For just the second time in their 13-game unbeaten streak at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals take on a rookie quarterback Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when Jacksonville's Blake Bortles seeks his first NFL road victory.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable doesn't see him getting it for a variety of reasons, but the group cautions that the Jaguars' recent success on the ground and on defense combines to make it far from the walk-over that might be expected in a game pitting a division leader against a 1-7 team with a quarterback making his sixth NFL start.
Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union, who has covered more NFL games than Bortles has NFL snaps, calls it for the Bengals. Stellino, whose first year covering the NFL was the year after Paul Brown left Cleveland, says the Jaguars defense hasn't been able to beat good quarterbacks and believes Andy Dalton stays away from the turnovers that have plagued Bortles.
Long-time columnist Gene Frenette, Stellino's colleague at The Times-Union, picks the Bengals in a tight one and figures more than one turnover is enough to do in a struggling team on the road.
Former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots, the relentless double threat for NFL Network and CBS, is in the CBS booth Sunday in a rare trip home during his whirlwind fall. He won't make a prediction since he's calling the game, but he thinks if Bortles has to overcome rookie mistakes, then the Bengals have to overcome the loss of Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict.
After coolly shepherding Bengaldom through last Sunday's wild fourth quarter, Bengals radio play-by-play man Dan Hoard believes the win over the Ravens has them moving forward instead of looking back.
Let's go around The Table with visitors first:
I know running back Giovani Bernard is out for the Bengals, but the Jaguars haven't played well against good quarterbacks. They've given up three touchdowns in the last four games, but except for Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, they've played a series of journeymen. This will be a good test for them and a good test for Dalton. Good quarterbacks seem to beat this defense. Philip Rivers had a big day against them. Andrew Luck had a big day. Nick Foles had a big second half and Kirk Cousins' only good game that he played was against them.
But their defense is playing better than it did in the first four games. They made some changes in the secondary. They added safety Josh Evans and that's helped. And a lot of new guys playing together more probably helps. When you're playing quarterbacks like Charlie Whitehurst, Brian Hoyer, and Ryan Tannehill, that helps, too.
Bortles has the 12 interceptions and the four pick-sixes, and he's lost a fumble. They're saying they want him to give up only six interceptions in the last eight games, so they're focusing on cutting down his interceptions the rest of the way. And in the last two games they are running the ball with running back Denard Robinson going over 100 yards. That's another question. Can Cincinnati stop the run? Last year they had Robinson doing a lot of different things, but this year they just turned him into a running back and he's gained some weight.
They said Bortles wasn't ready and when they drafted him they weren't going to play him right away. But when they were down 30-0 at halftime in their third game, they just figured they couldn't stay with Chad Henne. Bortles just needs more seasoning.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-10. I think Dalton can score on them. He'll have to have some turnovers for them to lose. The Jaguars are without middle linebacker Paul Posluszny and they've got a guy named J.T. Thomas and now they're talking about starting a rookie in the middle in Jeremiah George and moving Thomas back to the outside. They're vulnerable to the crossing routes underneath. If Dalton's on, they should win.
I know Jacksonville really well. This coach is a good coach. He's going to have his guys ready to play. They already got Cleveland. They're going to get a few more teams before it's all said and done. Their defensive front is as good as you'll face. End Red Bryant, tackles Sen'Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Ryan Davis coming off the edge. These guys are hard to block, they're really good. They can shut you down in the run game. It starts with that. They've given up three touchdowns in the last four games, best in the NFL. With Bengals running back Giovani Bernard out, if they can make the Bengals one dimensional and strip them of their run game, that's what they do. They make it hard on the scoreboard.
The Bengals have to be able to turn over Bortles. That's been the key for teams the last few weeks. At some point a rookie quarterback is going to make mistakes. The fact that Jacksonville is playing a rookie quarterback and they're playing with a veteran, they have to make that a difference. That means Andy can't turn it over to equalize that.
The DBs have to turn over Bortles. The Bengals are clearly better in the secondary and I think they're going to keep getting better once you get rookie cornerback Darqueze Dennard and the other young guys playing. Safety George Iloka has gotten better. Safety Reggie Nelson is a far better player than he was earlier in his career. The secondary is playing lights out.
The return of Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is huge. He'll force the Jaguars to scheme differently. You have to designate two defenders if he's on the field. You have to play him at the line and roll coverage over the top. The other wide receiver, Mohamed Sanu, is guaranteed to get one-on-one. They're not going to double Sanu. You can't do that and defend the run properly. The Jaguars know the Bengals want to run the ball, so that's priority one. Priority two is know where A.J. Green is every down and double him, and then everyone else has to win. Sanu has to win. Wide receiver Brandon Tate has to win. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has to win. The Bengals have to prove they can run the ball without Gio.
The Bengals are the more talented team and they are playing at home, and it looks it's going to be cold for this game. But if you're concerned about anything with the Bengals, the offensive line has to dominate against this front or it's going to be a long day. Without Burfict, what is the Bengals defensive front like? They haven't been stellar against the run, although they were much better against Baltimore, but the concern is, when you lose Burfict, what do you get?
The number one thing is Blake Bortles has to stay away from turnovers. The Jaguars have so little margin for error because they're the NFL's youngest team at 25.55 years old. They can't lose the turnover battle and more often than not they have to win it, especially to beat a team like Cincinnati on the road.
The first four games of the year they were dreadful on defense giving up 38 points per game and then magically they just seemed to hit upon something the last four games and they're the No.6 defense after being dead last the first four weeks. It's just communicating better, not having as many busted coverages. The tackling is a lot surer, they just don't have the breakdowns. But they also faced better quarterbacks in September than they did in October. I don't put Andy Dalton in the same quarterback class as Brian Hoyer and Ryan Tannehill.
In terms of always being positive and in terms of always having a locker room culture that is united and solidified, that part is very good. And that's all well and good, but if you're not wining, if you're 1-7, obviously things need to change because you're going to be judged by your win-loss record. By the end of this year, the start of next year, Jaguars fans are going to want to see something more than 'We're building.' That's all well and good, but the NFL is a bottom-line league and the Jaguars are hopefully going to have the second half they had last year at 4-4 after a historically bad 0-8 start.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. I can envision the Bengals winning by double digits because they're favored by 11. But I think if the Jaguars can stay away from turnovers (they can't have more than one), it can be a one-touchdown game. Cincinnati does not have a lights-out defense by any means, so there's a chance for the Jaguars to do some damage. They move the chains. The problem with the offense is once they cross mid-field they don't do very good job of finishing. They have found the running game the last two weeks with Denard Robinson going for two 100-yard games, so look for him to be the guy with Toby Gerhart the third down or short yardage back. It's a week-to-week league, you just never know. But I think the Jaguars will be better in the second half, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
The No. 1 thing on defense they have to do is baffle Bortles. With 12 interceptions in five-and-a-half games, that's more than any other team in the NFL. That's killing them. If you look back at last week's game against the Dolphins I think they had outgained them 180 yards to six. They went up and down the field, but the two pick-sixes completely changed the game. Bortles said it at the end of the game, "I'm killing us." The Bengals need him to be saying that again this week.
Last week I thought Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther did a great job of confusing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. If you can confuse a guy with that much experience and success, then fingers crossed you can do the same thing against a rookie.
Not having Burfict is a problem. The fact he was in for 60 of 65 snaps last week made a big difference. The defense after that opening drive by the Ravens looked like the Bengals defense again. But they do have SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur back and he played great last week. Yes, Vontaze is out. But against the Colts, all three starting linebackers were out. They've got one back on the field now and he's playing well and hopefully that's enough.
I think the Jaguars defense is a lot like the Colts two weeks ago. They're going to load the box and dare you to throw it over their heads and the problem with that is you have to protect Andy against a team that has 25 sacks and has them from all over the place. Statistically, looking at their defense it's a lot like the Colts. A lot of the same things. A lot of guys with multiple sacks while not giving up a lot of rushing yards. They held Cleveland to 2.5 yards per carry a few weeks ago when they beat the Browns.
The Bengals offense has to figure out what they weren't able to do against the Colts because that's what they're going to have to do to win this game on Sunday. My partner Dave Lapham's film study showed there wasn't much time for the receivers to get open in Indy. The Colts did a really good job putting pressure on Andy quickly, so the receivers maybe took more criticism than they deserved in that game.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. I don't see them taking a step backwards after last week's win. It was such a big win, so badly needed to stop the bleeding. I can't see this team, with a good core of veteran leaders and the possibility of having A.J. back, going backward and losing a game at home to a team that's not as good as they are.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rookie quarterbacks have given Bengaldom its share of recent angst. From sixth-rounder Bruce Gradkowski beating them on the last play in Tampa in 2006 to first-rounder Joe Flacco beating them in his first game running a touchdown 38 yards on a broken play in the 2008 opener to fifth-rounder T.J. Yates beating them twice in 27 days in 2011.
But the Bengals have also had their way in PBS lately with guys like the Jets' Geno Smith last year (two pick-sixes) and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden (six sacks) in 2012. And in the Bengals' 13-game home unbeaten streak against rookies, Super Bowl MVPs and journeymen, they've intercepted twice as many passes (24) as touchdowns allowed (12).
If the Bengals are to jack their record to 13-10 against rookie quarterbacks under head coach Marvin Lewis, they'll need to defend the zone read much better than they did in the Oct. 12 tie to Carolina when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton ran wild for the first and only time this year with 107 yards.
Bortles is no Newton. But he's just big enough (6-5, 232), just accurate enough (63.5 completion percentage) and just athletic enough (averaging seven yards per carry on 27 runs) to scare you and keep coordinators up at night. Plus, converted college quarterback Denard Robinson has ripped off 100-yad rushing games the last two weeks.
With their two best linebackers against the run sidelined in Burfict and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the Bengals' patchwork backer corps is going to be under great stress to keep the Jags' running game in check. If Bortles can play-action, or drop back and throw on any down because of the run game, he'll have a shot. But if the Bengals can get him in third-and-long by stuffing the run, he's 28th in NFL third down passing and the Jags have allowed a league-high 33 sacks.
Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has a knack for coming up with pressures that make QBs hold the ball. But they have to stop the run first and they'll be doing it with an all-hands-on-deck-approach where all four backers left have to play. Even Nico Johnson, who just arrived two weeks ago. Their run fits are going to have to be better than the ones that have allowed 140 rushing yards per game, 29th in the league.
Meanwhile, if things go well for the Bengals, running back Jeremy Hill takes the rookie spotlight from Bortles. With Bernard missing his first NFL game with a variety of dings, Hill figures to get his most carries an NFL game, bettering the 15 he had against the Falcons in Week Two.
The Jags have been nasty against the run the last four weeks, giving up just 3.75 yards per attempt and 99.5 yards per game. But that has been against quarterbacks such as Charlie Whitehurst, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Tannehill.
In the first four weeks, when the Jags played Luck, Foles, and Rivers, they gave up the most touchdowns in the league and 130.5 rushing yards per game. Somewhere in between those numbers, along with another heady game from Dalton that stays away from a run of turnovers, and the Bengals should go to 5-2-1.
They don't need a walk-over. They just need to get to Thursday night in first place.