We sat down with Cincy Jungle's Scott Bantel via the magic of the Interwebs and asked him five questions about the upcoming matchup. between the Falcons and Bengals. My questions and his answers are below, and we thank him for his time.
Dave Choate: I have my own theories of how to attack this very talented Bengals defense, but if you're in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's shoes, what's your game plan? Any positions of weakness?
Scott Bantel: That is a good question and will depend on whether or not Vontaze Burfict plays this Sunday. Burfict suffered a concussion at the end of the first half of the Ravens game and once Burfict left, the Bengals had some issues stopping the run. However, assuming Burfict plays, this is a defense that is pretty stout in every area. If I were game planning against this defense, I would use the Bengals aggressive nature and pass rush against them with a lot of screen plays and short passes. The Bengals feature 5 first round corners, but the top three (Hall, Newman, Jones) are aging and/or returning from injuries and the other 2 (Kirkpatrick, Dennard) have little NFL experience. The Falcons certainly have the receivers to challenge this secondary and could make a lot happen out of quick hits.
Dave Choate: Jeremy Hill wasn't very involved in the game plan a week ago, but I see the team may be looking to get him more touches. Does the team stick primarily with Bernard, who the Falcons may have trouble with in space, or can we expect to see more of the rookie bruiser?
Scott Bantel: I would expect a good mix of both. After a very impressive preseason, it was surprising that Hill had only 4 touches in week 1 (19 yards), but the Bengals OC, Hue Jackson, has already come out and said he plans to get Hill more involved in the offense going forward. Bernard will still be the main back, but you will see the two of them on the field at the same time in some formations. The Bengals like to split Bernard out and use him a lot in the passing game. I would expect 20-25 touches by Bernard and 10-15 by Hill. With the Atlanta fans in the heart of SEC country, they are well aware of how good Hill is, and if the Falcons have issues stopping the run on Sunday, I would expect to see Hill's carries increase because he is the type of back that can wear down a defense.
Dave Choate: A reader on Cincy Jungle asked me if I thought the Falcons could stop a dynamic, freewheeling Bengals offense, which made me do a little bit of a double take. How has the offensive game plan changed for the Bengals this year, and who should we be watching for in the passing game, in particular?
Scott Bantel: Hue Jackson likes to run a more up tempo offense and that suits Dalton well. The Bengals are loaded with weapons on offense and will give defenses a lot of different looks. However, their #2 receiver (Marvin Jones) is still out with a broken foot and one of their dynamic tight ends (Tyler Eifert) left early in the first quarter last Sunday and looks to be out for an extended period of time with what appears to be a dislocated elbow. Because of the injuries, they are not as dangerous right now as they could be. The loss of Eifert is huge, because at 6'6", 250 lbs with good speed and hands, he created a lot of mismatches and can really expose teams down the seam. Eifert played just 11 minutes on Sunday, but already had 3 receptions for 37 yards (2 for first downs). That being said, with Green, Bernard, Hill, Sanu and Gresham, the Bengals still have enough weapons to give the Atlanta defense problems. Green will get the most attention (and rightfully so), but the other guy to watch is Bernard. Bernard is very similar to Darren Sproles in terms of speed, hands and escapability and the Bengals use him very similarly in the passing game. He is a matchup nightmare for any defense and can turn a short swing pass into an 80 yard touchdown.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have a weak pass rush on the best days, but they clearly need to get after Andy Dalton to try to force turnovers in this one. Where would you attack the Bengals' offensive line for maximum success?
Scott Bantel: It is no secret that Dalton has struggled thus far in his career against pressure, but when kept clean, he can be very good and lucky for Dalton, the Bengals have a top 10 offensive line that is good at keeping him clean. In week 1, Dalton was one of two quarterbacks not to be sacked. The other? Drew Brees, playing against that Falcons pass rush you mentioned. The weakest link on the Bengals line would have to be center, as they are starting a rookie center (Russell Bodine). However, the Bengals coaches are really high on this kid and in his first NFL start, in a tough place to play and against Haloti Ngata and a very good Ravens front seven, Bodine held up well. Bringing pressure up the middle is the Falcons best bet as the Bengals have a Pro Bowl LT (Andrew Whitworth) and a Pro Bowl caliber RT (Andre Smith).
Dave Choate: What's your prediction for this game and the Bengals season?
Scott Bantel: I believe the Bengals are a 10-12 win team and should repeat as AFC North champions. Anything less than a win or two in the playoffs for this team would be considered a disappointment by most fans.
As for Sunday's game, I think this will be a very entertaining (and likely high scoring) matchup because the Falcons have the type of offense that can give any defense fits. However, the Bengals play well at home (8-1 in 2013) and many "experts" believe they are the most talented and balanced team in the NFL. In 2014, the Bengals gained more than they lost, which is pretty scary considering that in 2013 they had a top 5 defense, top 10 offense and top 10 offensive line. I believe the difference in this game will be the fact that the Bengals have the better defense and run game. As a result, they should be able to keep the potent Falcons offense off the field.
Prediction: Bengals 31, Falcons 27