The Bengals are looking for their first three-game win streak of the season, and coach Zac Taylor told media Friday “now’s a chance to gain some real momentum” toward a playoff spot.
Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:
1. Run for it
Joe Mixon has rushed for more than 100 yards in two straight games and had a career day against the Steelers with 165 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. He could be in store for another big game as the Chargers have the worst run defense in the league (145.3 rushing yards per game).
Mixon needs just 76 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, which would be his third time achieving that milestone in five NFL seasons.
“When he gets going and he’s confident and he’s running downhill, I don’t think anyone can stop him,” tight end Drew Sample said. “When we’re able to give him some lanes up front, give him some room to make that cut and hit that hole, he’s dangerous, I think the most dangerous back in the league. It’s always fun when you start to see games like that. Some games, they’re grimy games. Five, three, four, two yard runs and then we’ll hit a 10-yarder and in some games you kind of get those bigger, explosive plays. We’re just trying to put him in the best spot for him to be the player that he is and credit to the O-line, the receivers and everyone for trying to get that going.”
2. Test for Burrow
Sample and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan both noted that the stats for the Chargers run defense are somewhat skewed because of how good they are in the pass defense. Often opponents have to turn to the run to have any success on offense against L.A.
The Chargers rank fifth while allowing just 204.9 passing yards per game. Part of that is pressure from players like defensive end Joey Bosa (7.5 sacks), but safety Derwin James is another key.
“You can tell they really want to take away big plays,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “That’s kind of a common theme across the league this year when teams are playing us. They want to take away big plays, because of the guys we have on the outside, so we’re going to have to take our opportunities where we get them. We’re not going to just run the ball and dink and dunk, we have to take some shots. We also have to be smart. Derwin is one of the best players in the league. He’s fun to watch on tape. He makes a lot of plays and really impacts the game.”
The Chargers will be without cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (concussion) and safety Alohi Gilman (quad), as both were ruled out for the game. Those are their lone two injuries.
3. Opportunity for defense
The Bengals face some strong offenses in the back end of the schedule. The Chargers bring their own set of challenges.
Quarterback Justin Herbert, who was drafted No. 6 overall in 2020 despite once being talked about as the No. 1 pick, has the top total quarterback rating in the league and ranks fourth in passing yards with 3,230 to go along with 24 touchdowns. He’s got wide receivers Keenan Allen (895 yards receiving) and Mike Williams (744 yards receiving), and running back Austin Ekeler is a threat out of the backfield on the ground and through the air. Ekeler has 604 yards rushing and 473 yards receiving.
“It certainly doesn’t get any easier during this stretch but our focus has got to just remain on the Chargers and it is,” Taylor said. “That’s all that’s going around this building. What Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler and this whole group of offense brings to the table, and trust me, there’s no one looking past that. … They’re capable, they have tons of weapons. Tight ends, backs, great quarterback. And so it’s a challenge and we will not look past them for one second and this is the biggest game of the season to this point.”
4. Offensive line questions
Taylor said right tackle Riley Reiff and center Trey Hopkins will be game-time decisions with ankle injuries leaving them questionable. Both did not practice all week, but Taylor had indicated Wednesday that was the plan at least for Wednesday and Thursday and the team was still hoping they could be available.
Hopkins has gone through full weeks without practicing this season because of his quick recovery from ACL surgery, but if he can’t play Sunday, rookie Trey Hill would get the nod. If Reiff can’t go, Isaiah Prince would get his first start and what a matchup he could face with Bosa.
“He’s earned every right to be the swing tackle,” Callahan said of Prince. “He had a good camp and a good preseason and as he’s getting roles in our heavy packages and things like that as the extra tight end, he’s done a nice job. He dumped a guy that last game on the perimeter once, and he’s been steady in that role. When he gets a chance at some point to play here or wherever his career takes him, I think he’ll be a very solid tackle.”
5. Other concerns
The Bengals already have some issues with punt and kick returns because of Brandon Wilson being on injured reserve and Darius Phillips struggling at times, but now Phillips is battling back from knee and calf issues. He practiced in full Thursday and Friday after being out Wednesday so it seems he is good to go, but if he has a setback, the options are getting thin in the return game. Chris Evans (ankle) is doubtful and would have been considered otherwise. Pooka Williams could be called upon if needed.
Cincinnati also is thin at the receiver spot beyond the starting three. Auden Tate is dealing with a calf injury after thigh problems previously, and he and Mike Thomas (illness) are both doubtful. Defensive end Khalid Kareem also is doubtful because of illness.
Chargers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7