A little less than a month ago, the Bengals were sitting at 5-2 and the top seed in the AFC playoff picture. After a couple of tough losses to the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns in back-to-back weeks, Cincinnati has fallen out of the postseason standings and currently holds the eighth spot in the conference.
So, there’s a lot on the line this Sunday, and winning the matchups below will play a big factor in not only the game but the trajectory for the rest of Las Vegas’ season.
Kolton Miller vs Trey Hendrickson
I think it has a lot to do with the Raiders’ offensive line struggling as a whole this year, but Kolton Miller isn’t getting the recognition he deserves this season.
Miller has only allowed 16 pressures this year and is tied with Trent Williams and Dion Dawkins for the 20th-best pass-blocking efficiency rating (97.7) among offensive tackles, per Pro Football Focus. Of those 16 pressures, the 2018 first-round pick has only allowed two to be a sack or a QB hit, and he’s on pace to set a career-low in total pressures surrendered even with the extra game this season.
The cherry on top of this is Miller’s 86.5 PFF pass-blocking grade is not only a personal best but also ranks fourth at the position. That, combined with the limited amount of sacks and hits he’s allowed, means that even on the rare occasions when he does lose, his losses aren’t dramatically impacting the team’s passing attack.
However, that will be put to the test this Sunday.
After finishing tied with Aaron Donald for the second-most sacks (13.5) in the league last year, Trey Hendrickson earned a healthy four-year, $60 million contract with the Bengals in the offseason. He’s now nine games into that deal and has lived up to the contract so far.
Hendrickson’s 8.5 sacks this year rank seventh in the league, and he’s managed to get to the quarterback at least once in seven out of nine games. Also, he’s on pace to shatter his personal record of 50 pressures in a season as the free-agent signing already has 42 on the campaign, the eighth-most among edge rushers.
All of this makes for one interesting heavyweight bout this weekend, especially since both players have similar skill sets. Hendrickson is a good athlete which helps him win as a rusher, but he does struggle against the run, and Miller is also athletic but run-blocking isn’t his strong suit. So, it’ll be a matter of who gives in first.
Casey Hayward vs Ja’Marr Chase
This has been the case for a lot of Las Vegas’ players, but Casey Hayward has had a fall from grace over the team’s last few games.
In Weeks 1-5, he was PFF’s highest-graded corner (89.0) and allowed just five receptions on 15 targets for 39 total yards. In the four games since then, his coverage grade has been 54.0, which ranks 84th in that timeframe, and he’s surrendered eight of 13 targets for 104 yards.
All-in-all, Hayward is still having a fine season as PFF’s 13th ranked corner in coverage - 76.0 mark for the entire season - so it’s reasonable to assume that the last few weeks have just been a rough patch. However, he’s going to need to turn things around quickly with Ja’Marr Chase coming into town.
The rookie has taken the league by storm with the fifth-most receiving yards (835) and touchdowns (7) in the league, due in large part to his ability to make plays down the field. On targets 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, he ranks either first or tied for first among wideouts in receptions (9), yards (375) and touchdowns (4), and he also has the fourth-highest yards per reception (19.0) in general at the position.
However, one area of weaknesses in Chase’s game is his ability to come down with contested catches. On the season, he’s only managed to haul in five catches on 17 contested targets, which comes out to a 29.4 percent success rate that’s 84th out of 101 qualifying receivers.
What that means is if Hayward can at least stay in-phase when Chase runs deep, there’s a pretty good chance the pass will either go elsewhere or fall incomplete, and either option is a win for the Silver and Black. The problem is, the wideout is an excellent separator and staying attached to him is proving to be easier said than done.
Yannick Ngakoue vs Jonah Williams
Yannick Ngakoue is not only proving to be one of the Raiders’ best free-agent signings this offseason, but also one of the best in the NFL overall.
Among edges, Ngakoue ranks ninth with 41 pressures, 20th in pass-rush win rate at 18.3 percent and is tied for 20th in PFF’s PRP formula with a mark of 8.4. His speed off the edge has filled a void that had been present on the team’s defense for several years, and he’s been the perfect complementary piece to Maxx Crosby.
Now it’s just a matter of the offseason acquisition maintaining this pace as the competition picks up and Las Vegas attempts to get over the hump and make a postseason run. In other words, this weekend’s game is exactly why the organization brought him in.
During the draft, there was a lot of discussion about Cincinnati’s offensive line and many felt they should take Penei Sewell, the top offensive tackle prospect. However, they opted to pass on Sewell in part because they already have an impressive young tackle in Jonah Williams.
Like Miller, Williams has only surrendered 16 pressures on the year, and coincidentally, they’re both from the Sacramento, CA area. However, unlike Miller, seven of Williams’ 16 pressures have been either a sack or QB hit, and the latter’s pass protection grade is a respectable 68.0 but certainly not in the same tier as the former’s.
So, while the Folsom native doesn’t lose often when he does, he loses big, and if Ngakoue can win around the edge against him, it will likely lead to at least a hit on quarterback Joe Burrow. Given the pass rusher’s ability to create strip-sacks, that could lead to some momentum-altering plays in the game.