to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Final Score: Arizona 17. Cincinnati 20.