The Cincinnati Bengals run of good form has shown off some of the team’s best coverage performances this season. Against Eli Manning, Brady Quinn, Matt Cassel and Carson Palmer, the Bengals gave up just 549 yards, one touchdown, and created five turnovers (three interceptions and two quarterback fumbles).
The Bengals’ play in the secondary has been pivotal for the team in allowing below 10 points per game. What makes those numbers even more impressive is the fact that the Bengals were playing with leads for much of those games so teams were forced to pass the ball. The above numbers were earned on 110 pass attempts.
As already noted in a previous article, the Bengals’ biggest concern with their secondary is their size. Three of the primary four cornerbacks are shorter than 6’0, while rookie Dre Kirkpatrick is the only cornerback with a real physical presence. Kirkpatrick stands at 6’2 and came out of college as one of the most intimidating tacklers at his position.
However, injuries have derailed Kirkpatrick’s first season, as he has been working his way back to fitness and only played one snap last week against the Oakland Raiders. Kirkpatrick has played just 43 snaps on the season, but did play 27 of those against the Kansas City Chiefs, who have bigger receivers than the other teams they have played as of late.
The size of the Bengals’ cornerbacks comes up again this week because the San Diego Chargers specialize in big receivers who can go deep. Even after letting Vincent Jackson go, the Chargers will still enter this game with starters Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd, who both stand at 6’5, ahead of Seyi Ajirotutu, 6’3, and Robert Meachem, 6’2, on the depth chart. Furthermore, tight end Lardarius Green is 6’6, Antonio Gates and Dante Rosario are 6’4 and Randy McMichael is 6’3.
With those obvious discrepancies between the individuals on each unit, the Bengals’ cornerbacks will have to play very good, aggressive coverage to prevent Philip Rivers from having a huge day. They should be aided by a defensive line that has the edge on paper over the Chargers’ offensive line, but Rivers won’t need much time in the pocket, because the Chargers will have size advantages all over the field.
Floyd is the team’s primary option, but he towers over the Bengals’ best cornerback, Leon Hall, so expect him to be covered by Nate Clements. Hall should still retain his position across from Clements however, which will push Terence Newman further down the depth chart.
Newman has played the most snaps of any Bengals’ defensive back this year, but Kirkpatrick would be a better match in this game despite his inexperience on the field. The Bengals took Kirkpatrick in the first round because they believed that he could be a difference-maker, they must trust him on the field at this point even if it is just a little.
While Floyd is the most important wide receiver, Gates’ presence at tight end is always potentially game-changing. By using Kirkpatrick on him in man coverage situations, with safety help over the top, the Bengals would be able to reroute Gates with a physical underneath presence who could also run with the tight end in space. Gates will overpower most defensive backs and run away from linebackers. Kirkpatrick is the perfect mixture of both.
How Mike Zimmer approaches the Chargers’ offense will be very interesting. He will definitely mix up coverages in the hopes of taking advantage of Rivers’ tendency to force the football into tight windows, but from a sheer matchup perspective it appears that he will have a difficult job on his hands preparing his team for this game.