Herbert, Ekeler a big challenge for Bengals’ defense

CINCINNATI -- Logan Wilson sees Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekler as just the kind of challenge that makes a coverage linebacker like himself valuable to the Cincinnati Bengals defense.

The Bengals liked Wilson’s ability as a three-down linebacker with strengths in stopping the run and pass, and that will come into play Sunday when the Chargers come to Paul Brown Stadium.

Ekler has become one of the best pass-catching running backs in the league, and Cincinnati will have to manage him while also being aware of quarterback Justin Herbert’s ability to make plays with his legs and also on the deep ball.

“He’s tough,” Wilson said of Ekler on Thursday. “I mean, obviously you got to worry about him first and foremost as a runner, but then his ability to make plays in the passing game is always tough so I think that with what we have game planned, we’re going to match up with that well, but it’s never an easy task going into a back like that they can catch the ball out of the backfield like that and make plays with his feet.”

The last time the Bengals faced Ekler, in the 2020 season opener, he rushed for 84 yards on 19 carries and had just one reception for three yards. He’s in the midst of his best season rushing with a career-high 604 yards on the ground through 11 games. His previous high was 557 yards in 16 games but only eight starts in 2019. That year, he caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns, and he is on a nice pace this season with 473 yards and seven touchdowns on 51 receptions.

Cincinnati struggled earlier this season against offenses that were able to throw screens and underneath stuff to either a tight end or running back. That was how the New York Jets beat the Bengals, and Cleveland did it to some extent as well, while Nick Chubb also broke loose for a big game on the ground.

The Bengals have been better in those situations the last two weeks, and Wilson said it was a matter of learning from their mistakes.

“Basically just not getting as much depth, away from (the running back) and understanding that that’s the guy that I need to be worried about the most,” Wilson said in his best explanation of what he did to correct his own errors.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been pleased with the way the Bengals have stopped the run the last two games, especially against Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris last week, even with a light box. Wilson said that was possible because of the dominant performances of the defensive linemen in front of him and third-year linebacker Germaine Pratt.

“Basically, you’ve got to try to bleed plays in a sense and make them last longer than they want to, to allow the guys in the back end to be able to close the ground between the ball carrier,” Wilson said. “I think so far, we’ve been pretty successful in that. It’s definitely not easy to do, though, because there’s a lot of times where guys are kind of two-gapping in a sense, and that’s not easy to do.

“So, you’re tearing one gap for one play, and then if the ball comes back, you gotta be able to get off the block and make a play. And then bleeding in is just having guys letting (the running back) bounce around back there before he makes a true cut and gets up the field. And that just allows those guys in the backend to get close to space and make plays.”

The Bengals have their gameplan to attack Ekler, but Herbert is another problem. He leads the league in total quarterback rating (65.9), has the most game-winning drives (five) and comebacks (five) and he’s among the top four in passing yards with 3,230.

L.A. has the receivers to get down field as well with Keenan Allen sitting at 895 yards and Mike Williams at 744 yards. Herbert also gets tight end Jared Cook into the mix a fair amount.

“I think he’s a really good quarterback and he’s still young,” free safety Jessie Bates said of Herbert. “I think sometimes once you disguise a little bit you kind of get him to slow down. He uses his feet, which he’s really good at, so it kind of helps him out from being a younger guy. A lot of times these young guys come in and they don’t see the first read. They kind of just crumble up. He does a really good job of getting out of the pocket and extending plays. So, I think he’s a really elite quarterback that will continue to evolve into one of the best ones you’ll see.”

Bates said the Bengals relish another chance to prove themselves on defense and make a difference for the team down the stretch toward a playoff run.

“I wouldn’t say we look forward to the other teams, but yeah, we do know what’s to come,” Bates said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of offense it is. Every week this thing is going to continue to raise. The standard, the hype of the game, every time we have success week in and week out there are going to continue to be more expectations for us. That’s a good thing. We haven’t had that feeling in a long time here so I think we are ready for it.”


Chargers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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