Sunday will see the Los Angeles Rams’ third London game in four years, and their fourth since the International Series began in 2007, while the Bengals are making their second appearance in the UK. Their first, a wild 27-27 tie with the Washington Redskins three years ago, ended in farcical fashion: both teams appeared desperate to lose in overtime with missed field goals and fumbles… but heck, I’d snap your hand off if you were offering 27 points and a draw this weekend.
Even though this game is thousands of miles away from the West Coast, it’s sort of a return home for Cincinnati’s rookie Head Coach. Zac Taylor – previously the quarterback coach in LA – is set to lock horns with his former employers and his coaching mentor, Sean McVay.
And there’s the rub. Cincinnati are desperate to resuscitate a lifeless offense, allegedly based on McVay’s scheme, that was widely tipped to transform the team. At least Cincy will finally see what our attack was supposed to look like on Sunday, albeit from the other side.
As the only 0-7 team in the league, expectations for this one are understandably low. Under the Wembley arch, Dalton et al will face a secondary boosted by the recent arrival of All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey. We will also face defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who had a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery last week, and linebacker Dante Fowler, who bagged a career-high three sacks. These two and Clay Matthews (out with a broken jaw) have 15 sacks between them this season already… as if Andy Dalton wasn’t spooked already!
The 4-3 Rams have stuttered of late, losing three straight games before bouncing back last week against the feeble Falcons, and their disappointing Super Bowl showing still smarts. Offensively, running back Todd Gurley isn’t hitting the highs of last year after a knee injury, and the front five – having gone unchanged for two whole seasons – has begun to disband through retirements and trades. And of course, there’s 37-years-young left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who wore tiger stripes the last time the teams met. Whit may be slowing down but I bet every Bengals fan wishes we’d matched the deal LA offered him a couple of years ago.
Receiver Cooper Kupp is also a worry. He currently ranks second in the NFL with 51 receptions in 2019, so expect to see him get on the end of a few Jared Goff bombs. With stand-in cornerback Tony McRae getting targeted – and burned – against the Jags, this match-up looks particularly ominous.
McVay’s offense is supposedly the template Zac Taylor is following but the version his protégé has put out so far is, quite frankly, a mess. Something needs to change. Andy Dalton needs to replicate the three touchdowns he threw against the Rams in 2015 rather than last week’s three interceptions. In the continued absence of AJ Green and John Ross, we could also do with some consistency from receivers Tyler Boyd, Alex Erickson and Auden Tate, who take it in turns to have a decent game.
I’m also going to make a bold prediction: running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard will get at least 20 (yes, TWENTY!) times as many rushing yards as last week. (OK, that’s not hard, considering they got 2 yards between them…). Mixon led the AFC in rushing last year and averaged 4.9 yards a carry. This year, he’s had three games where he’s rushed for 10 yards or less, he has no rushing TDs and he’s scraping 3 yards per attempt as he gets slammed at or behind the line of scrimmage. The body language at the end of last week’s Jaguars game suggests he’s not in a happy place.
Not surprisingly, the Bengals’ rushing offense (53 yards per game) ranks dead last in the league. But for that to improve, our patched-up and patched-together offensive line must do better at protecting Dalton and creating channels for the runners. Left tackle Andre Smith (ankle) and right guard John Miller (groin) could return, but LT Cordy Glenn didn’t travel to the UK after concussion and then suspension.
Our rushing defense ranks dead last in the league too (allowing 189 yards per game), and that 136-yard differential between offense and defense on the ground is the worst in the NFL, not just this season but since 1950! To be fair, the defense as a whole has largely kept scores down to acceptable levels and our red-zone defense is ranked in the top five. Apart from drubbings by the 49ers and the Steelers, they’ve at least given the offense a chance to win games, even with a crippling list of injuries. This currently includes defensive ends Carlos Dunlap (knee) and Carl Lawson (hamstring), and three starting corners: William Jackson III (shoulder), Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and now Darqueze Dennard, who tweaked a hamstring in his first game back after knee surgery. Not surprisingly, we re-signed DE Anthony Zettel in midweek.
Given current form, you may be surprised to learn that the Bengals lead the series 8-5, and have won the past three meetings. But back in the harsh reality of the here and now, Cincinnati are really up against it. While the Rams clearly aren’t the team they were this time last year, I doubt the Bengals will exploit any chinks in their armour.
Obviously, a first Cincy win would be welcomed after their transatlantic travels and ahead of their bye week, but there aren’t enough positive narratives – other than our punting and kick-off returns – to make that likely. We’ll need the Rams to implode (much like we did last week against the Jaguars) so unless Goff throws a couple of pick-sixes, I expect LA to romp home by more than the 13-point margin most bookies are predicting.
Prediction: Bengals 13, Rams 30
Feature Picture – Credit: Sam Greene