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49ers-Bengals preview: Figuring out A.J. McCarron, strengths & weakness, and predictions

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Scott Bantel from Cincy Jungle exchanged five questions with us, discussing A.J. McCarron, injury concerns, and strengths and weaknesses on defense. He also provided his prediction for Sunday's game.

The San Francisco 49ers are back home this weekend to face the Cincinnati Bengals, in a matchup that has seen some changes due to Andy Dalton's fractured thumb. We took a few minutes to chat with Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle to get his thoughts on the new quarterback in Cincinnati, injuries to the defense, and what to expect on Sunday. You can check out my answers to his questions here.

Niners Nation: What do Bengals fans know about A.J. McCarron? What did you see against Pittsburgh, and what do you expect this week?

Cincy Jungle: From a pro standpoint? Until last Sunday, very little. McCarron's entire rookie season was spent on IR with a shoulder injury and going into last Sunday's game, he had a grand total of four NFL passes (3/4, 22 yards) under his belt. However, because a lot of Bengals fans were unhappy with Dalton (until this year), there has been a lot of intrigue with McCarron ever since the Bengals took him in the fifth round of the 2014 draft.

McCarron was forced into one of the most difficult situations last week - down 10 in a chippy rivalry game, with the division title (and playoff implications) on the line -  and in my opinion, he played pretty well (22/32, 280 yards, 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions). His two interceptions were really bad passes (one was a pick six), but his two touchdown passes were equally nice. Certainly the Bengals chances in this game (and the playoffs) would be much greater with Andy Dalton behind center, but the coaching staff trusts McCarron, the players seem to respond to him and he looks like the type of backup that can "hold down the fort" so to speak until/if Dalton can return. I am not expecting huge things from him, as he is essentially a rookie making his first NFL start, but, as a guy that has been in this system for two years and has three college championships under his belt, I doubt he will be overwhelmed by the situation.

NN: What should we expect from the Bengals ground game? It seems like Jeremy Hill is the starter, but Gio Bernard gets plenty of work. Do the Bengals use Bernard for any particular situations, or just as a generic complement to Hill?

CJ: After a spectacular rookie season where we saw Jeremy Hill put up 1,124 yards, 9 touchdowns and 5.1 yards per carry - despite only starting about half of the games - Hill has been a disappointment in 2015. Despite receiving nearly 60% of the carries and scoring 8 touchdowns, Hill has yet to break 100 yards on the season. That being said, with Dalton out and the weather getting colder, I believe the Bengals will put a lot of effort into getting Hill going before the postseason, and this has the making to be that game.

Bernard is the more versatile and electric of the two backs, and also sees a lot of work in this offense - both as a runner and coming out of the backfield. I believe he is most dangerous coming out of the backfield, where he is fourth on the team in receptions (40) and yards (413). Surprisingly, Bernard has been the better runner through the first 13 games as well, outrushing Hill 647-604, with a glaring discrepancy in yards per carry (5.1 vs. 3.6). However, the last few weeks we have seen the bulk of the carries shift from Bernard to Hill. Through the first five games, Bernard averaged 14 carries per game, but that has dropped to an average just below six the last five games. On Sunday, I would expect to see Hill get the bulk of the carries again, but, because of what Bernard offers in the passing game, he will likely play as many, if not more snaps than Hill when all is said and done. The beauty of Hill and Bernard is the way they are perfect compliments to one another. Hill is the big powerful back and Bernard is the quick and speedy back that can run routes and catch like a receiver.

NN: The Bengals secondary has been solid, but have some injury concerns with Adam Jones and George Iloka. What are their respective statuses, and what does it mean for the Bengals defense?

CJ: Jones (foot) practiced for the second day in a row and likely will play, though it sounds like he won't be 100% the rest of the year. Either way, his return is huge. Despite turning 32 at the start of the season, Jones has not only been the Bengals top cornerback this season, but one of the top corners in the NFL as well. He is the emotional leader of the secondary and his presence will be a welcomed site in a banged up secondary.

Iloka (groin), on the other hand, has yet to practice and is unlikely to play. At 6'4", 225 pounds, Iloka is a big, hard hitting safety that excels in run support and his presence will be missed. He returned last week against Pittsburgh, but left the game early, so I would be shocked to see him play this week. The good news, from the Bengals standpoint, is they have viable backup options at safety.

NN: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Bengals defense as a whole?

CJ: The strength of the Bengals defense is their defensive line, most notably, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. In my opinion, Atkins is one of (if not) the most disruptive interior lineman in the game and makes everyone around him better. Dunlap is your prototypical defensive end, long, powerful and quick. At 6'6" and 280 pounds, he plays all three downs and has 10.5 sacks on the season. He has benefitted greatly by the return of a healthy Atkins in the middle and the signing of Michael Johnson on the opposite side.

The Bengals line also benefits from a seven/eight man rotation. Thanks to a deep line, the Bengals are able to rotate seven or eight guys without experiencing a huge drop off, and as a result, they are able to keep their linemen fresh all game long.

Their biggest weakness on defense is at the linebacker position. The return of Vontaze Burfict has upgraded this group greatly, but even with Burfict, the group as a whole is average at best. Teams with good pass catching tight ends and running backs are able to create favorable matchups with the Bengals linebackers.

NN: Prediction time. No need for a specific score if you don't want, but how do you see this game shaking out?

CJ: Super Bowl XVI provided football fans Joe Montana against NFL MVP Ken Anderson, and Super Bowl XXIII featured Joe Montana versus NFL MVP Boomer Esiason. Now the 49ers and Bengals provide the next epic quarterback matchup...Blaine Gabbert versus A.J. McCarron - a network's dream! I am guessing that America was very disappointed when this game was moved out of primetime, right?

Given the quarterbacks in this matchup, I am certainly not expecting a game of offensive beauty, and with the 49ers playing much better at home than on the road, I see this being a pretty close game - within one score most of the game. However, despite McCarron making his first start, I think the Bengals team around him is just too much for the 49ers. I expect the Bengals to rely heavily on Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, and once they get the defense putting an extra man in the box, taking a few deep shots to A.J. Green. I thinks this will be a relatively close game most of the afternoon with the Bengals pulling away later, 24-13.