FLOWERY BRANCH — The Cincinnati Bengals, the defending AFC champions, got off to a slow start this season but have rebounded by winning three of their past four games.
The Bengals (3-3) will host the Falcons (3-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Paycor Stadium.
The Bengals are led by their high-flying passing attack with quarterback Joe Burrow at the controls. The Bengals utilize a fine trio of wide receivers in Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins.
“Great team,” Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins said on a virtual call Monday. “Great unit. A lot of firepower. A good quarterback. Just good as a whole.”
The Bengals stumbled to start the season, as they lost to the Steelers (23-20) and the Cowboys (20-17). They have since defeated the Jets (27-12) and Dolphins (27-15), lost to the Ravens (19-17) and beat the Saints (30-26) last week.
Burrow, a former Ohio State and LSU star, has completed 152 of 228 passes for 1,616 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. He has a passer rating of 95.6.
Chase, Boyd and Higgins combined to catch 19 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Saints. Chase got loose for 132 yards, which included an electrifying 60-yard catch-and run.
The Falcons’ pass defense gives up 267.7 yards per game, which ranks 28th in the NFL. The Bengals have the eighth-ranked passing offense, which produces 248.7 yards per game.
The Falcons might have to play without starting right cornerback Casey Hayward, who sustained a shoulder injury against the 49ers. Cornerbacks A.J. Terrell (hamstring) and Isaiah Oliver (undisclosed) also missed time against the 49ers.
“It doesn’t really change anything,” Hawkins said. “All of my guys recover fast. I can’t speak on their situations, but we also have other people in the (group) who can play, who are also ready to go.”
With Hayward, Terrell and Oliver out against the 49ers late in the game, Dee Alford, Mike Ford and Darren Hall played the cornerback spots.
“As a whole and as a unit, we really prep hard,” Hawkins said. “Not just certain individuals. We all together prep hard.”
The Falcons believe Hall is ready to step in for Hayward.
“He’s done a lot,” Hawkins said. “He comes to practice every day with his hard hat on. … He’s a great player. ... D. Hall is a baller. He’s always on top of his game.”
The Bengals attempted to improve their offensive line over the offseason but still have given up 22 sacks.
“I know what the (sack) numbers have been for Cincinnati, but they’ve been pretty (darn) good offensively regardless of it,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “I think there was something I saw the other day about Joe Burrow talking about how sacks can be misleading on the other side.”
The Falcons’ pass rush has recorded eight sacks, which is tied for 31st in the league.
“So, we know it’s a challenge,” Smith said. “This passing game is pretty (darn) good. So, we have our work cut out for us. It’s still early. Time to come up with a plan.”
Smith certainly will talk with general manager Terry Fontenot about the Bengals’ defensive personnel. Three of their starters were with the Saints while Fontenot was in their front office.
Bengals safety Vonn Bell was drafted in the second round in the 2016 draft by the Saints. Cornerback Eli Apple was signed by the Saints in 2018, and defensive end Trey Hendrickson was drafted in the third round by the Saints in 2017.
Bell leads the Bengals with 25 solo tackles and three interceptions. Hendrickson leads the Bengals in sacks with 2.5.
“There are a lot of guys over there,” Smith said. “Yeah, we talk all day, every day, and we have a great football staff.”
In addition to the Saints’ connections, the Falcons will see Bengals tight end Hayden Hurst, who signed with them in free agency after playing two seasons (2020-21) with the Falcons.
In addition to the three wide receivers, Hurst also has been productive. He’s caught 23 passes for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He’s on pace to surpass his career high for receptions, which was 56 in 2020 with the Falcons.
Also, Falcons senior offensive assistant Steve Jackson was with the Bengals last season on defense.
“He’s very familiar with them, too,” Smith said.
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