Perhaps the most useful stat kept by the NFL to gauge the competitiveness of a team is net points (the difference between points scored for and against a given team). Net points aren’t a perfect tool for ranking teams, but they allow a viewer to differentiate between good teams that manage to win and great teams that win with authority. Suitably, the Philadelphia Eagles lead the league in net points with +76 – one of three teams above +70 and one of four teams above +50. The Los Angeles Rams, with their high-octane offense, are currently a close second with +74.
Jacksonville currently sits at +73 – by far the lead in the AFC (Kansas City is fourth in the league with +56). While people debate whether the Jaguars can make a serious playoff run with the current state of their offense, their scoring margin makes a clear case for them as a Super Bowl contender. This isn’t a team that’s scraping by. Like the Bengals, the Jaguars’ most recent game (they’re coming off a bye week) was against the Colts. They won 27-0, in Indianapolis.
These are not your father’s (or rather slightly-older brother’s) Jaguars that the Bengals are playing this week. This is a far more dangerous unit.
Russell Wilson is quietly having an MVP caliber season
Cincinnati: WR Tyler Boyd, K Randy Bullock, HB Jeremy Hill, LB Kevin Minter, OG Alex Redmond, WR John Ross, OG Christian Westerman
Boyd and Minter both entered the day listed as out, meaning the Bengals will once again see Vincent Rey on the field for a handful of defensive snaps (27% last week per Football Outsiders). Michael Johnson and Brandon LaFell, both of whom were listed on the injury report as questionable hours ago on the Bengals’ official site, are apparently ready to go.
Bullock’s inactivity was telegraphed when the Bengals brought in kicker Marshall Koehn yesterday. The team waived reserve safety Derron Smith to clear a spot for him.
Hill is a late surprise inactive, who didn’t appear on the injury report this week, but it appears the Bengals are comfortable with Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard at the position. LaFell being active is likely the reason Ross is on the report, despite the first-round receiver having been healthy enough to play two weeks ago. It’s a disappointing-but-not-surprising move by a coaching staff who hasn’t worked him into their game plan yet. Cody Core returns to the lineup at receiver to join A.J. Green, LaFell, Josh Malone and Alex Erickson.
Jacksonville: A.J. Cann, Sheldon Day, Leonard Fournette, Tyler Patmon, William Poehls, Jaelen Strong, Josh Walker
A.J. Cann (Questionable), Marqise Lee (Questionable), Cam Robinson (Questionable).
Cann was listed on the injury report as questionable with a triceps injury, but it appears he’s the only one of three players from the report who’ll be held out. Receiver Marqise Lee and left tackle Cam Robinson are apparently ready to go.
Leonard Fournette’s appearance on the list is as big a surprise as they come – the rookie was a full participant in each practice this past week. Per ESPN, Fournette is being benched as a consequence of violating a team rule, with his missing a team photo being a factor in the decision. An unusual situation, but it appears the Jaguars staff is comfortable letting Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon split work in his place as they did in their last game.
Cincinnati has the unenviable task this week of coming up with points against the defense in the NFL most loathe to surrendering them (15.7 points per game leads the NFL). Their 300.3 yards per game ranks sixth in the NFL, their 33 sacks rank first (six ahead of second-place Carolina), their 10 interceptions tie for third and their 9 forced fumbles tie for fourth. The only two inactive players on the unit – Sheldon Day and Tyler Patmon – have been in on a combined 157 defensive snaps this season (125 for Day and 27 for Patmon, 26% and 5.6% of snaps this season respectively).
This all goes to say that Jacksonville is an elite defensive unit, arguably from a historical perspective as well as a contemporary one, and they’re playing the Bengals on a full tank. How can Dalton lead a unit against them to victory that has problems establishing the run game and converting anything past three yards on third down?
Some questions don’t have easy answers. Dalton has to have a mind-numbingly efficient game, Mixon has to break one or two big plays outside the structure of the offense, Green has to either catch balls or (at the very least) keep them far away from Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Stay out of third-and-long (easier said than done, given) and don’t do anything to screw the game up for the defense. Maybe that’s the best they can do this week.
The Bengals’ defense didn’t perform nearly as well against Pittsburgh and Indianapolis as they did in their earlier stretch against Cleveland and Buffalo. That’s the unit that has to show up today in order for Cincinnati to have a shot – the Jaguars are markedly less dynamic on offense than they are on defense, and their feature offensive piece was just benched for a non-injury reason. Not too many weeks ago, the Chicago Bears traveled to Carolina and beat the Panthers 17-3 on the margin of two defensive touchdowns. That’s the game the Bengals might need to win.
The Jaguars’ 1,183 rushing yards on the season leads the league by over 100 (Dallas ranks second with 1,054, only Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore have also crossed the millennium mark). Fournette’s dynamic presence as a rookie has certainly aided in that, but the game plan changes little without him. Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon will attempt to lead the charge this week in much the same way – on the ground, straight through the opposing defense, crushing their will over the course of the game.
Without Fournette, however, it’s conceivably easier for the freight train to be stopped, and it’s an obvious point for the Bengals to exploit.
“We’re not going to let the run game beat us,” linebacker Vontaze Burfict himself told the Cincinnati Enquirer this week. “We’re going to at least let (quarterback) Blake (Bortles) throw the ball. … I’m not sure Blake can beat us. We want to put it in his hands and have him beat us, if he can.”
Easier said than done, but the game plan is clear.
Bengals 10, Jaguars 27
The score will be either 14-3 or some nonsense in Cincinnati’s favor or a blowout in the opposite direction. The Bengals’ defense is the variable — they’ll either force Blake to beat them, as Burfict said, or they’ll fail and the entire team gets steamrolled. The margin between the two outcomes only exists in theory.
It could be a brutal game for Dalton and company. Let’s hope it doesn’t fall to them.
– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.