Bengals open 2nd half of season at Raiders: 5 storylines to watch

Cleveland Browns' John Johnson (43) recovers a fumble during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Caption
Cleveland Browns' John Johnson (43) recovers a fumble during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Credit: Bryan Woolston

Credit: Bryan Woolston

The Cincinnati Bengals lost steam going into the bye week with back-to-back disappointing losses, but the players insist the break was helpful in resetting and refreshing them for the second half of the season.

The Bengals hope to buck the organization’s history of struggling after the bye when they travel to play the Las Vegas Raiders (5-4) on Sunday. Cincinnati has lost five consecutive post-bye games, and the team is 2-7 in games immediately after the bye since 2012 with some of its most lopsided defeats of those seasons.

Last year, the Bengals lost 36-10 to the Steelers after the bye. In 2019 it was a 49-13 blowout against the Ravens.

Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:

1. Cleaning up turnovers

The Bengals had three turnovers in a 41-16 loss to the Browns in Week 9, including Joe Burrow’s 10th and 11th interceptions, and a fumble by Ja’Marr Chase. The team now has a minus-four turnover margin, ranking among the bottom eight in the league, and Burrow leads the NFL in interceptions thrown after recording just five in 10 games last season.

Burrow has had three multi-pick games in 2021.

The Raiders will try to make things difficult with the pass rush, featuring two strong defensive ends in Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby, who combine for 11 sacks and 33 quarterback hits. Safeties Jonathan Abram and Trevon Moehrig have been the most consistent contributors in the secondary, each accounting for an interception. Starting left cornerback Brandon Facyson (finger/hamstring) is questionable, and one of his backups in Keisean Nixon (ankle/foot) is out. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (ankle) also is out.

“We’ve played a lot of really, really good defensive ends, but they’re up there,” Burrow said. “They really have high motors and you can’t take any plays off because they’re gonna make you pay. They’re good on the back end and so they line up the big plays and they get their opportunities when the quarterbacks holding the ball, they’re gonna get home so you just gotta be aware of that.”

2. Eliminating explosive pass plays

Cincinnati’s defense will need to be aware of quarterback Derek Carr’s ability to go deep but also for his receivers to be able to turn intermediate passes into big plays.

Carr leads the league with 47 completions for more than 20 yards, and although he lost his best deep threat with Henry Ruggs’ facing felony charges for his role in a fatal crash, there are plenty of other options to cause concerns for the Bengals.

Tight end Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow are among the best at their positions, each amassing 494 yards receiving. Bryan Edwards, Zay Jones and newcomer DeSean Jackson also could create problems for a Cincinnati defense that struggled with explosive plays the last two games.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Eli Apple remains the starting cornerback with Trae Waynes still out with a hamstring injury, despite criticism from fans unhappy with Apple’s performance.

“I think he does what we ask him to do,” Taylor said. “I don’t know who has got him under fire. We expect our guys to play at a high level and Eli’s got a short memory. If you give up a play that corners are going to give up, he does a great job of kind of putting that away and moving on to the next play.”

The Raiders also have running back Josh Jacobs healthy after dealing with a knee injury earlier in the week to help the ground attack, which will be missing fullback Alec Ingold (knee) and possibly Jalen Richard (rib).

3. Linebacker/special teams concerns

The Bengals have questions at linebacker with Akeem Davis-Gaither (foot) joining Jordan Evans (knee) on injured reserve, but they got Markus Bailey back from the COVID list Thursday and signed linebacker Austin Calitro, who had been with them in the 2020 offseason, to the practice squad, and claimed former Carolina linebacker Clay Johnston off waivers.

Davis-Gaither and Evans played big roles on special teams, as did safety Brandon Wilson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Browns, so coordinator Darrin Simmons is scrambling to fill roles. The Bengals signed safety Michael J. Thomas from the practice squad to the active roster to help as well.

“Those guys all have to step up and make some plays for not only on defense being ready to go, but on special teams as well,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said.

4. Run, run, run

The Raiders haven’t been great against the run, so this might be a game for Joe Mixon to get going. They have allowed 129.1 rushing yards per game (27th worst), but limit opponents to 231.0 yards passing (12th).

Mixon has 636 yards rushing this season but hasn’t topped 100 yards in any game since Week 1.

The Bengals will be looking to turn up the ground game going forward anyway as that’s the tendency in cold weather games. Las Vegas plays indoors and that won’t be an issue there Sunday but it might be a chance to take advantage of a weakness from the Raiders.

“Springing a long 50 yard run and going back to the ground and getting 3, 4, 5 yards a carry, springing another one, that’s demoralizing for a team to watch that happen,” C.J. Uzomah said. “As an offense, you watch that happen and are like dang, here we go again. As a defense, that keeps happening and you’re like here we go again. That’s the winning mentality, December, they’re going to remember us in December, that’s the ‘we’re going to be a playoff team and make a run’. That’s the mentality I see with this team, the hard-nosed, we’re going to get after you mentality.”

5. Coming back strong

The Bengals want to set the tone for the second half of the season with a strong performance Sunday, though history shows they tend to struggle coming out of the bye.

Uzomah said he didn’t see any impact of a pause creating a lull in practices.

“We had a really good day of practice (Monday) because some people can have that bye-week hangover, right?” Uzomah said. “‘Man, I got to go to the beach or spend time with the family and now we have to (return).’ We were on it. And again, that’s a tribute to this team and what we’re wanting to do and who we’re wanting to be as a team. I think it’s a great thing. I was super happy to be able to kick my feet up, watch some football, get my body right as much as I could and spend time with friends and family. If I’m betting on us, then I’m saying that’s a good thing for us, to have this bye right now.”

TODAY’S GAME

Bengals at Raiders, 4:05 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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