When the Cincinnati Bengals roam into RingCentral Coliseum to take on the Raiders on Sunday afternoon, there will be a clear favorite — by 11 points.
That’s because the Bengals are 0-9, starting a rookie quarterback, and without their best player, while the Raiders are 5-4 and making a legitimate playoff push.
Cincinnati is starting an offensive line full of guys even draft nerds don’t know either because they really don’t remember them, or because there’s no way they should be starting in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ DVOA, they are 32nd in run blocking, and marginally better in pass protection, coming in at 19th.
That’s a big part of how the Bengals got to this point in the season as the front-runners for the No. 1 pick in a year where the Miami Dolphins were clearly tanking and several other teams are in disaster mode.
This week’s key matchups are less about matchups that might give the Raiders problems and more about finding matchups the Raiders can exploit to run away with this game early.
RB Josh Jacobs vs. LBs Nick Vigil & Germaine Pratt
Earlier this week, the Bengals released linebacker Preston Brown, giving Germaine Pratt the opportunity to work opposite Nick Vigil at linebacker in Cincinnati’s base 4-2-5 defense.
Brown wasn’t great, but he was starting over Pratt. Vigil is a low-end starter at best. Neither are particularly great at covering people, nor does either profile as a run stuffer.
While the Raiders probably want to avoid running Josh Jacobs into the ground, especially this time of year when rookies start to hit the proverbial “rookie wall,” it’s hard to not want to feature him in this game, especially in the passing game.
To that end, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington could see a lot of opportunities both in the run and pass game. And playing against a 4-2-5 should also give Alec Ingold a chance to lay the wood quite a few times.
TE Darren Waller vs. Shawn Williams & Jessie Bates III
Assuming the Bengals don’t choose to put William Jackson III on Waller, it presents a massive opportunity for the third-year tight end to have a big day. As bad as the Bengals’ defense has been, Jackson has been a bright spot.
It is quite possible the Bengals decide to go in that direction and this becomes a moot point. Or, they could decide to use him to just lock down one side of the field (their normal plan of attack) and take their chances with a rolled-up safety in the box on Waller.
The breakout tight end could also see one of the aforementioned linebackers across from him on some snaps. None of those players can routinely cover him one-on-one.
And if they do go Jackson on Waller, that obviously opens up plenty of opportunities for the likes of Hunter Renfrow, Tyrell Williams, and Zay Jones — or even Trevor Davis.
DE Maxx Crosby vs. RT Bobby Hart
Rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby has been a menace the past few games rushing the passer and there’s little reason to expect that to change this week. Frankly, I could have put “Any Raiders DE” versus Hart or LT Cordy Glenn and this would ring true.
Yes, the Bengals’ are better at pass protection than run blocking, but they’re still not good at either. Both tackles are awful and that’s probably puttinlyg it nice.
The interior of the Bengals’ offensive line is no better, and that’s where Gruden’s comments on Friday about using Dion Jordan as an interior rusher are so intriguing. If the Raiders get Crosby, Clelin Ferrell, and Jordan on the field at the same time, it’s almost impossible to imagine rookie Ryan Finley feeling comfortable in the pocket.
More likely, Finley would be running for his life.
The Raiders need to win these three matchups, and win them handily. Doing so should result in an easy win by NFL standards.
Not doing so would allow a bad team to hang around in a game they have no right to be in.