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Saints vs. Bengals: Five Questions with Cincy Jungle

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We are joined by Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle to learn a bit more about the Cincinnati Bengals. The 5-3-1 Bengals play the 4-5 Saints tomorrow afternoon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

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As is the case before each Saints game, we talked to an SB Nation blogger covering New Orleans' opponent. This week, Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle answered a few of our questions on the Cincinnati Bengals. Without furder ado, here is our Q and A.

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1 - Canal Street Chronicles: The Bengals started the 2014 season on fire with three straight victories, including an impressive road-win in Baltimore. In their last six games however there have been two wins, but also a tie and three blowout losses. What in your opinion has been the primary cause of such inconsistency?

Scott Bantel: Injuries and poor gameplans. I hate to use injuries as an excuse because all teams have injuries, but the Bengals have had a ton of injuries, and more importantly, the injuries have been to their best players. The Bengals have missed 20 games from their top three receiving options (AJ Green, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert); two games from their top running back (Giovani Bernard); six plus games from their best defensive player and play caller (Vontaze Burfict); six plus games from their best run stuffer (Brandon Thompson); four games from their starting middle linebacker (Rey Maualuga); one game from their top corner (Leon Hall); and their most dominant player, Geno Atkins, is not 100% from his 2013 ACL tear. In Indianapolis, the Bengals were missing their entire starting linebacking corps, their run stuffing defensive tackle and their top three receiving options. Added up, it results in some inconsistent and poor play.

However, injuries are not the only issue. The Bengals rookie defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, has struggled getting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run and the Bengals new offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, has dialed up two of the worst gameplans I can recall in recent memory - see the blowout losses to the Colts and Browns (135 and 165 total yards).

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2 - CSC: It seems that quarterback Andy Dalton has been under a lot of scrutiny this season. People are questioning his development and some have even hinted at a regression. What's your opinion of Dalton's play this year and do you think that he is the guy that can take Cincinnati to the super bowl and potentially to a Super bowl win?

SB: Andy Dalton is a lightning rod amongst Bengals fans and media. He has his supporters and he has a very loud group of detractors. I am in the middle, though I often find myself defending him against the crazy detractors. Prior to the Bengals Thursday night debacle I would have said this has been Dalton's best and most consistent season thus far. Prior to last Thursday, Dalton was on pace for career highs in completion percentage, YPA, QBR and passer rating along with a career low in interceptions. Given the injuries he has had to endure this season from his wide receivers, tight end and running back, he had been pretty impressive. However, Thursday's game caused me to hesitate on not only that statement, but on my belief of whether Dalton can lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl. Prior to last Thursday, Dalton had looked much more confident and accurate in 2014 and though the Bengals were beat soundly in New England on Sunday night football, for the first time in a primetime game, Dalton actually played well and looked confident. Last week in primetime against the Browns, Dalton reverted back to the Andy we have seen far too often in big games - or "Bad Andy" as most fans refer to him. While there was plenty of blame to go around for the Browns game, Dalton was the most glaring culprit. His performance that night was not just a game of "Bad Andy." That was an abysmal display of historical proportions, and as a Bengals fan, I sincerely apologize to the rest of the nation. How historically bad you ask? It was only the fifth time since 1960 that a quarterback threw more than 30 passes and had a quarterback rating of 2.0 or below. While I do believe that was a perfect storm of "team suckage," (if that is a word) I do not believe Andy Dalton will ever be a quarterback that can carry a team by his lonesome like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, etc. I do, however, believe that with the right coaching staff he can take a talented team to (and even win) a Super Bowl - much like a Joe Flacco or Trent Dilfer did with the Ravens.

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3 - CSC: Under head coach Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati has pretty much always had a stout defense. In 2013, Football Outsiders had the Bengals as the 5th ranked defense in the NFL (4th vs. the pass, 13th vs. the run). I was surprised when looking at this season's statistics, to see that Cincinnati was ranked 32nd in rush defense with an 11.8% DVOA. What is the reason for such a drastic drop off?

SB: Injuries, a rookie defensive coordinator and poor play. I will start with the defensive coordinator. At the end of the 2013 season, the Bengals lost one of the best defensive coordinators in the league, Mike Zimmer, to a head coaching position in Minnesota. Paul Guenther, the Bengals new defensive coordinator, learned under Zimmer and was Zimmer's pick for the same position in Minnesota, however, Guenther elected to stay in Cincinnati. So far, the disciple has not had the same success as the mentor. The Bengals have had troubles getting to the quarterback and stopping the run, both recipes for disaster. In Guenther's defense, he has had a ton of injuries and while all teams have injuries, the Bengals injuries have been to their difference makers. Their emotional leader and defensive play caller, Vontaze Burfict, has been plagued by concussions and knee injuries and has yet to start and finish an entire game yet. The starting middle linebacker (and backup play caller) Rey Maualuga, has missed the last four games with a hamstring injury and their third linebacker, Emmanuel Lemur has missed a few games as well. Their top run stuffing defensive tackle (Brandon Thompson), missed most of seven games and their top cornerback, Leon Hall, has also missed time. Throw in some poor tackling and the fact that their most dominate defensive player, Geno Atkins, tore his ACL in 2013 and has yet to return to his Pro Bowl form, and you have a defense that drops from top five to bottom five. Atkins has been playing better the last few weeks and it sounds like Hall and Maualuga may return this Sunday which would help, but their leader, Burfict, looks to still be out another week or so.

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4 - CSC: If you were Sean Payton and had to gameplan against the Bengals defense, what would you look to exploit most? Similarly, if you were Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, what would you primarily try to defend from the Bengals' offense?

SB: Sean Payton has to be feeling like a five year old on Christmas Eve looking at this Bengals defense! The Bengals are ranked 31st against the run and seem to be oblivious of the rule which makes tight ends eligible receivers. With that being the case, I would throw 20 balls to Jimmy Graham and sprinkle in 20-30 runs of Mark Ingram. More specifically, I would run the ball at Domata Peko (94) any time he is in the game.

As for Rob Ryan, the Bengals line has only allowed 12 sacks, but their right tackle, Andre Smith, has had a bad year and while he was out last week with an ankle injury, his backup, Marshall Newhouse, resembled an amusement park turnstile more than an NFL tackle. Regardless of who plays right tackle on Sunday, I would attack them and rookie center Russell Bodine. With the struggles at right tackle and center, combined with Dalton's penchant to struggle against pressure, I would bring a lot of blitzes. Being that the Saints defensive coordinator has the last name of Ryan, I would be shocked if he did anything different.

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5 -CSC: What Saints player(s) on either side of the ball are you most worried about on Sunday? What Saints player(s) on either side of the ball are most excited about (as in you will exploit the hell out of him/them)?

SB: Hands down, it's Jimmy Graham. I have been watching the Bengals now for 30+ years and every year I am amazed at their inability to cover a tight end. Coaches have changed and players have changed, but somehow, putting on the striped helmet causes defenders to forget about the tight end. The Bengals have managed to make a lot of tight ends look like Jimmy Graham over the years and now they face the man himself. In my opinion, Jimmy Graham is the best tight end in the game and possibly the best of all-time. Combine that with a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Drew Brees and the Bengals penchant for letting tight ends run wild, and Sunday's matchup is a scary thing if you are a Bengals fan.

As for the Saints player I believe the Bengals will try and exploit, I would look at Patrick Robinson and/or Corey White. With Keenan Lewis out, I look for the Bengals to try and get AJ Green matched up on Robinson and/or White as early and often as possible. In week four against the Patriots, Darrelle Revis was shutting down Green but had to leave for a few plays with an injury. On the first play with Revis out, the Bengals got Green lined up on his replacement, resulting in Green's only touchdown catch of the night.

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Bonus: How do you see this Saints-Bengals game play out? Who wins and why?

SB: Both teams have been disappointing thus far in 2014 and both teams need this win badly. Prior to the season, I predicted this game as a loss for the Bengals because the Saints don't lose at home with Payton and Brees (unless phantom offensive PI is called). I am going to stick with that prediction, but I do see it as a high scoring entertaining game.

Saints 38, Bengals 34

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Many thanks to Scott for taking the time to interact with us this week. For more coverage on the Bengals, check out Cincy Jungle.