While the Cincinnati Bengals offense has been particularly productive over their three-game winning streak, it will be the defense that makes all the difference in their meeting this Sunday with the San Diego Chargers—more specifically, their pass rush.
Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has been sacked 32 times already this season, making him the second-most-sacked quarterback in the league. Not surprisingly, the Chargers' offensive line ranks next-to-last in the league when it comes to pass protection. As such, the Bengals must take advantage of this clear Chargers weakness and focus on getting to Rivers this week.
It shouldn't be all that hard—the Bengals have one of the best pass-rushing front fours in the league, led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who has 10 sacks so far this season, and defensive end Michael Johnson, who has nine. All told, the Bengals defense has 37 sacks (according to Pro Football Focus; ESPN has them listed at 35) on the season and ranks second in sacks per game.
Though the Chargers will most certainly be expecting the Bengals to put pressure on Rivers, there isn't much the offensive line can do to protect him. Even the Baltimore Ravens—whose defense hasn't been the quarterback-pressuring sack machine of seasons past—got to Rivers six times last week.
San Diego doesn't have a lot going for it when it comes to the run game. The Chargers are averaging under 100 rushing yards and 26 carries per game. Passing is their biggest strength, though it's not going as well as it has in recent years. They rank just 18th in passing yards per game, thanks to Rivers being sacked so often, as well as him throwing 14 interceptions thus far.
Pressure results not only in drive-killing sacks but also in picks, and the more often the Bengals can hurry Rivers into throwing, the better chance they have of taking away one of his errant throws.
Playing well on defense will be even more important for the Bengals this week. Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who in recent weeks has made the No. 2 wideout position his own and has scored four touchdowns over the previous three games, is done for the season, having fractured his foot in practice on Thursday.
Scoring may not come as easily for quarterback Andy Dalton this week without Sanu on the field. And though the Bengals' run game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Cedric Peerman has finally hit its stride, the Chargers have one of the better run-stopping defenses in the league, allowing just 91.5 rushing yards per game.
Dalton won't be invisible, and Green-Ellis and Peerman won't be non-factors, but if the Bengals are to beat the Chargers this Sunday, it will be primarily because their pass rush makes a mess out of San Diego's offense. Sometimes, a great defense is the best offense a team can have.