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49ers vs Bengals Roster Preview: Do the Bengals have the upper hand?

San Francisco and Cincinnati got off to wildly different starts to the season. But the talent gap isn’t very far.

San Francisco 49ers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Following the second loss of the season, the San Francisco 49ers are preparing on a short week for the Cincinnati Bengals. Here’s a look at how the Niners roster stacks up against the Bengals.


Advantage: SF

The Bengals have a young secondary that has had an up and down start to the year. Second-year pros Cameron Taylor-Britt (CB) and Dax Hill (S) have both nabbed two interceptions this year and are developing into cornerstone pieces for a defense going through a bit of a talent transition. Hill was Cincinnati’s first round pick in 2022 and was expected to take over for one of their two safeties from a year ago that left via free agency. Early signs have been positive, the Michigan State product is third on the team in tackles and fourth on the defense in PFF grade.

The other safety spot has been handed off to a former member of the Los Angeles Rams, Nick Scott, who will be circled in pen by Kyle Shanahan while game planning this week. For a Cincinnati defense better than the stats indicate, Scott is the largest liability. He has allowed 13 catches on 18 targets in coverage for 14.5 yards per catch, with one touchdown allowed. His 36.6 PFF coverage grade is worst on the team by a long shot. The cornerback group is rounded out by veterans Chidobe Awuzie and nickel Mike Hilton, both of whom are average to above average starters in the league.

As of this writing, Brock Purdy is still in concussion protocol but has logged a limited practice. His availability is questionable but even if Sam Darnold has to take the reins, I feel comfortable giving the nod to San Francisco. The lack of production from receivers not named Brandon Aiyuk last week was a bit worrisome, but this could be an opportunity for Jauan Jennings, Ray-Ray McCloud, or Ronnie Bell to step up the plate against a middle-of-the-pack secondary.


Advantage: SF

Two former third-round picks roam the middle of the Cincinnati defense. Logan Wilson and Germaine Pratt have both logged over 900 snaps as the starting linebackers the past two seasons, and no other linebacker on the team has more than 15 defensive snaps this year. They aren’t often brought up in conversations about the league’s best at the position, but they are a formidable duo that bring experience and consistency to the defense.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo doesn’t run a blitz-heavy scheme, although he’s upped his tendency to do so by 10% (keep in mind, blitz-rate is up league-wide). Wilson and Pratt are primarily deployed in coverage, where they have come up with a combined three interceptions in six games. Despite George Kittle’s recent lack of production, the last time he was matched up against this unit, in 2021, he went for 13 catches, 151 yards, and 1 touchdown. Adding McCaffrey into the mix gives an easy advantage to the Niners.


Advantage: CIN

Cincinnati has shown it is susceptible to strong rushing attacks. They have given up 142.8 yards per game on the ground, the fourth-highest amount in the league. Their Pro Football Focus 51.6 run defense grade and 41.0 tackling grade are bottom six. The 49ers should get back to their style of offense, leaning heavily on a running game that has disappointed in their two most recent contests.

Trent Williams did not participate in practice Thursday. Jaylon Moore filled in admirably against Minnesota, allowing only one hurry and one pressure in 33 pass blocking snaps. Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford looked more like their 2022 selves Monday night, but overall the offensive line has been underachieving. Colton McKivitz had a rough outing against Danielle Hunter and the Vikings pass rush and we just haven’t seen the entire unit have a collective strong showing yet.

Our sister Bengals Blog, Cincy Jungle, recently posted about the duo of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard, and their importance to the defense. Hendrickson is the fourth-highest rated edge rusher according to PFF. He also is top 10 in ESPN’s pass rush win rate. Hubbard is fourth in Run Stop Win Rate. This will be a major challenge for the Niners tackles, especially if Williams can’t go. That being said, Darnold (or Purdy) should expect limited interior pressure again, as BJ Hill and DJ Reader are seen as mostly run-stuffing defensive tackles This will be the fifth of San Francisco’s early season opponents that rank in the top ten in PFF’s team pass rush grade.


Advantage: SF

After failing to log a sack against Minnesota, the 49ers high-priced defensive line was rightfully receiving criticism about their play. San Francisco ranks 21st in sacks so far this year and the stars have yet to take over a game. If the Niners get a win this weekend it has to be because the front four generate pressure and disrupt the Cincy offense.

Easier said than done, but if you’re paying for the best line in the league, these are the matchups they need to show their worth. The Bengals allow pressure on only 17.8% of dropbacks, the 7th lowest rate in the league. Joe Burrow has come a long way from his early NFL career where he took more sacks than any other quarterback in the league. He doesn’t hold on to the ball and throws with elite anticipation. Only Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence have a quicker time to throw in 2023. Burrow’s ability to diagnose a defense and process information quickly has helped hide some of the issues with the offensive line. Cincinnati has spent capital on upgrading the unit the past few off-seasons and it’s been better - but there are holes.

Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was the big fish during free agency and has upgraded the protection to Burrow’s backside so far. However, matchups with bendy edge rushers - like Nick Bosa - are usually difficult for Brown’s massive 6’8, 345lb frame and could be an advantage to the Niners attack. Brown’s arrival forced former first-rounder Jonah Williams to right tackle where he has performed neither better nor worse than his first few seasons in the league. Former Dolphin and Patriot, Ted Karras, and former Buccaneer, Alex Cappa, are a solid C/G combo on the right side but left guard Cordell Volson has been a liability (23.5 pass block grade) in his second season as a starter. Getting Javon Hargrave in one-on-one opportunities with Volson should be another way San Francisco can generate pressure in this one.


Advantage: SF

The Bengals are one of two teams that average less than 70 yards rushing per game. They aren’t an offense that even tries to commit to the ground attack, their 121 attempts this season is dead last in the league. Joe Mixon is the lead back, and rarely subbed, scoring their lone rushing touchdown to date. But at only 3.8 yards per carry he has been a non-factor in their first six games. He’s never really shown to be a big part of the passing game, either, and will likely find more tough sledding against Warner and Greenlaw.

Only the Panthers and Rams use 11 personnel at a higher rate than Cincinnati (79.9%). But the tight end position is usually an afterthought in this passing attack. Irv Smith Jr., who spent his first three years with the Vikings, is the starter but has only 11 targets this season. Four Bengals wide receivers have at least that many. Drew Sample will substitute in occasionally, especially to help with the pass protection or in run blocking and we may see former UDFA’s Mitchell Wilcox and Tanner Hudson who have logged some snaps as well.


Advantage: CIN

We already mentioned some of the elite traits Joe Burrow possesses which makes this a difficult matchup. This will be San Francisco’s first test against an elite quarterback (second if you count Cousins?) and the secondary will have their hands full. Back in 2021, Burrow lit up the Niners D for 348 yards, 2 touchdowns, no interceptions on 73.5% completion. The passing attack got off to a slow start with Burrow not fully healthy and missing most of training camp, but they have shown signs of regaining 2022 form in their last two games before the bye week.

Ja’Marr Chase has quickly become one of the best receivers in all of football. Two weeks ago in Arizona Chase set the Bengals franchise record with 15 catches, which went for 192 yards, and tied a career high three receiving touchdowns. Being able to contain Chase is a tall task. Playing soft zone may allow for easy completions that Chase is so good at turning into long gains. His 281 yards after the catch is third in the NFL. Playing man coverage hasn’t shown great results for opposing defenses, either. Since 2021, Chase leads the league in yards over expected vs. man (+448), according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

But Cincinnati has the best receiving trio in the league, making it even more difficult to focus the defense’s attention on stopping Chase. Tee Higgins has been slow out of the gate after back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons. He is an elite contested catch target down field and his 6’4 build provides a challenge for shorter cornerbacks. Tyler Boyd is one of the smartest slot weapons in the league. He’s second on the team in targets and receptions. Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, and Isaiah Oliver are likely going to struggle for the majority of this game. If San Francisco is lucky, they can force a few turnovers and leave the Bengals passing attack on the bench.