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Three-Down Back: A trio of things to watch for against the Cincinnati Bengals

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The Chargers could use all the momentum in the world heading into KC next week

Denver Broncos v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

As much I would love to sit and float around in the ecstasy that came with the last second victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers until the end of time, we must do what every good football team does and finally divert our attention to the upcoming opponent, no matter how much of a breeze the match-up looks to be.

Up next on the docket for the Chargers are the Cincinnati Bengals and the short-circuited invisible fence that they call a defense. This Bengals team will also be without two of their best offensive players in quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver AJ Green, both of whom are out for the year after undergoing season-ending surgeries.

Although they rank dead-last in the majority of defensive categories, including total yards and total points allowed per game, they still feature some of the best talent at their respective positions. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is always amongst those voted to the Pro Bowl every year while defensive end Carlos Dunlap is consistently one of the most underrated edge pass-rushers from anywhere along the defensive front.

Rookie safety Jessie Bates III has also been one of the prolific first-year players in the entire NFL, arguably the best rookie safety in the league not named Derwin James. Bates has collected a trio of interceptions up to this point with one of them going for a pick-6.

Regardless of how the match-up looks on paper, anything can happen. It would seem “awfully Chargers-y” to lose to this Bengals squad just a week after winning a historically impossible game. But this team still feels different, even if the loss to the Broncos had the entire fan base ready to pack it in after that debacle, alone.

Like always, “expect the best, prepare for the worst.”

1.) Chargers defense must take advantage of the Bengals’ depleted offense

The Bengals have fallen victim to the injury-bug in some major ways as they will be without their starting quarterback and Pro Bowl wide receiver for the remainder of the season. Jeff Driskel, a 25-year old from Louisiana Tech, is the next man up and while he hasn’t been that bad, he is not going to be a savior for a team with nothing to play for.

In Green’s absence, Driskel will have to look towards the youthful group of Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Josh Malone, and Auden Tate for the final month of the season.

Boyd has been pretty stellar on his own this year with 69 catches for 938 yards and six touchdowns. The next closest wide receiver on the team not named AJ Green is Ross who, while only having 16 catches for 189 yards, has still found the end zone five times.

The offensive line will also be without starting left tackle Cordy Glenn who has been dealing with a nagging back injury for quite some time.

Starting running back Joe Mixon showed up on the injury report out of nowhere this week with a foot injury and potentially may find himself limited or out this week, as well.

2.) My match-up to watch: Mike Pouncey v. Geno Atkins

Signing Pouncey in the offseason is still one of the biggest reasons for the Chargers’ performance this season and I still don’t think its’ getting talked about as much as it should.

Heading into week 14, number 53 has yet to allow a single sack on the year while also being on pace to play all 16 games this season for just the fourth time in his eight-year career. The only other year Pouncey succeeded in not allowing a single sack was in 2016...when he only played five games. At this rate, Pouncey’s first season with the Chargers may end up being the best of his entire career.

However, besides week 3, when he found himself across the line of scrimmage from Aaron Donald, this may be his toughest task of the season. Atkins is a six-time pro bowl selection and a two-time member of the All-Pro team. He currently sits with 34 total tackles and seven sacks on the season.

Knowing that the strength of the Bengals’ defense is along the interior, I would expect Whisenhunt to design a gameplan that would help eliminate the interior pass-rush while also allowing Philip Rivers to take advantages of quick passes and getting the ball out on the edge before Atkins ever has a chance to make his presence felt.

3.) Will Austin Ekeler get the lion’s share of RB carries or will Jackson’s latest performance force the staff’s hand?

During the last two games in which Melvin Gordon found himself on the sidelines, Ekeler was rightfully thrust into a starting role, and understandably so. However, although each game brought massive expectations for Ekeler in an expanded role, things never quite panned out for the second-year UDFA. Ekeler failed to gain a single yard on the ground in the first half despite getting seven cracks at it. He finished the game with 13 carries but could only amass 21 rushing yards. Through the air, he added an extra 22 yards on five catches.

With the way Jackson exploded onto the scene, you would have thought the offensive line had something against Ekeler and chose not to block with as much vigor when 30 was in the game. The rookie out of Northwestern managed to find a wealth of running room in the second half when he turned his eight carries into 63 yards and a nifty 18-yard score. When you see that the back managed gains of 9, 11, and another 18-yard scoot, it’s going to be hard to argue that Jackson shouldn’t get more than eight touches in their upcoming match-up with the Bengals.

But who knows? It sure seems like the “complimentary” role in Lynn’s offense is always going to be efficient. Let’s just be thankful that the team looks to have three, maybe four, capable backs who can do it all when given the chance.