3TFO: Bengals @ Bears, Week 1
The Bengals and Bears last met way back in 2009, and on that day everything went right for the Bengals in a 45-10 victory.
The 2013 edition of this game might not resemble the 2009 blowout. The Bears will put their revamped offensive line to the test against the Bengals’ defensive line at Soldier Field, as two 10-6 teams from last year come together for the season opener.
Bears Pass Protection vs. Bengals Defensive Line
The Bears struggled with pass blocking in 2012, finishing the year with our fifth-lowest pass blocking grade, as Jay Cutler was under pressure on 37.5% of his drop-backs. While Cutler managed a 60.6% accuracy rate under pressure, the Bears look to their revamped offensive line to make his life easier. Their new look line will face a stiff test in Week 1 against the Bengals who owned the fifth-best pass rush from a year ago.
The Bears’ interior line will need to deal with Geno Atkins, whose 12.7 Pass Rushing Productivity score last year was the second-highest in the league. Kyle Long was a preseason standout at right guard, but most of his success came in the running game for the Bears. For example, Long surrendered two pressures to Oakland in the preseason finale. Matt Slauson will man the other guard position, and has a track record of average to above-average pass blocking work. Roberto Garza, the only returning starter from 2012 held up with a 98.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency last year. If the Bears bring help to the inside, rookie right tackle Jordan Mills will have his hands full with Carlos Dunlap, who almost always rushes from the left side of the defense. Dunlap was the Bengals’ best edge rusher last year with a 10.3 Pass Rushing Productivity score from the left side. On the right, Michael Johnson’s 8.8 Pass Rushing Productivity was seventh among right side rushers. He could cause problems for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, whose 93.7 Pass Blocking Efficiency was near the bottom of the league last year. With the individual matchups favoring the Bengals, the Bears may need to bring extra help in protection to give Cutler more time in the pocket.
Matt Forte vs. Bengals Nickel Linebackers
When he’s healthy, Matt Forte is among the best running backs catching the ball out of the backfield, and new offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, wants to get him more involved in the passing game. The Bengals were generally strong against halfbacks in the passing game last year, but with Emmanuel Lamur out for the year with a shoulder injury, someone will need to cover Forte out of the backfield. The Bengals used Lamur extensively as their nickel linebacker in the preseason and had plans to pair him with Vontaze Burfict in nickel defenses this year, replacing Rey Maualuga and his league-worst -17.2 coverage grade. Cincinnati played their nickel defense nearly 50% of the time in 2012, so Lamur’s injury leaves them replacing a lot of snaps, especially since the Bears’ most common formation on offense in 2012 was three wide receivers, used 43% of the time.
Burfict is the Bengals’ best returning cover linebacker (with just a neutral coverage grade) and the team is considering Maualuga or Taylor Mays for the nickel ‘backer spot. Maualuga looked better in coverage in the preseason, with a +1.7 grade on 32 coverage snaps, including a pass breakup along the sideline, but was woeful in 2012. Mays, on the other hand, has decent size for a safety, but doesn’t have experience playing linebacker and has been an inconsistent cover man in his career. Whoever is out there will have their hands full, as Forte showed good preseason form, forcing three missed tackles on three receptions.
Brandon Marshall vs. A.J. Green
While they won’t match-up directly on the field, A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall are among the most talented wide receivers in the league, and were statistically similar in 2012. Green’s overall grade (+21.7) just edged out Marshall’s (+21.2), but Marshall had a higher catch rate (65.2% to Green’s 61.4%) last year. Both players were among the elite in Yards Per Pass Route Run, which gives a big-picture look at receiver production. Marshall was second in the league at 2.76, and Green was seventh at 2.32. Marshall was targeted 181 times last year, second to only Calvin Johnson’s 199 targets. Green drew 158 targets, sixth-most in the NFL. Both were high volume, high production receivers, and will facing strong cornerbacks on Sunday.
In 2012, the Bears showed a slight preference to lining Marshall up on the left side of the field, but essentially moved him all over the line of scrimmage. The Bengals typically keep their cornerbacks on the same side of the field so Leon Hall, who generally plays right cornerback, won’t follow Marshall all game. Replacing Hall in nickel situations on the right side is the Bengals’ Secret Superstar, Adam Jones. Cutler was most effective throwing to Marshall on hitches and go routes last year and the Bears called those routes for him more often than anyone else. On 42 targets on hitches, Marshall caught 29 passes for four touchdowns. On 33 targets on go routes Marshall caught 18, racking up 483 yards and four touchdowns. As a team, the Bengals were strong against the go route across the board allowing just 26% of such passes to be completed and intercepting four of the 53 attempts against them. Hall, targeted just twice on hitches last year, allowed zero completions on that route. The Bears might find more success against Jones instead, as he allowed 10 catches against hitches. It will be interesting to see if Marshall runs post routes this week as it was his least successful route in 2012, but the one the Bengals were more vulnerable to, allowing 6 of their 16 passing touchdowns on posts in the previous campaign.
On the other side of the ball, Green will face a lot of Charles Tillman who followed elite receivers in 2012. For the most part, Tillman won those matchups. Against Dez Bryant in Week 4, Tillman allowed three catches for 28 yards, and came down with an interception on another pass thrown Bryant’s way. He broke up two passes intended for Calvin Johnson in Week 7, allowing just three receptions and forcing Megatron into one of his worst games of the year. In his Week 10 matchup with Andre Johnson, he allowed just four of nine targets to be completed and had another pass defensed, forcing Johnson into a sub-par day. Tillman’s worst game last year came against Larry Fitzgerald, who beat him on all six of his targets for 85 yards. Of course, A.J. Green has faced top competition too, and has beaten it. Against Joe Haden in Week 6, Green had four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown, including a 57-yard pass. He beat Champ Bailey with four catches for 67 yards and a score in Week 9. Green beat Brandon Flowers for a 40-yard catch in Week 10. Tillman and Green have never faced off before, but if their track record is any indication, this should be a fun battle to watch.
Both receivers will face strong coverage in Week 1 this year. Both players have beaten excellent corners before, just as they’ve been beaten. Which man comes out on top on Sunday will help determine which team wins the game.