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Five Things To Watch: Bengals at 49ers

DE Trey Hendrickson runs during the Seahawks-Bengals game on Sunday, October 15 in Week 6 of the 2023 season.
DE Trey Hendrickson runs during the Seahawks-Bengals game on Sunday, October 15 in Week 6 of the 2023 season.

The Bengals travel to San Francisco to take on the 49ers at Levi's Stadium on Sunday. The game airs at 4:25 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:

1. Trey Hendrickson vs. Trent Williams

Bengals edge rusher Trey Hendrickson is on another Pro Bowl path this season, as his team-leading seven sacks are tied for fourth most in the NFL. Sunday's game pits Hendrickson against one of the league's top pass protectors in 14th-year veteran Trent Williams, who has earned first-team All-Pro honors each of the past two seasons. Williams missed San Francisco's game against Minnesota with an ankle injury, but the team is hopeful he can return this week.

The two have lined up against one another three times in their careers, with Hendrickson registering a sack, two quarterback hits and five hurries in those matchups. Williams this season leads a San Francisco offensive line that has allowed just 12 sacks, the seventh fewest leaguewide.

"He's probably one of the more athletic tackles and also one of the most physically dominant tackles in the league," said Hendrickson when asked about Williams. "That combo makes him very vicious."

Hendrickson getting the upper hand in this game within the game would cause disruption for a 49ers offense that has been one of the best in the NFL through seven weeks.

2. Bengals O-line vs. Nick Bosa

In the other battle of the trenches, Cincinnati's offensive line faces a difficult task of blocking the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Nick Bosa. Though he has just 2.5 sacks this season, Bosa remains a constant threat to wreck an offensive game plan, and his objective this week is to get to former Ohio State teammate Joe Burrow.

The Bengals are hopeful to have the services of left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who was limited in Wednesday's practice with a groin injury he sustained against Seattle. Though Zac Taylor mentioned the 49ers' tendency to move Bosa around the defensive line, a healthy Brown would go a long way toward making the pass rush more difficult.

3. Defense aims to slow down McCaffrey

The Bengals' defense is coming off its best performance of the young season in Week 6 against Seattle. Cincinnati netted four sacks, two turnovers and two more turnovers on downs to lead the way in a needed home win. This week, the unit faces a well-balanced and potent San Francisco offense, but everything starts with running back Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey leads the league this season in rushing yards (598) and has scored a touchdown in an NFL-record 16 straight games. But perhaps it is no coincidence that his two lowest rushing yardage totals in 2023 have come in the past two weeks, both 49ers losses. McCaffrey left the Week 6 game at Cleveland with an early injury and finished with just 43 yards on the ground, then in Week 7 was held to 45 by Minnesota.

Though San Francisco boasts playmakers all across its offense, the effort to slow down one of the NFL's most creative schemes begins with bottling McCaffrey.

4. Deep shots to Chase

Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has been an X Factor in each of Cincinnati's three wins. The two-time Pro Bowler set a team record with 15 receptions for 192 yards and three touchdowns in Week 5 at Arizona, then followed up with six grabs for 80 yards the following Sunday against Seattle. Chase's 40 catches since Week 3 are the most ever in a four-game stretch by a Bengal.

But it's Chase's ability to make splash plays down the field that has really opened up the offense as of late. His 63-yard scoring catch versus the Cardinals was the Bengals' longest touchdown from scrimmage since 2021 (by Chase), and then against the Seahawks he had grabs of 31 and 23 yards on back-to-back plays during a second-quarter touchdown drive.

The 49ers this season have harped on limiting explosive plays, as they have given up just three completions of 40 or more yards. Chase has 13 such catches in his career, tied for the second most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2021. Burrow finding his top target down the field could take the top off the San Francisco secondary and create a momentum swing in this marquee matchup.

5. Can the Bengals find early lead?

Zac Taylor has emphasized the importance of getting ahead early in games and playing with a lead. Cincinnati is among the best in the NFL at controlling the pace of the game following a fast start, and this season the Bengals are 2-0 when leading at halftime. Conversely, they have faced a deficit at the break in each of their three losses.

Defensively, Cincinnati has been excellent to begin games under Lou Anarumo. Since the start of the 2022 season, the Bengals have allowed just six touchdowns in the first quarter of play, the second fewest by any NFL team in that stretch. This week, they face a 49ers side that has jumped out to a first-quarter lead in five of their seven contests.

San Francisco's early advantages have dictated how opponents play as the game wears on. Cincinnati, which hopes to feature a balanced offense on Sunday, may not be able to afford falling behind against a 49ers secondary that gives up just 5.59 yards per pass attempt (third lowest in NFL). But the 49ers have lost both games in which they trailed entering the fourth quarter, so if the Bengals can capitalize on another strong defensive performance out of the gate, they could rely on a multi-tooled offense to secure a third straight win.

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