The Cincinnati Bengals came away with a big road win last week at Atlanta and look to bring the momentum back home for a matchup of two of the league’s top teams.
Cincinnati (3-1), sitting atop the AFC North, hosts the AFC East-leading Miami Dolphins (3-1) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals are coming off a 37-36 win over the Falcons, thanks to A.J. Green’s game-winning touchdown with seven seconds left, while Miami enters with a bit of an ax to grind after a 38-7 loss at New England.
Here are five things to watch for on Sunday:
1. Injuries on offense mounting
The Bengals get Joe Mixon back from a knee injury that sidelined him the last two weeks, but now Giovani Bernard is the one hobbling.
Bernard showed up on the injury report last week with a knee ailment but played at Atlanta until exiting on the final drive and has been declared out. He is expected to miss two to four weeks. Additionally, wide receiver John Ross suffered a groin injury on a 39-yard touchdown haul against the Falcons and was declared out Friday after sitting out from practice all week, so this could be the week rookie Auden Tate plays.
Tight end Tyler Eifert, who broke his ankle against the Falcons, went on injured reserve Friday, so the passing game is without some of its main targets, but Tyler Boyd is enjoying a breakout third season as a compliment to Green and if Mixon is 100 percent, the running game can take off some of the pressure from Dalton.
“It’s great to have Joe back,” Dalton said. “Gio (Giovani Bernard) has done a great job and Mark (Walton) filled in and has done well. But Joe, he’s a guy that, just from a talent standpoint, you know what he is. He brings a lot of energy. That’s good for everybody, and we’re glad to have him back.”
The Dolphins are hurting as well with seven players questionable, one doubtful and three out. Miami already lost two starting offensive linemen for the season.
2. Close-game potential
Miami has earned all three of its win by eight points or less, and the Bengals’ three wins came by an average of 7.7 points per game, but if this one is close, Dalton could be the difference.
RELATED: Closer look at the Dolphins
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Dalton’s 22 game-winning drives since 2011 are tied for second in the NFL with Matt Ryan, eight behind Matt Stafford. On last week’s game-winning drive at Atlanta, he converted two fourth downs on passes to Boyd. Dalton earned an 85.7 overall grade from ProFootballFocus.com to push his season grade to 88.9, which is a career high.
“I once heard Bill Polian describe a quarterback as a flatliner,” Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “When the bullets are flying you need a guy who can keep his pulse under control. That’s what Andy does a great job of, keeping it under control.”
3. The Burfict effect
Vontaze Burfict is back from his four-game suspension, and the Bengals are hoping he helps improve their struggling defense (which has the worst third-down efficiency in the league), but it’s unclear how much he will play.
The veteran linebacker missed the first three games of the 2016 and 2017 seasons and immediately jumped back in and played more than it seemed Lewis was anticipating. In 2016, he played 34 of 45 snaps (76 percent) in his first game back and last year he played 52 of 65 snaps (80 percent) in his debut.
This time, he missed most of the preseason as well, though, after suffering an ankle injury in training camp and sitting out all four games.
“He got banged up in camp but he was around,” Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “He’s really a smart football player. He gets football. Really it’s just a matter of him getting into football shape.”
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Burfict recorded a pressure or defensive stop on 7.64 percent of his defensive snaps in 2017, ranking ninth among the 86 off-ball linebacker with at least 300 defensive snaps.
4. Explosive plays are key
The Ryan Tannehill-led Miami offense has big-play potential with Albert Wilson, Kenny Stills and Jakeem Grant recording touchdown catches of 50 yards or more (two of those were more than 70 yards), but the Bengals haven’t given up any plays that long.
Cincinnati’s defense has surrendered eight plays over 25 yards (seven on passes), but only three of those were over 40 yards. Getting stops on third down are key against anyone but with Miami the deep threat could come any time. The Dolphins three longest plays this season were on first and second down.
“They’re keeping tight coverage and when the pressure and the coverage work together, they’re very hard to move the ball on,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said of the Bengals defense.
5. Challenges from Miami’s secondary
The Dolphins lead the league with nine interceptions, and the Bengals won’t have Ross to take double coverage off Green or Boyd.
However, cornerback Bobby McCain is out with a knee injury and safeties Reshad Jones (shoulder) and T.J. McDonald (foot) are questionable.
“They’ve got a couple guys banged up, injured,” Boyd said. “I think they’re going to play a rookie, 29, on me – (Minkah) Fitzpatrick I believe from Alabama. I know Bill (Lazor) will do a great job getting us in the right positions to win our matchups. And I know Andy’s not careless with the football. I think he’ll make the right reads and we’ll be able to throw on them guys and move the ball on them guys.”
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