The 49ers and Bengals are entering this Sunday’s game in very similar positions. Both are coming off losses while maintaining their inside tracks for a Wild Card berth. As these two teams come down the stretch, this game will be huge, holding onto their respective spots.
The Bengals opened the week as a slight favorite at -1 on DraftKings Sportsbook, but over the week, money has moved that line all the way to the Niners being favored by 2. Either way, people think this will be close, and that feels right.
Big thanks to Patrick Judis at Cincy Jungle for answering all my questions and graciously offering his insights!
1.) After two losing seasons, the Bengals are currently in playoff position after going 7-5, which is the best start of Zac Taylor’s tenure. Yet getting to that record has been bumpy, to say the least, featuring a squeaker of a win against the hapless Jaguars and a 4th quarter collapse to the Mike White-led Jets. All that being said, how would you rate the Zac Taylor experience, and how comfortable are you that’s he taking this team in the right direction?
It is pretty clear that he finally has plenty of guys on the roster who have bought into him. Even when this team was losing, there were a ton of close games, and you could feel things were close. Even looking back to the last time the Bengals and 49ers met, this roster is so drastically different.
In my opinion, before the season started, most people needed to see significant progress from this team; otherwise, big changes were going to be required. At this point, as long as the Bengals don’t have a significant collapse that leaves them not even close to the playoffs, I would say most fans are comfortable with Taylor. A lot of these weird games can be chalked up to a young team really learning to win and not sneaking up on teams.
2.) Joe Burrow returned from last November’s gnarly season-ending knee injury to start this year. When asked about his concern overplaying the surgically repaired joint, he dismissed the idea altogether. Taking the missed time and rehab into account, how has Burrow looked so far? Do you believe he’s growing and progressing as a pro quarterback? How do you account for his NFL-leading 14 interceptions?
He has made significant improvements. He is just in a different stratosphere as far as competitors. He said he reworked his entire mechanics from the ground up while rehabbing from his injury. You can see that in the velocity he is able to put on the ball.
Some of the interceptions are rough. He still tries to do too much at times. Others have been freak situations like Ja’Marr Chase having a touchdown pass bounce out of his hands into a defender’s. It is more Burrow learning what he can and can’t get away within the NFL.
3.) Going into the 2021 Draft, there seemed to be two schools of thought for the Bengals at the fifth pick. Reunite Burrow with his favorite college target, Ja’Marr Chase, to electrify the offense’s aerial attack or bring in Penei Sewell, the consensus top offensive lineman, to better protect him. Cincy brought in Chase, who, much like the team, has had some ups and downs. How do you judge his impact to this point, and can you explain some of recent struggles?
So it is funny because we see exactly what fans on Team Chase were talking about would happen with Chase on the field.
To explain, we have to talk about the 2020 offense real quick. Burrow had one of the worst ratings as a deep passer. You can attribute that to A.J. Green being the only legitimate deep threat, and whether it was injury or him losing a step, Green just wasn’t that guy anymore. That meant teams literally dared Burrow and receivers to beat them over the top by stacking the box with defenders.
Teams — especially teams familiar with Cincinnati like the Ravens and Steelers — started out the season with that same defensive concept. They dared Burrow to beat them deep, and he and Chase did just that.
It isn’t a coincidence the Joe Mixon’s mid-season emergence coincides with Chase’s struggles. Teams have started backing off and taking away Chase. That has made a running game that was nonexistent in 2020 look like one of the best right now.
Chase has made it so defenses can no longer take away Mixon, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins by sitting a bunch of defenders in the box. Chase just has to now learn how to beat coverages being rolled towards him as a rookie.
4.) After last season, when the defense finished as the 23rd ranked unit, the Bengals rebuilt by bringing in six new starters, including three new corners. The changes have obviously helped as they are now 8th in the league and allowing under 100 yards a game on the ground. What’s been the biggest difference-maker from 2020 to 2021, and what weaknesses could you see the 49ers taking advantage of this Sunday?
The real change is that this defense is healthy, and the free agents brought in the past two offseasons have all been hits outside of Trae Waynes, who has been injured for most of his tenure.
I’ll highlight two players who have been huge difference makers. D.J. Reader in the middle of the defensive line was missed severely last season. He has made running up the middle practically impossible.
Trey Hendrickson has also proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder. He and Sam Hubbard have been able actually to put pressure in the quarterback's face. That is a huge change from quarterbacks being able to stand back there forever last season.
5.) What’s your prediction for this Sunday’s game?
I expect another close game. Both of these teams really want to lean on their running game to win them the game. It may come down to the Bengals playing cleanly early to stay out of the holes they tend to dig themselves into early on.
Also, in these games between two good teams, I usually tend to go with the better quarterback, and I can’t go against Burrow right now.
Bengals: 38 49ers: 31