NFL Preview - San Francisco (1-1) at Cincinnati (1-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - When the San Francisco 49ers' offense takes the field on Sunday to face the Cincinnati Bengals, it may look a little like last year's practices, given the number of former teammates that will be on the other side of the ball.
And when San Francisco's defense squares off against the Cincinnati offense, it will be trying to slow down one of the NFL's most exciting rookie duos.
Cornerback Nate Clements and freshman quarterback Andy Dalton lead the Bengals into this weekend's home opener against the Niners at Paul Brown Stadium.
Both Cincinnati and San Francisco enter this Week 3 meeting off losses last Sunday that prevented the clubs from posting 2-0 starts. The 49ers were unable to hold on to an early 14-point lead before dropping a 27-24 decision to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime, while the Bengals saw their comeback bid fall short in a 24-22 setback at Denver.
Dalton threw for a club rookie-record 332 yards and was able to get the Bengals to midfield late in the game despite starting the drive on his own five-yard line, but his fourth-down pass to fellow youngster A.J. Green was incomplete. In all, Cincinnati went 1-for-11 on third-down conversions and failed on both attempts to move the chains on fourth down.
"It doesn't really matter what I did," Dalton said of his accomplishments. "We had a chance. We were in it right to the end, but we have to do a better job of executing when it matters."
There will be a couple of Cincinnati defenders looking to execute against their former team on Sunday. San Francisco could be facing as many as three of its former players, including Clements and Bengals linebacker Manny Lawson.
Clements spent the past four seasons with the 49ers but failed to live up to the eight year, $80 million deal he signed with the club, posting just 10 interceptions before being released this offseason.
Lawson, meanwhile, was a first-round pick (22nd overall) by San Francisco in 2006 and signed with the Bengals as a free agent following 15 sacks in 64 games with the Niners, while safety Taylor Mays was drafted by the 49ers in the second round of last year's draft prior to being traded to Cincinnati before the start of the season. He has missed the first two games due to a knee injury.
Niners quarterback Alex Smith doesn't see an advantage either way for the teams.
"I think the biggest thing is knowing them as players," said Smith. "Besides that, they are playing in a different scheme, being put in different situations. So you know their skill-sets and things they're good at as players. But other than that I don't think it's really making a difference."
While Cincinnati plays its first home game of 2011, San Francisco hits the road for the first time after last week's home collapse that prevented the club from opening the season with two straight wins for the second time in three years.
The road was not kind to the Niners last year, as they won just one of their eight games away from the Bay. They were outscored 93-30 in losing their final three games as the guest in 2010, but a frustrated Frank Gore isn't going to settle for a repeat of last year.
"We've got to win. We aren't the old 49ers where we're hoping to win," the running back said after Sunday's loss. "We're going out knowing that we can win. We just can't let any more get away like this. Everybody -- coaches, players -- we've got to finish. When the time comes to get those first downs, we have to get them."
Cincinnati, meanwhile, is 5-3 in its home openers under head coach Marvin Lewis and has won 12 of its last 17 at Paul Brown Stadium versus the NFC.
The 49ers own an 8-3 lead in their overall regular-season series with Cincinnati and won the most recent matchup as well, recording a 20-13 home triumphs back in 2007. The Bengals had defeated San Francisco two straight times prior to that defeat, however, with both of those triumphs taking place on their home turf. Cincinnati outlasted the Niners in a 41-38 shootout at Paul Brown Stadium in 2003, while also coming through with a 44-30 decision at Cinergy Field in 1999. San Francisco is 3-2 all-time as the visitor in this set, though.
The most famous matchups between the franchises came after the 1981 and 1987 seasons, when the 49ers prevailed over the Bengals in Super Bowls XVI (26-21 in Detroit) and XXIII (20-16 in Miami).
Lewis has a 1-1 lifetime record against the 49ers during his tenure with the Bengals, while San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh will be opposing both Lewis and Cincinnati for the first time as a head man. Harbaugh spent the 1998 season as the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, when Lewis was then serving as the team's defensive coordinator.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
San Francisco is still looking to get its offense on track, specifically Gore (106 rushing yards, 6 receptions, 1 TD). Despite scoring on a one-yard run versus the Cowboys for the 49ers' first points of the game, the former Pro Bowl back was limited to 47 yards on 20 carries and is averaging just 2.5 yards per rush on the season. Smith (303 passing yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) threw for only 179 yards and was picked off once while also getting sacked six times. He was able to complete touchdown passes to wide receiver Kyle Williams and tight end Delanie Walker (3 receptions), however. Williams' scoring catch was the first of his career, while Walker nabbed his first since Dec. 2, 2007. Smith was without wide receiver Michael Crabtree due to a foot injury and fellow wideout Braylon Edwards (4 receptions) left early with a knee ailment. While Crabtree could return this week, Edwards has already been ruled out with Ted Ginn Jr. expected to take his place in the starting lineup. Kicker David Akers hit a 55-yard field goal, the third longest in club history, is last week's loss and is one shy of 300 made for his career.
The Bengals will hope to get an edge due to the familiarity of Clements (9 tackles) and Lawson (3 tackles) with San Francisco's offense, though neither played under Harbaugh or new 49er offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Cincinnati outgained Denver last weekend thanks to a solid defensive effort, though the Bengals' secondary would like to have back a 52-yard touchdown score it allowed to the Broncos' Eric Decker early in the fourth quarter. Clements and corner Leon Hall (2 tackles) will try to prevent the big plays this weekend, and Hall recovered one of two forced fumbles versus Denver. Nose tackle Domata Peko (6 tackles) had the other, while end Michael Johnson (8 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and safety Reggie Nelson (13 tackles, 1 sack) both forced the ball loose. Playing without defensive end Robert Geathers due to a shoulder injury, the Bengals came up with two sacks against Denver, while linebacker Thomas Howard (16 tackles) led the club with eight tackles. Geathers could return for this game.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Many expected Cincinnati's season to get off to a slow start due to the presence of three rookies in the starting lineup on offense, but both Dalton and Green have caught on early in the start of their respective careers. Dalton (413 passing yards, 3 TD, 0 INT) joined Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the only rookies since the 1970 merger to post 100-plus passer ratings in their first two starts. He also showed no ill effects from a wrist injury that caused him to miss the final two quarters of the team's Week 1 win over Cleveland. Green (11 receptions, 165 yards), meanwhile, leads all rookies in receptions and receiving yards in addition to hauling in a pair of touchdown catches so far. With slot receiver Jordan Shipley out for the season after tearing his ACL last weekend, both Jerome Simpson (8 receptions) and Andre Caldwell (3 receptions) will get more looks from Dalton, as should tight end Jermaine Gresham (8 receptions, 1 TD). Both Green and Simpson went over 100 yards receiving last Sunday. Running back Cedric Benson was held to just 59 yards on 16 carries by the Broncos after going over 100 yards and scoring a touchdown in Week 1.
Benson could struggle again this weekend, as the 49ers have held opponents to just 54.5 rushing yards per game over the first two weeks. That gives them the top-ranked run defense in the early going, but the club ranks 25th against the pass (291.0 ypg). In fact, Dallas' game-winning field goal was set up on a 77- yard reception by Jesse Holley. Linebackers Patrick Willis (13 tackles) and NaVorro Bowman (16 tackles) combined for 19 tackles versus Dallas, while cornerback Tramaine Brock (5 tackles) notched his second interception in as many weeks. Safety Donte Whitner (9 tackles) added his first interception with the Niners and sixth of his career in the loss, as well as the former Bill's first since Dec. 5 of last year. Defensive end Ray McDonald (7 tackles, 2 sacks) came away with San Francisco's lone sack against Dallas. The Niners' defense features a pair of former Bengals in defensive tackle Justin Smith (6 tackles, 2 sacks) and safety Madieu Williams. Smith was the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft by Cincinnati and played his first seven seasons there.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Dalton will need to keep the Niners' defense on the field, which may not be the easiest of tasks. San Francisco leads the NFL with 10 three-and-outs forced on the year and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 24 straight games. That is the longest such streak in the NFL.
Win the turnover battle. San Francisco holds a plus-4 turnover differential, while the Bengals are a plus-3 and haven't committed a giveaway yet this season.
Cincinnati has had to rally twice in its first two weeks, so a quick start will keep the home crowd in the game throughout and enhance its chances of winning.
The 49ers offense is putting up numbers similar to what was expected out of the Dalton-led Bengals, who are looking to continue their better-than-expected start this weekend. Dalton has shown great poise through his first six NFL quarters, so the likes of Willis, Bowman and Justin Smith will look to rattle the rookie early. Cincinnati's defense struggled against the run a week ago, meaning this should be the week that Gore gets going. It still might not be enough, as a trip across the country isn't likely to end San Francisco's recent road struggles.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 16, 49ers 10
09/22 15:19:38 ET