Atlanta has not been over .500 in a long time, but they have the opportunity this Sunday. Standing in their way is a Bengals team that has shaken off two ugly close losses to kick off the season and is now 3-1 in their past four games, with 27 points or more in three of those efforts.
This will be a very different challenge than the Buccaneers and 49ers, with their at-times smothering defenses and solid but not spectacular offenses. The Bengals like to air it out and can effectively air it out, with a so-so ground game and a defense solid enough to keep them in games if the offense falters a bit. It’s a matchup the Falcons can win, but it will be a different challenge than they’ve faced to this point in 2022, and a concerning one with the way Geno Smith and Tom Brady have lit this secondary up in recent weeks.
Here’s what you need to know about the game ahead.
Falcons - Bengals comparison
Cincinnati looked like they were going to stink out loud following their Super Bowl season, but unlike the super-shaky Rams, they’re starting to find their footing. The Bengals have one of the league’s least inspiring rushing attacks, but they’re at least solid in every other aspect on offense and defense, and their passing attack is warming up enough to be scary.
After a brutal first week where Burrow tossed four interceptions, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns against just one interception since, finding Ja’Marr Chase for a series of increasingly preposterous big gains. They’ve taken advantage of timely turnovers and big performances from talent upfront like Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, and B.J. Hill to key a lot of close victories. They are sort of an odd mirror image of the Falcons, if Atlanta couldn’t run well and instead preferred to air it out, and also if they had a little bit more of a pass rush.
The Falcons, meanwhile, are fresh off their most impressive win of the season, and continue to show the value of opportunistic defense and a lethal ground game featuring barreling backs and a very fast quarterback who can wreak havoc with his legs. There are questions here about the secondary, especially with Casey Hayward gone, and the defense more generally that mesh with questions about whether Marcus Mariota can carry this offense if they have to throw a whole bunch. Unless things go wildly off course, though, Atlanta’s been quite good and quite tough.
How the Bengals have changed
The Falcons last saw Cincinnati in 2018, when Andy Dalton was under center, Marvin Lewis was still the head coach, and A.J. Green was the top receiver. It’s fair to say they’ve changed an awful lot in the past few seasons.
They have a new franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, who helped pilot them to their first Super Bowl berth since the 1980s. They have a new head coach in Zac Taylor, the Sean McVay you find in the discount bin at Wal-Mart. They’ve overhauled most every position you can think of, making this an entirely new team to Falcons fans who haven’t really paid attention to them since 2018. Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon, Sam Hubbard, and Jessie Bates are really the only holdovers from that team.
In this past offseason, the Bengals concentrated on enhancing an offensive line that badly needed help after a shaky (if ultimately successful) 2021. They signed Ted Karras and Alex Cappa to man center and right guard, added La’el Collins to tackle...right tackle, drafting Cordell Volson in the fourth round and watching him out-compete 2021 second round pick Jackson Carman for left guard duties. They imported Hayden Hurst as their starting tight end, and the former Falcon has found more success in Cincinnati thus far.
On defense, they made relatively few changes, and that defense has gelled into a pretty solid group. They’re still all new to the Falcons, though.
What lies ahead
Last week, I wrote that the Falcons needed to play their A game to beat the 49ers, and that’s exactly what they did. Aside from a few unpunished coverage lapses and flags, Atlanta played clean, efficient football, surviving a charge from San Francisco to win by two full touchdowns.
They’ll need to do something similar to beat the Bengals, but the challenges are different. The Bengals are not going to run the ball down Atlanta’s throat, and Joe Mixon is unlikely to vacuum up targets like Leonard Fournette. With injuries mounting, the Bengals’ defensive front probably won’t impact the game the same way even San Francisco’s reserves did, though some pass rushing success is to be expected.
The challenge Cincinnati poises is unique and dangerous. They can push the ball downfield very effectively to a bunch of hyper-athletic receiving options, giving Atlanta’s secondary fits. It’s worth noting that the 49ers came close on at least three occasions to completing downfield passes where a defender simply wasn’t anywhere close, and were saved only by Jimmy Garoppolo slightly overthrowing and miscues from San Francisco’s receiving options. That won’t fly against the Bengals, who will take full advantage of coverage lapses to move downfield with lightning speed.
Cincinnati’s piling up plenty of turnovers, too, which means a sharp effort from Marcus Mariota will once again be required. The Falcons seem likely to be able to run in this one—Cincy’s defense isn’t that good—which means they’ll need to repeat their hyper-efficient performance through the air to complement that.
The Bengals may not be the toughest matchup the Falcons will face, but they’ll have to be sharp to avoid game-turning miscues on both sides of the ball, given that Cincinnati is fully equipped to punish them for it. I do think Atlanta can and should win this one, but all it will take is a couple of well-thrown Burrow balls to Ja’Marr Chase to shake things up in a way none of us will like.