Sunday Spotlight: Beating the Bengals inside

Doug Farrar
December 20, 2009

When the Cincinnati Bengals take the field in San Diego today, there's no question that they'll be playing their hearts out for fallen teammate Chris Henry. There's also no question that in Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes), they have one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. Hall and Joseph have what it takes to shut down (or severely limit) the efforts of Vincent Jackson(notes) and Malcom Floyd(notes), San Diego's top two wide receivers. Problem is, the Chargers' top receivers aren't their wide receivers -- tight end Antonio Gates(notes) is a threat downfield and in the seams, while Darren Sproles(notes) is a constant presence out of the flats. That could be a problem for a Bengals defense with coverage issues beyond Hall and Joseph.

According to Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, Cincinnati is fifth-best in the NFL against receivers marked #1 and #2 -- that's Jackson and Floyd in this game. They're sixth in those same stats against tight ends, though Gates will stretch Cincy's coverage concepts in ways that most tight ends will not. The problem cones against third and fourth receivers and running backs. The Bengals are the worst team in the NFL against the league against those "other" receivers -- the guys who line up in flex positions and in the slot. They're allowing over 10 yards per catch to those players and just over six to the first and second receivers. Philip Rivers(notes), the quarterback they'll be facing today, has a 141.0 passer rating in formations of four or more wide receivers (52 of 69 for 700 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions), and the general rule is to throw away from Hall and Joseph in the first place.

One guy to watch in this game is third receiver Legedu Naanee(notes), whose best game this season came in Week 10 against the Eagles, another team with inside coverage issues. And the key is how the Chargers will use Gates, creating mismatches against linebackers and safeties. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is one of the best when it comes to avoiding matchup holes, but his safeties don't cover very well and the Chargers will most likely look to put Gates in position to either pull a cornerback off an assignment or exploit a zone gap over the middle.

A win over the Chargers would give the Bengals the AFC North and be a wonderful story after the tragedy they've suffered this week, but there's a reason the Chargers have won eight straight games -- they know how to create offensive game plans that put their best players in position to succeed.