The Cincinnati Bengals play host to the visiting San Francisco 49ers this Sunday in a scheduled 1:00 PM contest at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The Bengals have been made three-point favorites playing at home.
Both teams in this matchup are gradually improving after years of mediocrity. San Francisco, in particular, has been the trendy pick to make a move in the weak NFC West for several seasons. The hope is that a new coaching staff, headed by coach Jim Harbaugh, may be the answer, and early returns are favorable, although much work remains to be done. After an impressive opening day win over division rival Seattle, the 49ers suffered a heart-breaking overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week Two, 27-24. Heart-breaking because San Francisco dominated for most of the game, owning leads of 14-0 and 24-14, as well as knocking Dallas QB Tony Romo out of the game with a fractured rib, only to see the gritty signal-caller return late in the third quarter, eventually leading the Cowboys to victory.
Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, has a reputation of being one of the game's premier developers of signal-callers. In San Francisco, his project is former #1 overall draft pick Alex Smith, now in his seventh season. Against Dallas, Smith went 16 for 24 for 179 yards and two touchdowns. His biggest obstacle was finding the time to find his "hot" receiver and avoiding the sack. Cowboy defenders got to him for six sacks, which obviously wasn't all his fault. The 49ers definitely need to shore up the offensive line. The ground game against Dallas was barely adequate, gaining just 74 yards on 24 carries, led by veteran RB Frank Gore's 20 carries for 47 yards, although he did score a touchdown. The Niners need some change-of-pace from RBs Kendall Hunter and/or Anthony Dixon, if for no other reason than to give Gore some relief. San Francisco has a nice stable of receivers in Braylon Edwards, Ted Ginn, Jr. and injured Michael Crabtree. Crabtree is the ascendant star of this bunch, but until his injured foot allows him to take the field, the others will have to do. Also, TE Vernon Davis is right on the cusp of being an All-Pro.
Defensively, the 49ers are interesting, to say the least. MLB Patrick Willis has been anointed the best young linebacker in the game, while LB Ahmad Brooks and DE Justin Smith are at their peaks. After two games, the Niners lead the league in run defense, giving up a remarkably stingy 54.5 yards per game. The secondary is another issue altogether, but the coaching staff is working hard to get them up to a level close to the front seven.
Cincinnati, 1-1 after two weeks, has been very much in both games, dominating the Browns in Week One, while mounting a second-half comeback against Denver, but falling short, 24-22.
Rookie QB Andy Dalton was most impressive versus the Broncos, connecting on 27 of 41 pass attempts for 332 yards and two touchdowns, while his receivers, rookie WR A.J. Green (10 catches, 124 yards, 1 TD) and Jerome Simpson (4 catches, 136 yards) were effective, albeit working against a Denver secondary that was patchwork due to injuries. If both Dalton and Green continue to mature and stay injury-free, the Bengals might have their best combo since Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. Cincinnati's ground game wasn't nearly as impressive, gaining only 72 yards on 20 carries, but in their defense, the Bengals largely abandoned the ground game after falling behind.
Defensively, Cincinnati bent quite a bit, but rarely broke. Their pass defense is solid, if young, and the linebacking corps is loaded with athletes such as Rey Maualuga, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson. It's the front line that is in need of either improvement or upgrading, and unless this happens, the DL will continue to be their weakness.
This should be a very entertaining contest, with plenty of young talent on both teams, and on both sides of the ball. A lot of points will probably be put up, and the defense that stiffens up when needed will definitely have the upper hand.