Cincinnati (-3.0) @ Arizona
Power rankings: Cincy 13, Arizona 31
When Cincy has the ball:
It's no secret that the Bengals offense is performing at levels one would expect from an elderly man who lost his viagra medicine. It's ugly in Cincy - not the image I just forced into your head ugly - but ugly nonetheless.
Most of the blame is directed at Joe Burrow, and it's not entirely unwarranted. Burrow, with an annual income of $55 million, currently boasts a lackluster 57.6% completion rate and a pitiful 4.8 yards per attempt. His average depth of target has plummeted to 6.6 yards, the lowest of his career, and he's throwing at a lightning-fast pace of 2.29 seconds per throw. He seems to have transformed into a dink-and-dunk quarterback, and he's doing it poorly. It's evident that he hasn't fully recovered from his injuries, but a deeper look into his injury history provides hope for a return to form. Burrow initially injured his right calf on July 27th, causing immediate concern given the persistent nature of calf injuries, as advised by the experts over at SICscore.com. Mobility restrictions due to this injury have visibly affected his gameplay. Adding to his woes, he re-aggravated his calf on 9/17 but persisted in playing through the pain. It's clear that Burrow's calf is far from 100% and may not fully heal until November, but given that we're 3 weeks from the re-aggravation, we should hopefully start seeing gradual improvements.
However, the Bengals' offensive woes aren't confined to Burrow alone. Wide receiver Tee Higgins has had disappointing performances in 3 out of 4 games and is now grappling with a rib injury. Right guard Alex Cappa has already conceded 9 pressures in the initial 4 games. He gave up 20 all of last year. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., a recent acquisition from Kansas City, has a subpar PFF grade of 57.1. Jonah Williams, who was moved to right tackle from left tackle due to Brown's arrival — an adjustment he voiced his displeasure about — has a PFF grade of 61.5. Joe Mixon, the workhorse running back, ranks 30th in the NFL in yards per carry after contact (2.64). The sole shining star in the team seems to be Ja'Marr Chase. However, given the underperformance of the quarterback, the second wide receiver, and the offensive line, Chase's brilliance isn't going to propel the offense. Indeed, the Bengals are 27th in offensive EPA/play this season.
At First and Thirty, we preach avoiding hasty judgments based on limited data. A mere four games does not suffice to shake our faith in the Bengals' offensive potential. In the realm of gambling, our strategy is to place our bets on the Bengals before the tangible on-field improvement becomes apparent. Waiting for the change to manifest means missing out on the favorable odds. The moment the public witnesses the Bengals' progress, the betting lines will adjust accordingly, and the advantageous odds we're capitalizing on now will vanish. For now, we're getting the Bengals at a discounted price, and it shouldn't be a surprise that the model is going after them again.
As for the matchup, the stars seem to be aligning for the Bengals to truly unlock their potential. The Cardinals defense sits at 29th in defensive EPA/play, which is perfectly indicative of their on-the-field product. I've written about the Bengals tank-for-Caleb strategy in the offseason, losing three impactful defensive lineman (Zach Allan, JJ Watt, Markus Golden), without any attempt to replace any of them. The Cardinals are 21st in pressure rate this season, which isn't a terrible figure considering their modest blitz rates and play composition. Their best defensive lineman has been Dennis Gardeck, a 2018 UDFA who is essentially in his third season as a full time player. Gardeck only has 7 pressures this season, but has a pass rush win rate of 15.1%, 23rd best in the league. They tried to transition Zaven Collins - a linebacker who they took 16th overall in 2021 - to edge rusher, but that the results have been underwhelming, which is about the nicest way I could possibly put that. Collins has a win rate of 1.7% and 3 pressures over 67 pass-rushing snaps, an essential non factor with a full time work load. Suffice it to say that Burrow should have extra time in the pocket this game, perhaps allowing him to throw more deep passes. The receivers will be open too - the Cardinals secondary is one of the worst in football. Their starting corners this season: Marco Wilson, a 2021 4th rounder who is allowing a 131.6 passer rating into his coverage. Kei'Trel Clarkm, a 6th round rookie. And finally, their best corner, Jalen Thompson, a 2019 UDFA who almost exclusively covers the slot (where he'll mostly see Tyler Body) and has a PFF grade of 59.2. There simply isn't anyone here remotely capable of covering Ja'Marr Chase. Tee Higgins, assuming he plays, will have an excellent opportunity to right some wrongs.
When Arizona has the ball:
Josh Dobbs has exceeded expectations, displaying impressive stats with a 70.4% completion rate, 6.6 yards per attempt, and a solid PFF grade of 68.4. While explosive plays might be lacking, he's done exceptionally well at protecting the ball, boasting zero interceptions and a turnover-worthy play percentage of 3.2% according to PFF. The Cardinals' offensive line may not be a strong suit, but they've strategically shielded Dobbs through a high play-action rate (33.3%, the second-highest) and frequent screen passes (12.3%, ranking ninth).
In terms of offensive weapons, the Cardinals lack a formidable lineup. Marquise Brown, though speculated as a trade candidate, leads the team with 32 targets. Following him are Zach Ertz, a past-his-prime tight end, rookie Michael Wilson, and Rondale Moore. Michael Wilson, a third-round pick from Stanford, demonstrated promise with an impressive performance against a formidable 49ers defense, catching 7 passes for 76 yards and securing 2 touchdowns. Notably, RB James Conner has also stood out, achieving an impressive 5.1 yards per carry (3.26 after contact), a remarkable feat considering the quality of the offensive line.
Despite being 9th in EPA/play this season, sustaining this trend is unlikely for the Cardinals, considering their current personnel.
The Bengals, currently 24th in EPA/play, have leaned heavily on a blitz-heavy strategy this season, boasting a 37% blitz rate, the 4th highest in the NFL. Their main sources of pressure come from Trey Hendrickson with an impressive 17 pressures and Sam Hubbard with 10, yet their overall pass rush hasn't lived up to expectations, ranking 22nd in pressure rate.
Trey Hendrickson remains a standout edge rusher, positioning himself exclusively on the right side, setting up a matchup against LT DJ Humphries. Humphries, a seven-year veteran, has had a challenging start to the 2023 season, likely exacerbated by facing tough defensive lines such as Washington, Giants, Cowboys, and 49ers. Hendrickson's skill set gives him a distinct advantage in this matchup.
While the Bengals' linebacking tandem of Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson appears strong on paper, both players have experienced downturns in their performance this season. The secondary is another concern, having lost both starting safeties in the offseason. Current starters Dax Hill and Nick Scott are struggling, and CB Chidobe Awuzie, usually a tough matchup for opposing wide receivers, has been noticeably impacted since tearing his ACL in week 8 of the previous season, allowing a high passer rating of 137.8 into his coverage. These weaknesses pose a significant challenge for the Bengals defense.