Week 7 is here, with the Atlanta Falcons coming off an upset victory over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6 to bring their record back to an even 3-3. Atlanta now heads on the road to face the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals (3-3), and the Falcons are currently 6.5-point underdogs according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Bengals, so I’ve enlisted the help of a Cincinnati expert: Anthony Cosenza. Anthony is a writer over at SB Nation’s Bengals site, Cincy Jungle, as well as a host on the Orange and Black Insider Podcast.
I brought five questions to Anthony to try to get a better read on how the Bengals have looked over the first six games, including an update on the offense after some early season struggles and thoughts on the defense’s recent struggles against the run. Read on for Anthony’s answers.
Q1. The Bengals have gotten off to a slower start than expected at just 3-3 through the first six games. What do you attribute the early-season struggles to, both offensively and defensively, and do you feel like Cincinnati is on the right track?
Anthony Cosenza: Opposing defenses have adjusted greatly to take away the deep ball from the Bengals. They’d rather Joe Burrow slice-and-dice for smaller gains rather than be gashed by a big Ja’Marr Chase bomb. The offensive line also features four new starters and they were trying to gel.
Cincinnati faced (and continues to face) a lot of two-safety and “Tampa 2” looks, forcing them to be impatient, which is a difficult thing to overcome when you have so many young players at key positions on that side of the ball. Since, Cincinnati has learned patience, utilizing short and intermediate routes, as well as RPO-style run plays to stop netting negative yardage.
It’s shown on the stat sheet, and it’s important to note that in that 3-3 start to the season, they’re 3-1 in their last four games and the three losses have been by a combined eight points—all being on last play field goals.
Q2. Despite the slow start, the Bengals still have one of the NFL’s most dangerous passing games and the best WR trio in the league. Do you anticipate a pass-heavy approach on Sunday against a vulnerable Atlanta secondary, and is the health of Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase something to monitor?
Anthony: In days of old in the NFL, it was always “establish the run to set up the pass”. But, with how teams have been playing Cincinnati’s offense this year, the Bengals are using the pass to ultimately set up the run. They will set up the vast majority of their plays out of shotgun and attempt to fool Atlanta’s defense with different plays out of similar looks.
It appears that Higgins and Chase will both be going on Sunday, though Higgins did note that he was playing at about “85%” last week. Look for more YAC plays to let those guys utilize their respective strengths there, instead of the frequent deep balls because of the aforementioned ways defenses have been playing them.
Q3. Cincinnati’s defense has been very good overall in 2022, 10th in scoring and 13th in total yardage. However, the Bengals just allowed 228 rushing yards to the Saints and are 23rd in yards per carry allowed on the season. How concerned are you about facing the Falcons’ elite rushing attack?
Anthony: Pretty concerned, actually. Cincinnati has struggled against teams that have a quarterback with rushing ability along with able running backs. They’ve found a formula to contain Lamar Jackson, but that’s with a lot more familiarity, as Taysom Hill and Co. gashed them last week.
To boot, Cincinnati is without two elite run-stoppers in defensive tackle D.J. Reader and linebacker Logan Wilson this week. Reader’s backup, Josh Tupou, is also injured, so Cincinnati is pretty thin on run defense packages. This may result in a high volume of points for Atlanta.
Q4. Injuries, particularly on defense, could be a major factor in this game. With D.J. Reader on IR and Logan Wilson missing multiple days of practice this week, how confident are you in the depth behind them to hold up against Atlanta’s top-10 offense?
Anthony: As mentioned above, the run game is a major concern this week. Sam Hubbard is a pretty good edge defender against the run, but it’s going to be a handful of backups and rotational players in the lineup on Sunday.
In terms of pass defense, I’m pretty confident there. Wilson is an able pass-defender and will be missed, but the Bengals’ secondary is quietly bordering on elite. While they don’t net a ton of interceptions, the group plays with sound technique and doesn’t let up many big plays. It’s a huge test this week, though, with the gigantic targets the Falcons employ and their league-leading yards-per-reception mark.
Q5. The Bengals are significant favorites at home this week (+6.5 at the moment). What’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
Anthony: Both teams have some significant injuries and I think it will show. And, while I think the Bengals’ offense is beginning to adjust and find a new groove, I think Atlanta’s somewhat-unorthodox offensive approach will give them fits. The Falcons are also insanely good at covering the spread under Arthur Smith, so I’ll go with a Bengals win and Falcons cover.
Many thanks to Anthony Cosenza for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him at @CJAnthonyCUI, and if you’re in the mood for a Bengals perspective on things, follow Cincy Jungle at @CincyJungle.
If you’d like to see my answers to Anthony’s questions, you can find that story right here.