The Cincinnati Bengals will try to bounce back from the loss of quarterback Joe Burrow in their first full game without him today.
Cincinnati (2-7-1) hosts the New York Giants (3-7) at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium, a meeting of teams currently heading in opposite directions with the Bengals coming off two straight losses and the Giants coming out of a bye following a pair of wins.
Burrow, the No. 1 overall draft pick, will undergo season-ending knee surgery in the coming weeks while the Bengals seek to finish on some kind of positive note. A win Sunday would be a big step in that direction.
Here are five things to know about the matchup:
1. Brandon Allen time?
Multiple reports indicated the Bengals are going to start practice squad quarterback Brandon Allen. However, coach Zac Taylor didn’t want to tip his hand and declined to name his starter in interviews with local media this week.
On Friday, Taylor said there was still nothing new to reveal in that regard.
It wouldn’t be a total surprise if the team did go with Allen, though he was the third-string quarterback and originally only considered insurance in case of a COVID-19 outbreak in the quarterback room. Backup Ryan Finley struggled in three starts last year when Taylor benched Andy Dalton, and in replacing Burrow in the third quarter last week, he showed no sign of progress while completing 3 of 10 passes and guiding an offense that produced 17 yards on 18 plays.
Allen showed enough to Taylor during their time together with the L.A. Rams in 2017 and 2018 to make a reunion possible in August when the Bengals signed Allen as a free agent. He had been on the practice squad in L.A. but started three games for Denver last year.
“My first exposure to him was he was always on the practice squad,” Taylor said of Allen’s time in L.A.. “You’d see him taking reps of stuff that wasn’t necessarily in our system, but you could see some of the timing and the anticipation he threw with it. He’s just always had that ‘it’ factor to him, I think that he’s probably carried throughout his entire life as a baseball player and as a quarterback.”
2. Looking for help elsewhere
Whoever the quarterback is, the Bengals will need to step up in other areas. Burrow was capable of rising above deficiencies in other areas to put the team in position to win games, but the dropoff between him and the backup is immense.
The offensive line, for one, needs to be better. Finley was sacked four times against Washington, after Burrow didn’t take a single sack. Part of that was Washington started really going after him, but Burrow also was much quicker getting the ball out and most quarterbacks aren’t able to make decisions and find receivers that quickly.
Utilizing the running game more is one solution, but it’s not certain how much the Bengals can count on that. Joe Mixon remains out with a foot injury that led the team to finally place him on injured reserve Nov. 20, and Giovani Bernard is questionable because of a concussion that limited him earlier this week. He was a full participant Friday, and Taylor said he was progressing well toward being available If he’s not able to go, they’ll be relying on Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams.
New York ranks sixth in run defense, allowing just 100.9 rushing yards per game.
“That’s going to be key these next couple weeks -- taking care of the ball and our defense giving (the new quarterback) confidence and more opportunities to score the football,” safety Jessie Bates said. “That challenge, it raises the bar for the defense as far as, there’s not going to be a lot of high scoring games, more than likely, honestly. That’s just calling a spade a spade. I think our defense is ready for the challenge.”
3. Jones’ Achilles heel
Daniel Jones has played better the last two games, helping the Giants to a pair of wins against Philadelphia and Washington before their bye, but he’s struggled with turnovers and that could be an area where the Bengals can make things more difficult.
The 2019 first-round draft pick produced his first turnover-free stretch of his career in those last two games, a steep turnaround from the first eight games of the season when he threw nine interceptions (with eight touchdowns) and fumbled four times. He threw 24 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year.
Bates recorded his team-leading third interception of the season Sunday after Margus Hunt deflected a pass. The Bengals are tied for 24th in turnover margin at minus-4, while losing eight fumbles and six interceptions. The defense has nine interceptions and one fumble recovery.
Even if the turnovers don’t come for the Cincinnati defense, preventing the big pass play will be important. The Bengals have given up 39 pass plays of 20 yards or more, ranking third worst in the league. They could be without cornerback Mackensie Alexander and linebacker Markus Bailey, who are both questionable with hamstring injuries.
4. More shuffling up front
The Bengals could see some more changes on the offensive line this week. Bobby Hart is expected to be back at right tackle after replacing rookie Hakeem Adeniji for the final nine snaps at Washington while he was still working back from a knee injury.
Right guard Xavier Su’a-Filo is healthy, according to Taylor, but still working back into playing shape and expected to be moved to the active roster next week. Meanwhile, Quinton Spain could play either right or left guard Sunday as Taylor indicated he has been working out at multiple spots. He started at right guard in place of Alex Redmond last week, but Michael Jordan could be pushed out at left guard, especially as the Bengals are preparing to make room for Su’a-Filo to take his job back at right guard.
“We’re in a week-to-week business and we have guys if you have a tough game, we have to have guys that can go play,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “We’re not going to be shy about being able to put guys in and out of the lineup. There are always going be injuries to deal with, guys are going to have to step up and play no matter what. I think there’s been a lot of good play over that last handful of weeks. … We had some matchups that we’ve won some battles and lost some battles and that’s kind of how it goes most weeks. We’re still looking for better consistency. We have not played consistent enough long enough. That has to get better.”
While the offensive line is getting healthier, the wide receiver unit could be short-handed with John Ross on injured reserve, Mike Thomas (hamstring) doubtful and Auden Tate on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
5. No kicking controversy
Randy Bullock missed two field goals and an extra point attempt last week, but Taylor said his job is not in doubt even with Austin Seibert also on the roster.
Bullock missed what would have been the game-tying field goal in the opener against the Chargers, then made 13 straight before missing a 58-yarder in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis. He had been perfect since then and hadn’t missed a PAT all season.
The Bengals won’t be able to afford leaving any points off the board Sunday with a new quarterback.
Giants at Bengals, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7