The Cincinnati Bengals will make their second visit of the season to MetLife Stadium on Monday looking to stay a half game out of first place in the AFC North with a victory against the New York Giants.
It was a disappointing first half of the season on many levels, but the Bengals have been given a reprieve by the struggles of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
A win on Monday Night Football would be just what the team needs to spark a turnaround, while a loss would drop the Bengals deeper in a hole that might be too tough to escape.
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Here are six things to watch when the Bengals and Giants kick off in prime time:
Changes in the air
When defensive coordinator Paul Guenther hinted at changes after the bye, he wasn’t talking about benching players with straight-out swaps. What he was referring to giving some of the younger players more snaps. Maybe a handful, maybe a dozen, maybe more.
Three players expected to see more action Monday are rookie linebacker Nick Vigil, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and defensive end Will Clarke.
On the surface, the signing of defensive end Wallace Gilberry would appear to be a hit to the playing time of Clarke, but that might not be the case. Gilberry hasn’t played in more than a month, so he’ll likely be used as a nickel pass rusher, leaving Clarke to split time with starter Michael Johnson in the standard rotation.
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Dennard should see the biggest bump in snaps. The 2014 No. 1 pick has had injury issues in the past but heads into this game healthy, and Josh Shaw seems better suited to play safety than slot corner, which could be one of the most important positions on the field against a Giants team that relies heavily on short, quick passes.
Guenther could use Shaw to rest Shawn Williams, who has played 95.5 percent of the snaps this season, for a series or two.
Vigil isn’t likely to see his workload increase much, even with the Maualuga injury, but Guenther wants to see what the third-rounder can do. Vigil, who has only played 11 snaps this year, should see some time in dime sets.
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Take advantage of turnovers
Getting the Giants to cough up the football hasn't been much a challenge this season. New York ranks 29th with a minus-7 turnover differential and only two teams have lost more fumbles than the Giants' eight.
Not many teams can overcome that kind of carelessness to have a winning record, but the Giants defense has been solid in sudden-change situations, holding opponents to field goals or no score at all on five the last seven turnovers by the offense. Philadelphia failed to get points on either New York turnover last week despite starting at its own 40 and the Giants 34.
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The Bengals have hardly been an opportunistic offense this season, converting only one opponent turnover into a touchdown, and that was late in the 28-14 loss at Dallas.
The other nine turnovers the defense has forced have resulted in four punts, two field goals, two end-of-game kneel downs and a fumble back to the offense on an interception return.
Bottling up Beckham
Cornerbacks Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dennard and Shaw all are expected to take their turns covering Giants Pro Bowl wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and they hope to have their hands full. Not in the figurative sense, but the literal one.
One of the biggest issues from the first half of the season was poor tackling in the secondary, including many instances where the defensive backs were lift grasping at air after flat-out whiffs.
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If that happens Monday night, Beckham — along with rookie Sterling Shepard and, if healthy, Victor Cruz — could have huge nights. Beckham makes a lot of highlights with his ridiculous catches, but he’s most dangerous on the run after catching the ball. He ranks fifth among wide receivers with 268 yards after catch.
Red zone vs. dead zone
The greatest growth the Bengals have shown through the first eight weeks has been in the red zone. Part of that is because there was nowhere to go but up after ranking dead last in the league in touchdown percentage through the first four weeks.
The Bengals have converted seven of their last 10 red-zone trips into touchdowns to rise to 19th, but Monday they face a Giants team that is No. 1 in red-zone defense.
In a game that figures to be high scoring, Andy Dalton and the Bengals offense cannot afford to settle for field goals when they get inside the 20.
Double on 10
While the Bengals likely have their sights set higher, the magic number for the pass rush Monday night will be 2.
The Giants have lost 18 of the last 21 games when quarterback Eli Manning has been sacked at least twice, and the Bengals saw first-hand what pressure can do to the possible Hall of Famer four years ago in a 31-13 domination in which they sacked him four times and intercepted him twice.
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The Cincinnati defense ranks 21st in sacks with 16, which is exactly two per game. If the Bengals can hit their average, they could be on their way to a much-needed win.
Monday night malaise
The Bengals are 11-22 on Monday Night Football, including 4-6 under Marvin Lewis.
Cincinnati is 3-17 in Monday night road games, including six losses in a row. The last time the Bengals won a road game on Monday night was Oct. 22, 1990, a 34-13 triumph at Cleveland.