The Bengals are in the mother country facing the team that spawned them when they meet head coach Sean McVay's Rams Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Wembley Stadium in a game that would serve as a powerful and symbolic first victory for Bengals head coach Zac Taylor.
After a series of parliamentary moves the Bengals.com Media Roundtable has resolved it is a massive undertaking with the 4-3 Rams almost in a desperate mode in the wild, wild NFC West.
Richard Graves of Sky Sports, whose colleague Takeo Spikes is part of the coverage involving the Bengals team that drafted him, has been covering the NFL for the past 15 years and concludes the Rams look to be getting it together after last week's 37-10 victory in Atlanta. Vincent Bonsignore, a 20-year veteran of covering Los Angeles sports now writing for The Athletic, senses the Jalen Ramsey trade may have given defensive coordinator Wade Phillips a last-piece-of-the-puzzle weapon for a defense that can be quietly as dominant as the Rams offense has been.
One of his Cincinnati colleagues for The Athletic, Jay Morrison, believes the Bengals' injured offense won't be able to take advantage of the Rams' own offensive struggles and Richard Skinner, Local 12's digital sports columnist, thinks the Bengals' inability to run the ball is too much to overcome against the L.A. front.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and alphabet first.
Let's be honest. Anyone not in the Bengals camp will say they expect the Rams to win this comfortably. You've got the Bengals coming out winless depleted by injuries against a Rams team that went to the Super Bowl last year. They've got Todd Gurley in the backfield, quarterback Jared Goff, wide receiver Cooper Kupp. Gerald Everett at tight end. They seem to have the weapons on offense and you've got a defense led by Aaron Donald and they just added to their status with cornerback Jalen Ramsey. On the face of it I expect a Rams victory, but the Bengals have a good record in recent seasons against the L.A. Rams and what do they say in the NFL? Any given Sunday and it's essentially a neutral venue, so you never know.
There was a lot of talk this season about the teams' itineraries ahead of one of the previous games here this season at Tottenham, where the Carolina Panthers came in 24 hours ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and blew out Tampa Bay . Both coaches, Bruce Arians of Tampa and Ron Rivera with the Panthers, sort of played it down, but Ron Rivera did say he had spoken to a lot of teams and any team that had done that, come in the Thursday before like the Seattle Seahawks last year, said that extra 24 hours made a difference. They beat the Oakland Raiders at Wembley Stadium, so maybe there is something in that.
Now the Rams may have a practice camp mentality, having been on the road for essentially two weeks. They stayed in Atlanta and practiced at Georgia Tech this week. For the Bengals it's been a flight over in the last 24 hours on Friday. It all depends on which group of players adjusts to that mentality. We won't know that, obviously, until they take the field.
THE EDGE: Whichever way you dress this up I don't see anything but a Rams victory. My one concern is that both teams have flown in on Friday and two days ahead of the game it might be a sluggish start. That's Cincinnati's best opportunity . Honestly, having seen the way the Rams took care of the Falcons last weekend, I expect a similar type of game. I think the Bengals will fight hard like they did against the Jags last weekend, but ultimately when they get into the fourth quarter the Rams just have more. It could be two scores or more. RAMS, 24-10
The Rams are the better team and should win the game. It would be an upset if they didn't. They want to get to 5-3 into the break. They feel like that's well within their reach. If they don't, that's not a good look heading to a break given what's going on in their division.
There were adjustments being made to the Rams offense before the Super Bowl. I think a lot of people kind of get fixated on what happened in that Super Bowl. Defenses were doing different things to them pretty much almost all of last December, starting with the Lions game. From then a lot of teams followed that blueprint, including the Patriots. That adjustment has been going on and the Rams are trying to offset that . There's a lot more zone beating-type principles. Teams are trying to take away the long ball. They're throwing it a little shorter, throwing it to the tight end more. Defensive coordinators have concentrated on taking away their chunk plays and if you're not getting the line play they had been getting, you need time to make those chunk plays develop and you're going to be running into issues there. So the Rams are trying to stay ahead of the posse.
You're also seeing an adjustment on the offensive line because they lost two starters and there's a plan to keep Todd Gurley intact for the playoffs, so they have had to adjust to having a different Todd Gurley. The previous two years he was a huge part of what they did. They ran through him and that's diminished a little bit.
The presence of Jalen Ramsey has really inspired them. It's changed their defense and now they're able to do what they want to do with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' schemes. You go back to pretty much everywhere he's been, most recently at a high level in Denver, where he had two corners that can play man coverage in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. It opens it up for blitzes and pressures. We saw a lot of cornerback blitzes, safety blitzes, linebacker blitzes against the Falcons last week that we really hadn't seen with Ramsey in there.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are getting to that point in the year when the losses are piling up and the Rams are going in a different direction where every game has their season on the line. The defense is energized. The offense is slowly but surely turning the corner. I think this is an opportunity for the Rams to put together four consistent quarters. RAMS, 35-14.
I just can't see it going much different than what we've seen this year. You look at what has been the biggest weakness of the Bengals, the offensive line, and the strength of the Rams is that D-line. I just think that could get really ugly up front. Not only Donald, but throw in (Dante) Fowler and all the other guys. They could struggle running the ball and it could be a game like Pittsburgh, where Andy Dalton is getting hit. A lot.
I know the Rams have some new pieces on that offensive line and there are still questions about Gurley's health. Are they limiting him because of maintenance reasons so he doesn't wear down like he did last year? or is the knee still an issue? The running game hasn't been there and, really, it's weird, Jared Goff was the No. 1 overall pick and if Bengals fans think that's going to be a quick fix, it's not always the answer. He's kind of back slid this year. His numbers are really down.
I think it's interesting that the Rams are the second team to play the Bengals this year that spent the week before their game in a foreign city. The 49ers were in Youngstown and the Rams were in Atlanta all week. It didn't affect the 49ers, but you wonder how it will affect the Rams.
THE EDGE: I'm going to say the Bengals score 17 because they always seem to score 17. They've scored 17 in four of their seven games so far. I think the Rams are twice as good as the Bengals. RAMS, 34-17.
It feels like the bye can't come soon enough and you have a tough business on trip on top of it where you've got all kinds of major issues . One of the biggest obstacles is you are on pace to be one of the worst rushing teams in modern NFL history, certainly on pace to be the worst rushing team in Bengals history, including the 1982 team that played nine games. And, oh yeah, you get to play Aaron Donald. If you had a Pro Bowl caliber guard to go against him, it still would be tough. How much tougher is this?
The Rams aren't running it like they did last year, right? Maybe it's Gurley's knee, maybe it's the offensive line and that's probably hindered that offense. Because that's what that offense is supposed to be. Run it, run it run it, play-action off of it, hit a deep ball or do your bootleg stuff off it. But they haven't run it quite as effectively and that's why you're not seeing them as dynamic.
They're in a tough division. Every game for them matters significantly and so you have to think they'll play pretty motivated, pretty focused. They stayed in Atlanta, they didn't travel all the way back to L.A.. and that was a smart move for them. I think maybe the trade for Jalen Ramsey energized them, too. They needed a boost. They needed Marcus Peters out, they needed a talented guy in. If Ramsey toes the line, you've got yourself a quality player.
THE EDGE: It's hard to see this Bengals offense getting untracked against anybody, let alone Aaron Donald. The Rams offense isn't great and they haven't run it great, but who have the Bengals stopped that run the football? The answer would probably be nobody. RAMS, 31-10.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The last time the Bengals played the Los Angeles Rams on the road their head coach was seven years old, the Rams head man was four and both teams want to get back to the old days of 2017 and 2018 when McVay's offense was rolling unencumbered.
It is also an Auld Lang Syne game. The Bengals know it wasn't long ago they were contending. Old friend Andrew Whitworth, the Rams left tackle, can become the second starting offensive linemen ever to have a win over every NFL team with a win Sunday.
Taylor was an offensive assistant for those L.A. teams and his ability to transplant that success in Cincinnati has run into a myriad of problems that stem from injuries. With two starting wide receivers sidelined and another receiver cut to make room for help on the banged-up defensive front, his three-receiver groups are a skeleton of what the Rams run out there with Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. Down to their fourth left tackle (although they may get No. 3 Andre Smith back Sunday) and with injuries and changes at guard, the offensive line hasn't been able to establish the running game that unleashes the play-action long passing game.
So Taylor has a few pieces missing in his chess game with venerable Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is in his 50th year of coaching and has the remarkable distinction of being a part of 21 different top ten defenses. With Hall of Fame defensive tackle Aaron Donald now teamed with cornerback Jalen Ramsey, Phillips is expected to bring heat all day against the Bengals. You only have to look at what the Rams did in bottling up Atlanta last week. They sacked Matt Ryan five times before sending him to the bench while holding the Rams to 38 yards rushing.
McVay has adjusted his offense slightly since last season's explosive NFC championship and that's a challenge Taylor may face during next week's bye. Against six-man defensive lines and deep zones, the Rams have been going to the tight end more and using more multiple tight end looks than in years previous.
You can see what changes in an offensive line do to a good running game. The Rams had top ten stuff the past two seasons, until they lost two linemen in the offseason and Todd Gurley began dealing with his knee. They're ranked just 23rd, but they haven't abandoned it, either. Their backs and receivers ran it 33 times for just 87 yards last week and even though Gurley had just 2.5 yards per carry, he ran it 18 times. It also shows you how good that passing game is.
And while those three receivers are a formidable task for a Bengals secondary without two corners again (Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard), the real problem is in the middle of the field, where the Bengals have been struggling and where the Rams make hay with crosses and tight end Gerald Everett's 24 catches. The deep ball hasn't been there with Cooks' 14.9 yards the longest average, but Kupp's team-leading 51 catches is matched up against the combined 41 catches of the Bengals' two leading wide receivers from last week, Auden Tate and Alex Erickson.
Here's the simple key for the Bengals. They can't have anything close to an adjustment period overseas against these guys. They need to get out. No. Really. In 15 of McVay's 39 games as head coach, the Rams have had the lead in the entire game 15 times, in half of their 14 division games and going back to the first two weeks of this season they've led for more than 47 quarters when you add up the time of possession.
The Bengals have to re-write some history, then. They are next-to-last in time of possession in 26:49, but in the last three games they've only had the ball 23:39. They've gone almost a full season without scoring on their first possession of a game and in the last three games in the first half they're averaging seven points and 113 yards of offense.
Taylor has been talking about fast starts all year. They really need it now.