The 49ers will look to snap a two-game losing streak on Sunday against a Cincinnati Bengals team coming off a bye week. On the surface, this is a Bengals defense that has given up 13, 20, and 16 in three of its last four games. But a deeper dive suggests that this unit has been more fortunate than good.
Let’s preview what to expect when the 49ers have the ball.
Bengals by the numbers
The Bengals are average across the board in most statistics, but are one of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL. Offensively, the 49ers remain among the cream of the crop:
49ers offense vs. Bengals defense
|Stat||49ers offense||Bengals defense|
|Stat||49ers offense||Bengals defense|
|Yards per drive||4||14|
|Points per drive||2||15|
|Turnovers per drive||8||9|
|Success rate per drive||2||15|
|EPA per dropback||1||9|
|EPA per rush||8||26|
|Adjusted Sack Rate||13||10|
The 49ers offense has played the 9th-toughest schedule of defenses, while the Bengals have faced the 12th-toughest schedule of offenses, per DVOA.
In Week 5, the Cardinals ran for 142 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry on 22 attempts. The week prior, Derrick Henry and the Titans amassed 173 rushing yards on 33 carries, good for 5.2 yards per attempt. In Week 2, the Ravens ran for 178 yards.
This would be a great time for the 49ers to get left tackle Trent Williams back. 49ers general manager John Lynch spoke with KNBR on the Murph and Mac Show Friday morning about Williams:
“Trent’s progressing well. Trent is a competitor of all competitors. And he had that ankle and was really gearing towards playing last week. He just couldn’t get there. He’s not practiced this week. So I think today is going to be a big day. We don’t do a ton on Friday, but it’s going to be a big day in terms of feeling like, okay, I’m feeling better. I think I can do this.
And Trent’s the type of player you wait right up until Sunday if you have to. I guess it does give you some confidence that Trent’s a seasoned player. You trust his point of view, once the doctors clear him, as to whether he can go, and then knowing he’s got some time to heal up after because of the bye week. If Trent can play, he’ll play. And today and the next couple of days will be big in terms of continuing the healing process, so he can go function.”
The 49ers will miss Deebo Samuel once again. There’s no replacing Samuel. He’s a unicorn when it comes to his skill set. Deebo is good for at least one explosive gain per game, and he generally turns a 2-yard gain into a 9-yard gain.
Attrition is beginning to take its toll on the Niners as we near mid-season. Against a lackluster rush defense like the Bengals, Williams services could really help the 49ers running game get back on track and break Christian McCaffrey’s mini-slump.
Which QB will we see?
Brock Purdy took part during individual drills on Thursday, which is a positive development that he’ll play this Sunday against the Bengals. After further review, Purdy played surprisingly well against the Vikings:
Some analysts are under the impression that the 49ers won’t skip a beat with Sam Darnold under center. Darnold has better physical tools, but Purdy’s processing skills, knowing where to go with the football, and willingness to use the entire field has taken this offense to unseen levels.
Can Darnold do the same? That remains to be seen. There’s no gray area when it comes to Purdy, as he’s proven it. Darnold has not.
The 49ers opened up as 5.5-point favorites over the Bengals. Once it was announced that Purdy was in the concussion protocol, that number dipped to 3.5. As of Friday morning, after Purdy practiced, that number is trending back in the 49ers direction, as it sits at 4.
Purdy having one less day to clear the concussion protocol is what seems to be the worry. That’s because no player who was placed in the protocol has been cleared the same week. Not the following, but the same.
Lynch reiterated Kyle Shanahan’s confidence in Darnold if he’s under center, saying, “we’ve got a lot of belief in Sam Darnold and what he provides. He’s played in this league at a high level, and I think he is a great fit for what we do. So we’ve got a lot of belief in Sam.”
If we focus on the fit, Darnold’s skill set fits what Shanahan wants to do. Darnold needs to play on time and keep the offense ahead of schedule.
When the Bengals line up in their base defense, they’re 23rd in success rate. When the 49ers line up in their base offense — when Kyle Juszczyk is on the field — they’re eighth when Juszczyk is at fullback and first when he lines up as a tight end.
Based on DVOA, the Bengals are 22nd at defending the opposition’s WR2 and 27th at defending tight ends. They’re also 20th at taking away passes to running backs.
Nelson Agholor and Zay Flowers combined to have nine receptions for 125 yards in Week 2. In Week 3, Rams tight end Tyler Higbee had five receptions for 71 yards. The Titans and Cardinals both found success from their secondary receivers while Tyler Lockett had 94 receiving yards before the Bengals bye week.
This has to be a George Kittle week. I thought Shanahan used Kittle to perfection against the Vikings. Kittle finished with five catches for 78 yards on seven targets. He should be in line for similar numbers this week.
Cincy’s linebackers in coverage against the Seahawks allowed 16 receptions for 166 yards on 16 targets. Hello, Kittle.
How the Bengals get off the field
Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo loves to use pre-snap disguises and late rotations from his safeties.
Purdy, or Darnold, will see a majority of single-high safety looks. The Bengals run the third-highest rate of a one-high shell in the NFL. Their success rate is 21st in the league, as they are a pre-dominant zone coverage team that blitzes at a league average rate.
Cincinnati is willing to give up yards between the 20s as they hope to force you into a turnover, sack you, or get you to settle for a field goal inside of the red zone.
The Seahawks were an embarrassing 1-for-5 inside of the red zone against the Bengals. They also turned the ball over twice. Geno Smith was sacked five times. The Cardinals had three turnovers. The Rams had two turnovers, allowed six sacks, and went 1-for-4 against the Bengals inside of the red zone.
To the Bengals credit, pressure causes variance. The trio of Josh Dobbs, Matthew Stafford, and Geno Smith all see their numbers fall off a cliff under pressure, specifically their turnover worthy throws.
Against each NFL West opponent, the Bengals have combined for an incredible 24 quarterback hits. Purdy’s mobility saved the day on a few occasions against the Vikings, and he may need to use his legs to buy time to make plays again on Sunday.
Trey Hendrickson is among the league leaders in total pressures and sacks. He’s second in the league in win percentage, per PFF. Sam Hubbard is third in the NFL in QB hits.
The Niners need more out of Colton McKivitz. In pass protection, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. McKivitz has been a disaster. Among 136 offensive linemen with at least 150 pass blocking snaps, McKivitz ranks 125th in blown block percentage, per Sports Info Solutions.
Shanahan elected to leave tight ends Kittle and Charlie Woerner in for pass protection on Monday night to protect his tackles. If Williams is out, he’ll likely do the same.
Spencer Burford ranks 96th. He hasn’t exactly taken the second-year leap the 49ers had hoped for. The good news is the other three linemen are holding their own, for the most part. Center Jake Brendel is 44th in blown-block percentage, while Trent Williams is 29th and Aaron Banks is a surprising 22nd.
The plan has to be to take Hendrickson out of the game plan. The Bengals don’t have another rusher inside of the top 72 for win percentage. They’re not an overly athletic group in the same vein as the Cowboys and Browns.
But their secondary is fast, although inexperienced. I’d expect Shanahan to draw up plays that messes with the Bengals’ eye discipline. In a game where Brandon Aiyuk saw one target after the latter portion of the second quarter, Sunday should be an overcorrection game that sees Aiyuk heavily involved.
Whenever the 49ers run their offense between the trio of Aiyuk-McCaffrey-Kittle, they’re unstoppable. The Bengals don’t have the horses to slow the Niners down. Being back at Levi’s Stadium should give the offense a level of comfort.
The only thing that’s stopped Purdy and company has been themselves. It’s tough to envision that happening for a third game in a row, especially at home.