The Cincinnati Bengals head to Jacksonsville on Sunday looking to alter the narrative that this has been a season of struggle.
At 3-4, the Bengals have a chance to get to .500 for the first time since Week 2 of 2016. But more importantly a win would be the team’s fourth in its last five games and inch it a little closer to division-leading Pittsburgh (6-2), which is on a bye.
It’s the first of three consecutive road games for the Bengals, who have not performed well away from Paul Brown Stadium of late. The Bengals are 2-9 in their last 11 road games, the only two wins coming in Cleveland.
Here are six things to watch for in a game that could define the rest of the season:
No matchup will dictate the outcome of the game more than the one involving the Bengals offensive line and the Jaguars defensive line.
Jacksonville — aka “Sacksonville” — leads the NFL with 33 sacks, including 10 each in its first game of the year and its most recent, a 27-0 win at Indianapolis on Oct. 22
The Bengals offensive line has been the team’s greatest weakness, allowing at least one sack in every game while surrendering at least three in six of seven contests.
“They’re doing a little bit of everything,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of the Jaguars defense. “They’re doing a great job when they straight rush you, they’re doing a great job (limiting) gains. They’re pressuring at times — (linebacker) Myles Jack has two sacks. They’re doing a lot of good things, and they’re all fitting together well.”
An ironic stat worth noting but one the Bengals have no interest in trying to continue is that quarterback Andy Dalton is 4-0 in his career when sacked at least six times.
Rush the rush
As strong as the Bengals defense has been, it hasn’t been that good against the rush, ranking 18th and allowing 111.9 yards per game.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther attributes part of that to the fact that the Bengals fell behind early in a few games and faced a large number of runs. Well today, whether they are behind, ahead or tied, they can expect another healthy dose from rookie Leonard Fournette and Jacksonville’s No. 1-ranked rush offense.
Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick, is a big reason the Jaguars rank first in yards per game (169), attempts per game (34) and yards per attempt (5.0). Fournette has rushed for a league-leading six touchdowns, and if he scores against the Bengals he’ll be the first player in NFL history to score in the first seven games of his career.
Look for the Bengals to load the box and try to force Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles to throw. The question will be whether the Jaguars follow the cliché of taking what the defense gives or shrugs off the alignment and continues to slam Fournette into the stack.
“Traditional, old-school NFL football,” Guenther said.
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If the Bengals can slow Fournette – and Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon – they should be able to handle Bortles, who is completing a mere 58.7 percent of passes, which is his norm (58.9 in 2014, 58.6 in 2015, 58.9 in 2016).
Built for Billings
Pundits across the league were touting the Bengals selection of defensive tackle Andrew Billings in the fourth round in 2016 as the steal of the draft, but he’s done little to validate those comments.
Billings missed all of his rookie season with a knee injury suffered in training camp, and he’s played just 59 defensive snaps (12.3 percent) this year.
That should change today with the Bengals expected to be in their base defense for much of the afternoon against Jacksonville’s run-heavy offense. Pat Sims has been used as the primary run-stopping tackle this year, but it’s hard to envision the 330-pounder playing a lot of snaps in what is forecast to be 80-degree heat.
“We probably need to get him in there playing some more because we’re going to need him down the run here,” Guenther said of the 325-pound Billings. “This is why we drafted him, for games like this.”
Another young player the Bengals should get their first true glimpse of is rookie sixth-round linebacker Jordan Evans due to the injury to Kevin Minter.
Last week the Bengals moved outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict into Minter’s spot in the middle and started versatile veteran Vinny Rey outside. But the defensive coaches have been raving about Evans’ play, especially his speed, since OTAs.
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A hamstring injury in Week 3 at Green Bay sidetracked his progress, but Evans is healthy and expected to be a bigger part of the defense after playing 12 defensive snaps (2.5) thus far.
Evans’ speed will be valuable against Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis, who is off to a great start, especially after Colts tight end Jack Doyle recorded 12 catches for 121 yards a touchdown last week.
Evans should share some snaps with Rey in base and split time with Nick Vigil in nickel.
“I think we’ll be getting Jordan Evans some reps in there, just because Nick’s playing so much right now,” Guenther said. “He’s playing every snap (477 of 480). I don’t want him wearing down. I feel confident enough about where Jordan Evans is where he needs to play some.”
Even though he would seem to be an ideal weapon to slow the Jacksonville pass rush as a screen target, it doesn’t sound as though the Bengals will be expanding the role of rookie first-round pick John Ross this weekend.
In fact, don’t be surprised if the wide receiver is even less involved, as in inactive.
Ross played six snaps against the Colts, which was his first action since playing five snaps in Week 2 against Houston. Lewis said the biggest reason Ross played last week was because wide receiver Cody Core was out with a concussion.
Core is cleared to play, and both he and fourth-round rookie Josh Malone – who caught his first career touchdown pass last week – are heavily involved on special teams. So it appears the only way Ross is active is if the Bengals elect to dress a sixth wide receiver, which isn’t likely.
Three of the four longest active winning streaks the Bengals own are against teams they face in 2017, including the Jaguars.
The Bengals have won four in a row against Jacksonville, dating back to 2008, when a 21-19 victory at Paul Brown Stadium snapped a dreadful 0-8 start to the season. The last time the Jaguars beat the Bengals was 2005 in Jacksonville.
The only team the Bengals have a longer active winning streak against is the Browns (six straight).