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Five things to watch: Bengals at Saints

HB Joe Mixon
HB Joe Mixon

The Bengals play their fourth road game in a five-week stretch on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints at Caesars Superdome. The game airs on CBS. Here are five things to watch:

1. Bengals trio makes return to NOLA

Paul Dehner of The Athletic this week wrote about three Bengals defensive starters looking to make an impact against their former team on Sunday.

Safety Vonn Bell, a second-round draft pick of New Orleans in 2016, spent four seasons with the Saints and helped them win the NFC South title three years in a row before signing with Cincinnati as a free agent in 2020. He started 45 of 61 regular-season games and was a key part of a run defense that ranked in the top five in the league in 2018 and '19. Bell, now a Bengals team captain for the third consecutive season, brings a streak of three interceptions in his last two games to Caesars Superdome.

The Saints selected defensive end Trey Hendrickson in the third round of the 2017 draft out of Florida Atlantic, and it took until the end of the 2019 regular season for him to crack the starting lineup. His production skyrocketed after that, as Hendrickson broke out for 13.5 sacks (tied for second in the NFL) in 2020. He was a headliner in the Bengals' free agency haul during the 2021 offseason, and in his first year in Cincinnati Hendrickson totaled 14 more sacks en route to his first career Pro Bowl selection.

Joining Hendrickson as a Bengals free agent signee in 2021 was cornerback Eli Apple. New Orleans traded for Apple midway through the 2018 season, and he went on to record two interceptions and 18 passes defensed in 25 regular-season starts for the Saints.

All three players have been prominent contributors for a Bengals defense that is earning respect as one of the league's best. To keep up the dominance on that side of the ball and potentially lead Cincinnati to a win, the trio will need to make game-changing plays in their former home building.

2. Chase vs. Saints secondary

This is Geoff Hobson’s “Matchup of the Game.” Wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has been held under 100 yards in each of the last four games — largely due to the defensive coverages he is facing. Though the Saints' top corner, four-time Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore, has been declared out for Sunday, Chase will still garner attention from a talented secondary that includes fellow former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu.

Chase did leave his fingerprints on the Bengals' go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter at Baltimore, when he had three catches for 28 yards including a 13-yarder on a third down that set up a first-and-goal. For the Bengals to leave New Orleans with a win, however, it may require Chase to work free from Mathieu and the rest of the Saints' defensive backs.

"Teams are very aware of him," head coach Zac Taylor said when asked about Chase's production. "We have to be mindful of that, as we are. Try our best to put him in a good position to still be productive for us, which he was. Heading into that final drive he was a key point of emphasis for us and made all the plays we gave him an opportunity to make."

3. Turnovers are key

The Bengals in their two wins this season have forced a combined six turnovers while committing just one. In the three losses, Cincinnati has given the ball away six times and recorded two takeaways.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo's unit, which has six interceptions in the last three games, may find more opportunities to flip the field on Sunday. The Saints have committed a turnover in each game this season, with their six interceptions thrown tied for the third most in the NFL. On the other side, the New Orleans defense has just one pick, and the Bengals have taken care of the ball well after a four-interception showing in the season opener five weeks ago. The Saints' minus-8 differential ranks 32nd in the NFL.

4. Carry-over for the run game

The Bengals had their most efficient rushing game of the season last Sunday at Baltimore, with 101 yards on 21 carries (4.81 average). Halfback Joe Mixon rattled off three runs of 10-plus yards on his way to a 78-yard performance, and he along with Samaje Perine will be looking for more chances to break into the secondary.

New Orleans, which has perennially been among the league's top rushing defenses, is currently allowing 130 yards per game on the ground (23rd in the NFL). Saints opponents have recorded 145 or more rushing yards three times this season, including Seattle last week, which went for 151 on just 21 attempts (7.19 average).

5. Huber can join exclusive club

14th-year punter Kevin Huber enters Week 6 with 999 career punts, all coming as a member of the Bengals. With one more on Sunday, he will become the sixth player in NFL history to record 1,000 punts with a single team, joining Sam Koch (Baltimore, 2006-21), Dustin Colquitt (Kansas City, '05-19), Ray Guy (Oakland/L.A. Raiders, 1973-86), Jerrel Wilson (Kansas City, '63-77) and Shane Lechler (Oakland, '00-12).

Huber, a 2009 fifth-round draft pick of the Bengals out of the University of Cincinnati, is still kicking at a high level this season. He booted a 63-yarder in Week 2 at Dallas – his longest punt since the 2020 season finale – and he has landed six punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. His 44.7-yard average per punt is also higher than any of his first three seasons.

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