The Cincinnati Bengals will find out how helpful the bye week was in refreshing, self-evaluating and preparing as they host one of the best teams in the NFL on Sunday.
The New Orleans Saints (7-1) ride a seven-game win streak into Paul Brown Stadium, bringing with them the top-rated quarterback in the league and second-highest scoring offense. Drew Brees leads the NFL with a 120.6 passer rating and guided the Saints to a 45-35 win over previously unbeaten L.A. Rams last week.
Cincinnati (5-3) squeaked out a 37-34 win over Tampa Bay in Week 8, a game in which the defense recorded four turnovers and still allowed more than 500 yards of offense for a second straight outing.
Here is a look at five things to watch in Sunday’s matchup:
1. Defensive adjustments
This is a big challenge for a struggling Cincinnati defense, which allowed 1,127 yards over the previous two games.
New Orleans’ offense ranks second in scoring (34.9 points per game), No. 7 in the NFL in total net yards (402.0), and Brees has completed 76.3 percent of his passes (213 of 279) for 2336 yards, 18 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s only been sacked nine times and hit 26 times, making him the least touched quarterback in the league.
“They go as Brees goes,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “We’ve got to find a way to slow down that future Hall of Famer.
Former Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas leads the team with 880 yards (second in the NFL) and five touchdowns on 70 catches and had 211 yards last week. Running back Alvin Kamara adds 490 yards rushing and nine touchdowns to go along with 427 yards and three touchdowns on 51 catches.
Outside of Thomas, the Saints are lacking another deep threat as Ted Ginn Jr. is hurt and newcomer Dez Bryant tore his Achilles’ heel.
2. Life without Green
With A.J. Green out because of a toe injury, it’s time for other receivers to step up. Tyler Boyd likely becomes the main target, but it could be an opportunity for John Ross to prove his first-round draft value. He’s been hampered by a groin injury but said the bye week was helpful in allowing him to get back, and now he looks forward to a chance to show his worth.
“We don’t want to see A.J. go down and be like, ‘What do we do?’ We know what to do,” Ross said. “It’s our time to step up and we definitely have to. Not to put pressure on ourselves, but it’s real life and it’s our job.”
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I haven’t really done that much,’ but it can change for everybody,” he added. “You look at guys like (Boyd), and his story is amazing. It can happen for anybody. You’ve just got to stay ready and continue to work hard.”
Josh Malone is out with a hamstring injury, so that leaves Alex Erickson, Cody Core and rookie Auden Tate as the other receivers.
The Saints rank 31st in pass defense, allowing 311.4 yards per game.
3. Running time
It could be time to turn up the ground game – which would also help keep the Saints offense off the field longer – but New Orleans ranks No. 1 against the run.
Joe Mixon has 509 yards and four touchdowns on 105 carries, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but hasn’t had more than 22 attempts in a game all season and Giovani Bernard is likely still a week away from returning from a knee injury. Bernard was limited in practice all week and is listed as questionable.
Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said New Orleans’ explosive offense doesn’t have any bearing on his play-calling – the goal is just to score every drive – but the Saints’ run defense is legit. It’s not surprising, he said, to see a team ranked so poorly against the pass but playing the best run defense in the league.
“They are fantastic against the run,” Lazor said. “It’s not unique if they’re No. 1 against the run as far as total yards a game because we have a dynamic offense. People always try to pick stats apart but it’s foolish because it’s a team game. Every stat is dependent on both sides on each other. But they are also No. 1 yards per rush, that’s what I think is important. Only two teams have run the ball for 4.0 yards a rush on them.They are very stout. They are very physical. Their linebackers are downhill. Their linebackers are smart. I think it’s a great challenge. Statistically, it’s realistic it’s the greatest challenge we’ve faced.”
4. Red zone advantage
The Bengals just need to find a way to the red zone, where the Saints’ most glaring issues lie on defense. New Orleans’ opponents have scored touchdowns on 20 of 28 drives (71.4 percent), which ranks 28th out of 32 teams in defensive red zone efficiency.
The Bengals lead the league in scoring touchdowns once they get inside the 20-yard line, reaching the end zone on 20 of their 26 such possessions. They’ve scored touchdowns on eight of their past nine trips inside the 20.
“We’ve had some really good schemes,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “At the end of the day, our guys have made the plays.”
5. Price returns
Bengals rookie center Billy Price is set to return from a foot injury, which left questions to what role Trey Hopkins will hold, but with guard Alex Redmond doubtful because of a hamstring injury, it’s likely Hopkins assumes the position he held last year but lost in the preseason.
Lazor didn’t indicate how much he expects Price to play or if Hopkins could still see time there, but Price was a full participant all week in practice and seemed as though he was ready before the bye so signs point to him playing 100 percent of the snaps.
“I’m completely comfortable,” Lazor said. “It doesn’t matter who is out there, I’m comfortable. I hadn’t even thought about it until now.”
Saints at Bengals, 1 p.m., FOX, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7