As we get closer to Sunday's 49ers-Bengals game, I thought we'd take a few minutes to chat with Josh Kirkendall from Cincy Jungle about the matchup. The Bengals are off to a 1-1 start and their fans are getting just a little bit excited about the performances of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. I said earlier in the week I don't think the Bengals are a particularly good team, but I do think they are a team that will sneak up on a lot of people this year.
Based on the Bengals first two performances, their early season schedule does provide an opportunity for a hot start. While the 49ers aren't exactly a yard-marker for greatness, I do think the 49ers bring a stiffer challenge than the Broncos. The Browns I'm not quite so sure about as they have shown some things, but also some inconsistencies. Welcome to the 49ers world.
On to our chat with Josh...
Niners Nation: Were Bengals fans expecting Andy Dalton to get off to such a solid start?
Cincy Jungle: To be honest the expectations for this offense was so low that a completed pass would have been above expectations. Now that's obvious sarcasm, but the truth is there was so much turnover on offense that we didn't expect the team to score more than 20 points in consecutive games, nor did we expect them to rank sixth with 10 20-yard passes in the NFL.
Andy Dalton was the first rookie quarterback to start a regular season for the Bengals since Greg Cook in 1969. Jay Gruden is a first-year offensive coordinator and the first coordinator not named Bob Bratkowski (the team's former offensive coordinator) since 2000. A.J. Green is obviously a rookie and Jerome Simpson, who isn't expected to play for a minor issue (joke of course) with law enforcement, had only started three games in the three seasons prior to this year.
So the turnover was great, and that was greatly compounded by the lockout that prevented organized workouts. That being said, in only his second career start, Andy Dalton throws for over 300 yards passing with consecutive games posting a passer rating of over 100 or more? Though we know he's talented and expect him to be an accomplished passer in this league, we didn't expect that so soon.
NN: A.J. Green is the big name in the receiving corps, but can you tell us about the rest of the receivers? Is a potentially absent Jerome Simpson a big loss or not that big a deal? Feel free to brag about Green if you'd like.
CJ: Losing Simpson will be an issue because he was just as athletic and quick as Green; they were becoming a really good compliment for each other. Andre Caldwell, a fourth-round selection out of Florida in 2008, will likely start for Simpson and though he's not bad, he's not as talented as Simpson. That's not to take anything away from Caldwell, who averaged 90 yards receiving in the final three games in 2010. But he's never posted a 100-yard game whereas Simpson posted three in only five career NFL starts. If the Bengals use Caldwell as a flanker, rather than the slot, he'll be more effective, especially deep.
Beyond that, it's unknown. Rookie Ryan Whalen, from Stanford and Andrew Luck's favorite target last season, will get a great opportunity to pick up a ton of snaps; however he's been inactive the first two games this year. Brandon Tate is the most likely to be the slot receiver - or at least a flanker in three-wide sets, moving Caldwell into the slot. But his contribution on offense has been limited to two snaps in two games so far.
Our wide receiver situation, in the span of four days, took a massive hit. Not only did we lose our best slot receiver in Jordan Shipley (torn ACL), we lost our starting wide receiver in Simpson. Green is a hell of a talent, but this team needs those other receivers deep in the roster to help with the passing offense, which relies so much on timing and reads. And since most of them are relatively new to us, we're not sure really what to expect.
CJ: Cincinnati honestly believed Johnathan Joseph would return during free agency; instead he signed with the Houston Texans. The Bengals responded by signing Nate Clements. Manny Lawson was signed in response to the team losing strong-side linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy for the season. So neither Clements nor Lawson were initial free agent targets.
Lawson has only played just over half of the defensive snaps, and of the plays he's participated in, 61.1% have been running plays. He's been in on 28 snaps during passing situations and rushed the quarterback nine times. Clements has allowed several big plays this year. Of the 18 passes attempted to receivers he covered, 11 were caught for 228 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks are posting a 142.1 passer rating against guys he's covering.
We're giving them the benefit of the doubt however, largely because the lockout forced players to sign with teams just as training camp was kicking off allowing virtually no time for adjustment. And in truth, Lawson and Clements are but a fraction of the issues facing this defense.
NN: How is your rushing defense? The 49ers running game has struggled and I've heard some comments about how the Bengals will focus on stopping Frank Gore.
CJ: Marvin Lewis has said as much, but the Bengals rushing defense struggled last week against the Denver Broncos. Willie McGahee posted over 100 yards rushing and the defense allowed 131 yards rushing to the Broncos rushing offense. It's the highest yards allowed on the ground by the Bengals defense dating back to December 5, 2010.
The rushing defense, and the defense in general, were expected to be the team's strongest units and those expectations have missed significantly so far this year. The biggest problem is our front seven; the defensive line is getting beat and therefore the linebackers are being picked up in the second level. I honestly believe the team with the best running game wins Sunday.
On the other hand, the Bengals front four, with guys like defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, will disrupt opposing pass protection schemes on anything with five-step drops or more.
NN: Football Outsiders has your special teams ranked fairly low. Can you tell us about the special teams units?
CJ: Pedestrian, at best. There's general love for place kicker Mike Nugent, mostly because he's not Shayne Graham who had a propensity for choking during big moments. Kevin Huber, the team's punter, has a massive leg but he's far too inconsistent. He'll crush a 60-70 punt on one kick, then drop a 30-40 yarder on the next.
The return game isn't much to write home about either, but the team is using Brandon Tate, who they acquired off waivers just before the regular season started. Tate's experience as a return man is extremely limited, especially on punt returns. So the Bengals are being patient with him to ease into the roll.