The Bengals are set to host the L.A. Rams in a Monday Night Football showdown at Paycor Stadium. The game airs at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN. Here are five things to watch:
1. Interior O-Line vs. Aaron Donald
Cincinnati’s offensive line has performed well against talented defensive fronts through the first two games, allowing a sack on just 4.1 percent of drop backs — the eighth-best rate in the NFL. There will be no room for a decline this week when Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald comes to town.
A three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year, Donald has more sacks than anybody since he entered the league in 2014 (103.5). But while the Bengals have primarily game planned for edge rushers like Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney over the past two weeks, Donald presents a unique challenge in his ability to collapse the pocket from the inside.
Following Super Bowl LVI, which saw Donald net two sacks against the Bengals, Cincinnati bolstered the interior of its offensive line with the signing of free agents Alex Cappa and Ted Karras, along with the selection of Cordell Volson in that spring’s NFL Draft. The trio has proven to be an area of consistency for Cincinnati’s offense, particularly during an eight-game winning streak to close out the 2022 regular season in which Cappa, Karras and Volson played nearly every offensive snap.
“It felt like we did that,” said Taylor on the team’s priority to improve its interior protection. “It’s impossible to predict how it’s going to look. We felt like those were really good fits for what we could add, and we’re fortunate that it worked out where they wanted to come play for us.”
Limiting Donald’s production on Monday night will be a key to victory for the offense as it looks to carry over momentum from the second half against Baltimore.
2. Defense looks to cool the hot hand
The Matthew Stafford-to-Puka Nacua connection has been a staple of the Rams’ offense in the first two games. Nacua, a 2023 fifth-round pick out of BYU, has burst onto the scene with an NFL-leading 25 catches for 266 yards.
Cincinnati’s secondary, which features a mix of young talent, free agent acquisitions and players returning from injury, has held up well through two weeks. The Bengals are giving up an average of 190.5 passing yards per game, and no opposing receiver has gone for more than 63 yards.
Nacua lines up everywhere for L.A. and does a majority of his work in the shallow part of the field, catching the ball an average of 6.2 yards from the line of scrimmage. His effectiveness in short-distance areas have helped the Rams lead the league in first downs per game (27.5) and third-down percentage (58.1). The Bengals’ chances to win on Monday night would increase exponentially if they can put a blanket on Nacua’s red-hot start to his career.
3. Bengals try to build on strong Mixon showings
Halfback Joe Mixon has turned in perhaps the two most consistent performances of Cincinnati’s skill players and is coming off 95 scrimmage yards (59 rushing, 36 receiving) against Baltimore. Of Mixon’s 115 total yards on the ground this season, 66 have come after contact, and Zac Taylor has lauded that physicality as it helps establish a rhythm for the offense as a whole.
“He’s done it with a ton of energy,” Taylor said. “He’s been really physical, punishing people upon contact and really feeding off the offensive line as well. They’ve done a great job setting the tone and Joe has matched that.”
While the Rams’ passing defense has excelled this season (150.5 yards allowed per game), they have given up 5.3 yards per rushing attempt, the second most leaguewide. A vintage Mixon outing that features his determined running style and willingness to fight for every yards could prove pivotal on Monday night.
4. Getting pressure on Stafford
The Rams’ offense to this point has revolved around the right arm of Matthew Stafford, who has shown no signs of slowing down in his 13th season. Stafford has the second most passing attempts in the NFL (93) and the third most passing yards (641). With a clean pocket and time to throw, the veteran gun slinger can pick apart any defense.
Los Angeles has been efficient in protecting Stafford, limiting Seattle and San Francisco to a combined one sack. For the Bengals to make him uncomfortable and possibly force errant throws, they will need their pass rushers to make an impact.
Namely, Trey Hendrickson can add to his 36.5 sacks since the start of the 2020 season — the fourth most in the league. The Pro Bowler notched one of Cincinnati’s three sacks in the season opener at Cleveland, and getting in that column again offers a way to get the Rams’ air attack off schedule.
5. Red zone defense
Last week, the Ravens came away with points in each of their four drives that reached the Bengals’ 20-yard line, including three that resulted in a touchdown. Cincinnati also had success in the red zone with a pair of TDs and a field goal, but an interception early in the third quarter turned out to be critical in the game’s outcome.
Efficiency in the red zone is often a good indicator of which team is on the winning side of any given matchup, and Monday night is no different. The Rams come in tied for the league lead in red zone touchdown percentage (83.3; five of six possessions), while the Cincinnati defense has yielded points on all seven of its opponents’ red zone trips. If Lou Anarumo’s unit is able to flip the script and make a stand in the shadow of its own end zone, it could ultimately be what leads the Bengals to their first win of the 2023 campaign.
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