The Cincinnati Bengals can’t seem to keep momentum going the way they would like to, but after a two-game winning streak came to a halt last week, they now seek to avoid a skid and begin another upward swing.
Cincinnati (7-5) hosts the San Francisco 49ers (6-6) today at Paul Brown Stadium, in a rare 4:25 p.m. home game, as the Bengals continue their quest for their first playoff berth since 2015.
The 49ers also are coming off a loss, which followed a three-game win streak that likely concerned any run defense left on their schedule. Stopping the run will be a big focus Sunday, but here’s a look at five key storylines.
1. Burrow’s pinky
Burrow played most of last week’s game with a dislocated pinky on his throwing hand and still led the Bengals on a 22-0 run to stage a comeback against the L.A. Chargers before turnovers again became an issue.
This week he eased back into practices to allow for some healing time but was going to try some different things in practice to help him with his grip. He practiced in full Friday and is expected to be ready to go.
“I would say anytime you have a finger injury on your throwing hand it’s going to take some tweaking to see how you’re going to be able to throw the ball with a finger injury but I think it didn’t hamper me too much on Sunday,” Burrow said Wednesday. “And I think it’s going to keep getting better throughout the week.”
2. Running game adjustments
This is a good test to see how far the Bengals run defense has come since surrendering 312 rushing yards to the 49ers in their last meeting in 2019. They revamped the defense since that season and now rank as the fourth best run defense in the league.
San Francisco has been dominant with its running game in Kyle Shanahan’s system, but the 49ers will be without top running back Elijah Mitchell (759 yards rushing), who is out with a concussion and knee injury. That won’t deter them. He didn’t play in the Week 11 win against Jacksonville and the team still managed 171 yards rushing, albeit against a struggling opponent, and San Francisco has multiple options in its running game, from even unlikely sources.
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel also is known to line up in the back field, though he is questionable with a groin injury. He was a limited participant in practice Friday after sitting out Wednesday and Thursday. Former Ohio State Buckeye Trey Sermon likely will get the bulk of the carries, but it doesn’t seem to matter who is running the ball – the offensive line is solid and fullback Kyle Juszczyk clears a good path.
“They’ve got a lot of variation in the run game,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “It’s not just wide zone. It’s their jet sweeps, their tosses, their gap scheme. They’ve got it all. Again, they’ve got good coaches, good players and experience in the system, and it makes it tough to defend.”
3. Linebacker injuries
The pressure will be on the linebackers today with the Bengals down to the back end of the depth chart and practice squad callups.
Logan Wilson is out today with a shoulder injury suffered in last week’s game, and Markus Bailey is doubtful after suffering a stinger moments before Wilson’s injury. The Bengals already are missing Akeem Davis-Gaither and Jordan Evans on injured reserve, so only Germaine Pratt remains among the regular contributors.
Joe Bachie stepped in for Wilson last week and likely replaces him again. Pratt will get the green dot as the communicator for the defense.
“It will be a collective effort,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “We will roll some guys through there. It’s something you hope and pray never happens to a guy like that (Wilson) at that position where he was just doing such a great job of commanding the huddle, getting guys set at the line and then his athleticism we have all seen and the way he approaches the game. The group will have to do it. I will say this, Germaine Pratt is, along with Logan, a great communicator. The guys trust in everything he does and says. D-line react to what he says immediately. I know we are confident in our guys and they will step up and do a good job.”
4. Plan of attack
The Bengals’ offense will face a challenge from the fourth best passing defense in the league, as the 49ers only allow 205.1 passing yards per game. The Burrow-led Cincinnati offense averages 245.0 passing yards per game (ranked 10th), but Tee Higgins is questionable with an ankle injury that limited him this week after coming off two big games.
Cincinnati still has the reliable Tyler Boyd and Ja’Marr Chase to keep the 49ers secondary on their toes if Higgins is out, and it could be a good day to get that running game going again with Joe Mixon. Mixon was ill with cold-like symptoms all week but watched practice Friday, and Taylor told media he anticipated Mixon could play Sunday.
The 49ers also could be impacted with starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley (ankle) and weakside linebacker Dre Greenlaw (groin) out, and backup corner Dontae Johnson questionable for personal reasons. San Francisco features one of the league’s top pass rushers in Nick Bosa, who has 12 sacks. Cornerback Josh Norman has six forced fumbles.
The Bengals’ offensive line will get back right tackle Riley Reiff and center Trey Hopkins this week.
“Their D line usually stands out first and foremost and they can wreck the game,” Taylor said. “They’ve got a really good front. They’ve always had a really good front, and even with the injuries that they have right now they still have a really good front.”
5. Waynes ready at cornerback?
Cornerback Trae Waynes returned to practice after an eight-week stint on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury, and he’s expected to be ready to play Sunday. The timing comes as Cincinnati could be missing its other starting quarterback with Chidobe Awuzie questionable with a foot injury. Awuzie got on the field for limited practice Friday.
Waynes has played in just two games since joining the Bengals as a free agent during the spring of 2020. After missing all of last year because of a pectoral tear, he was dealing with a hamstring issue to start this season but came back to play in Week 4 and 5 before getting shut down with a re-injury.
“I just think you have a veteran corner who has been a starter in this league and has been productive,” Anarumo said of Waynes on Thursday. “You look around the league, there’s a lot of people that would love to have a guy like that in the bullpen right now. While it hasn’t been ideal from a healthy standpoint, nobody is more frustrated than him. But he’s feeling much better and looking forward to seeing what he does today and how the week goes.”
49ers at Bengals, 4:25 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7
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