BENGALS LB GERMAINE PRATT VS. BRONCOS RBS MELVIN GORDON III AND JAVONTE WILLIAMS
Pratt, as he always does as the Bengals' no longer silent savant on defense who has emerged as a star this season, has done his homework this week.
He's watching where and how the rookie Williams holds the ball when he uses his vicious stiff arm. He's gauging where the seven-year yet Gordon has his hands in compiling 4.7 yards per inside rush, fourth best in the league per Pro Football Focus.
"The rookie has one of the highest rates of breaking tackles with yards after contact," Pratt says of Williams and he's right on it.
PFF has Williams ranked ninth with 556 yards after contact, which is three-quarters of his 743 yards.
Pratt also saw this on the stat sheet.
"They both have two fumbles," Pratt says of Denver's two-head rushing monster. "Both are hungry. They want the ball and when they get it in their hands, they run hard. When two guys split carries like they're doing, when they get it they're out to prove something."
As enticing as the matchup is between Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and the best secondary he'll see this year, Sunday's game a Mile High (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) is going to be decided by how the green-dotted Pratt gets the Bengals' No. 4 rush defense lined up and if it plays as ranked.
If the Bengals want to put the ball in Burrow's hands, they also want to put it in Teddy Bridgewater's hands and not because Bridgewater is bad, but because Burrow, the AFC's leading passer, is better. Bridgewater has no interceptions in the Broncos' seven wins in which he averages 27 passes. He has seven interceptions in their six losses in which he averages 35 passes. Teddy is tough, resourceful and a savage competitor. He's also averaging just 7.3 yards per throw while Burrow is slinging it second in the league at 8.4.
Translation: It's a long day if the 5-10, 220-pound Williams and the 6-1 215-pound Gordon, the only NFL tandem with at least 700 yards each, control the game and don't allow Bengals running back Joe Mixon to add to his total as one of only two NFL back with 1,000 yards. You can do a Bridgewater stat on Mixon, too. When he touches it 22 times this season, the Bengals are 4-0.
Free safety Jessie Bates III, who has been watching Pratt's emergence this season as the move-and-hit linebacker they envisioned when they took him in the third round in 2019, says it's the kind of game they'll need everybody as he and fellow safety Vonn Bell look to keep Denver's rush totals near what Bengals are giving up at 93 per game. When Denver goes for 112 or less, the record is 2-5.
"The corners have to tackle. They're coming off the edge, they're blocking down on everybody," Bates says. "The corners have to tackle. Us as safeties, Vonn and I we take it very seriously.
"Melvin Gordon is still a very effective back. A really hard running back. Both backs are 220, so they're going downhill. They're running with a purpose and I think the biggest thing is you have a rookie and a veteran who are fighting for touches. Every time they're touching, they're taking advantage of it."
Pratt, who now has the helmet communicator with middle linebacker Logan Wilson (shoulder) out for a second straight game, has been taking advantage of his third year in the league and the system. He's being heard, much to the delight of his teammates.
"I always talk to Pratt. He's one of my closest friends on the team. The progress he's made over the last few years has been night and day," Bates says. "It could be as simple as him just breathing and running in the formation.
"Pratt has made huge strides in everything and has become a really good linebacker. Usually Logan is more of the voice guy and Pratt is more of just hit and run. It was pretty funny hearing him say the calls and stuff like that last week. He's done a really good job playing football and also being a leader. Being vocal without Logan here."
Last week was the first time Pratt had the communicator and the reviews were good.
"It's a little different for G. But everyone kind of helps because you when you get the call you try and echo it to everyone," says Joe Bachie, who made his first NFL start last week next to Pratt's communicator debut.
"He's a guy everybody trusts and believes in. If we didn't hear it the right way, he got us in the right call and we were all on the same page. That was the biggest thing.
"He's a smart dude. He watches ball all the time. He knows plays that are coming. That's just being in the system for a couple of years now. He's really comfortable. When the defense is called, he doesn't think about his job. He just knows what it is right away so he can process what the offense is giving him by formation set, backfield sets, whatever it is. He's able to talk the game. I think that's why he's having such a great year right now."
The only other linebacker with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries with at least 70 tackles is Colts Pro Bowler Darius Leonard. As Bell recalls, Pratt tells him he wakes up thinking about the ball.
"It's football. Everybody wants to touch the ball in the NFL," Pratt says. "The receivers want the ball. The quarterback wants the ball in his hand for that last possession. The running back wants the ball. The tight end wants the ball. A safety wants to make a pick. A lineman wants a sack strip sack. It all about the ball."
Pratt is really into the ball because he knows what turnovers mean.
"It takes the momentum away. It gets us more opportunities to score on offense," Pratt says. "It just gives us more opportunities to win more games. We've just embraced it as a whole unit. Everybody looks at the stats."
If anybody knows the impact of turnovers, it's the Bengals defense cleaning up after their own offense. The Bengals turned it over six times in two devastating losses the past two weeks. In the six previous games they had eight and went 4-2.
Led by Pratt, the defense is trying to rip them back to even in turnover differential. They've already recovered six fumbles, their most since the seven in 2015 and the 11 of the NFL's third-best defense in 2013. And with his two fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles, Pratt is the first Bengals linebacker since Brian Simmons 18 years ago to come up with multiples in each category.
And linebackers coach Al Golden knows why.
"If he's not the best preparation player I've ever been around, he's up there," said Golden last week. "He has a little bit of a game plan in his mind going into the game. How he can attack the ball given the ball carrier's various tendencies in the past. More importantly, he's trained his mind how to react when he sees the ball in a certain position. I think that's one of the things he's doing really well right now."
Here's what Pratt said he's looking for as he stalks that forced fumble:
"Look at how he's holding the ball. Is he loose with the ball? When he has contact, does he have two hands on the ball? The first thing you have to do is locate the ball. When they're falling, that's when they are at their most vulnerable. That's when they lose tension, the ball's not as close to the chest.
"And if your teammate is about to make the tackle, why are you going in for a hit if you're trying to turn the ball over? If he's trying to make a move on defender, he's not as worried about the ball, so you have to attack the ball."
Here are Pratt's three tips on forcing a fumble:
- One, you have to have the mindset that you want to do it. You wake up thinking about the ball.
- Two, you have to be able to locate the ball before making a play on the ball.
- And three, when you get the chance, do whatever you can to get it out. Rip it. Punch it. Whatever you have to do.
It sounds like Pratt is as hungry as the two running backs he's facing Sunday.
"It's all about the ball," Pratt said. "Linebackers want to touch the ball, too."