Here are five keys to the game heading into this week's match between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers.
1. Gang Up on Mixon – Joe Mixon has firmly established himself as one of the game's top running backs as he's in the midst of a standout second season. The Bengals' second round pick a year ago out of Oklahoma has toted the rock 154 times for 755 yards and five touchdowns. He's averaging an impressive 4.9 yards per carry, and boasts a wide array of moves to embarrass would-be tacklers. At 6-1, 220-pounds, he's big enough to barrel over you while possessing explosive athleticism to make you look silly. Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley knows the Bolts have their hands full when it comes to Mixon, stressing how they'll need all 11 hats to the ball to mitigate his damage. In fact, Bradley compared Mixon to one of the best running backs of the past two decades:
"His ability to accelerate through a hole is something that jumps out at you. He can jump cut. That part reminded me of Fred Taylor. The ability to start in the A gap and get to the edge like that. So, you know, we looked at it, and no doubt he's one of the top running backs we've faced. That's not even a question. His average per attempt and things like that are high. He's strong. He's physical. He can make you miss. The jump cut. The acceleration. If you just pulled up their explosive plays and look at their explosive runs he's had, and we look at running style each day, well, it's not hard to find those this week because of him."
2. Drill Driskel – Sunday marks Jeff Driskel's second-straight start after taking over for Andy Dalton, who is out for the year with a thumb injury. Cincinnati's QB is completing 64.9-percent of his passes, and he boasts some impressive weapons led by Tyler Boyd, who has hauled in 69 catches for 938 yards and six touchdowns. Clearly, Driskel can do some damage when he's comfortable in the pocket, so it's up to Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and the rest of the defense to make sure he's constantly under duress. That was the case a week ago when Driskel was sacked four times while losing one fumble. While he didn't begin the year as the starter, Head Coach Anthony Lynn explained why the Bolts have a ton of respect for Driskel:
"He's a young quarterback in this league. He has a lot of ability and a lot of talent. He doesn't have the experience of Andy, but he's a heck of an athlete. He can run around and make plays with his legs. He can throw, he has a big arm.… He can do all of those things, the zone-read, run-pass option. I'm sure they'll do more of that this week with him, but he also has a big arm. He can throw the ball around pretty well, too."
3. Protect! – On the flip side, the Chargers must do an excellent job of protecting Philip Rivers from the Bengals' ferocious defensive line. Stalwarts like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are up to their usual tricks as both men are tied for the team lead with 7.0 sacks. While Cincy's linebacker corps has been hit hard by injuries, they still possess a dangerous front seven capable of wrecking a game. Rivers has gone up against a number of these Bengals playmakers over the years, and he went in-depth explaining what makes this defense dangerous:
"Those guys (Atkins and Dunlap have been there for some time. They're good players. Pro Bowl players. They've had some injuries. There have been some guys shuffling in and out and in some other places. They have a handful of first rounders in the secondary. This is a team that started off at the top of that division and hit a bump in the road. Obviously, they've dealt with some injuries on the other side of the ball as well. This is a team that we have a lot of respect for. As you hear me say every week, it's the NFL. This is a defense that we have respect for and we know that AFC North is a tough division. They're physical, they fly around and are competitive. We'll have to rise to the challenge on Sunday."
4. Speed Kills – Despite only having 16 catches on the season, John Ross impacts the Bengals' passing game on so many different levels. First is his ability to create explosive plays on his own as five of his catches have been for touchdowns. However, the way he stretches the defense opens everything up underneath. As Lynn outlined, the Chargers have to be mindful of his big-play ability as Ross posted the fastest 40-yard dash time in the history of the NFL Combine (4.22):
"Ross can score from anywhere on the field. He's probably the biggest deep threat in the National Football League right now with his 4.22 speed, or whatever he ran at the Combine. It was the fastest 40-yard dash I've ever seen at the Combine, I can tell you that."
In addition, Bradley explained the strain the second-year wideout puts on the opposition, not only in trying to limit his catches, but also the impact it has on the rest of the passing game:
"A lot of strain because of his speed. He has the ability to stretch the field vertically. Every week you have guys like that that have elite speed. But he might have the most elite speed in his ability to run. So, he can take the top off the defense. Again, it's just building awareness to where he's at on the field and his abilities."
5. No Looking Ahead – I've written well over 100 Keys to the Game over the years, but I've never been more certain that one was going to come true than this one. The Chargers play two games in the span of five days, and regardless of who is on the schedule, teams are often asked how they prepare for a pair of games that close together. Well, throw in the fact that Thursday night's game is against the Kansas City Chiefs, and you can understand why the Bolts have been asked repeatedly about whether they are peeking ahead at their AFC West rivals. The good news is that, to a man, they have vigorously explained how their attention is solely on the Bengals. They know that if they aren't fully focused on a dangerous Bengals team still in the playoff hunt, then they'll have no chance to fend off Cincy. Here's what Head Coach Anthony Lynn said when asked about his team's focus:
"We have to lock in this week. These guys have done a really good job of staying in the present. Right now, the one thing that we can do is work on the team that we have on Sunday and do the best we can to beat Cincinnati."