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More Quick Hits: A Few Words From Bengals' Greatest Backup QB; Finding The Right Fit For Defense

QB Jake Browning throws the ball before kickoff of the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 12 of the 2023 season at Paycor Stadium.
QB Jake Browning throws the ball before kickoff of the Steelers-Bengals game in Week 12 of the 2023 season at Paycor Stadium.

When he hears about Jake Browning's next start, it all sounds a little familiar for Jeff Blake, the greatest backup quarterback in Bengals history.

(With apologies to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who won more games, but didn't throw as many touchdowns and didn't go to the Pro Bowl the next year as the Bengals starting quarterback.)

Like Browning in last week's 16-10 verdict to the Steelers, Blake lost a close first NFL start at home in a game the Bengals led much of the way. Then they went on the road the next week to Seattle and won in overtime when  Blake, the waiver-wire pickup, beat Rick Mirer, the second pick in the draft from the previous year.

Those AFC West Seahawks were far from Monday night's (8:15 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9, ESPN) AFC South-leading Jaguars quarterbacked by 2021 No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. But there's a lesson in there somewhere.

"He's a veteran guy. Everything I'm saying, he knows already," says Blake from Florida Thursday night. "Give him another game or two to see what happens, to see how he does. It's a game or two before you can actually click in and actually get settled and your nerves and your confidence start to calm down.   He's probably going to go out and play very well this weekend. He'll play smart and won't make the same mistake twice. He can't worry about Trevor or the Jacksonville Jaguars. Just worry about himself."

Blake turns 53 on game day as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for IMG Academy and he has to admit, it didn't take him time to get settled. Not with two touchdown bombs of 67 and 55 yards to wide receiver Darnay Scott as the winless Bengals stunned the Super Bowl-champion Cowboys 14-0 midway through the second quarter.

"I came out firing, you remember that," says Blake as he recalls offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet guiding him through the day.  "Bruce knew if I took those shots early and hit those early, that would settle me down."

Browning didn't have the luxury of getting settled early. He took a couple of sacks in the first half. A penalty didn't help. A deflected pass for 31 yards did. Just like Blake said a vet would do, Browning emerged after Thursday's practice quite clear in what he has to correct.

"I think early on, there was some stuff where they weren't doing what we thought they were going to do, and, so you're kind of taking the drop and thinking something's going to happen or like you repped a play in practice expecting a certain look and then you do something different," Browning said. "I thought for me, just as I take more and more reps in live situations, just having good eye discipline in my progressions was big.

"And then when the play is dead, like I think there were some I'm holding on to too long trying to convert the third-and-9, convert the third-and-8 instead of just throwing it underneath to (tight end) Irv (Smith Jr.) or somebody and maybe the odds of them getting it from that position are not high, but the odds of me running around and doing a bunch of different stuff, those are pretty low too. So just get the ball out quickly, give them a chance to maybe go get it instead of holding on and try and think I'm going to throw this one or I'm going to make something happen and get the first. I think that's an area I can improve on."

 If it's one thing the Bengals are banking on from Browning, it's a smart game. But Blake agrees it's going to help to have back wide receiver Tee Higgins, a guy Browning hasn't had at his disposal in his six quarters and 2:20 at the helm.

"He's watched the film. He knows where his outlets are. He knows his playmakers," Blake says. "I trusted my playmakers outside. I trusted Pick (Carl Pickens) and trusted Darnay and put them in the roles they were good at. I knew Darnay was my deep guy and Carl was my medium guy and possession guy."

Higgins and Ja'Marr Chase can do it all and so could Pickens, the club's third all-time receiver, and Scott, the yards-per-catch maven. Browning says he walked off the field Sunday believing he had played terribly, but when he watched the film he says there's plenty to build on.

"I thought when I did pull the trigger on throws, I played accurate. I thought the operation in and out of the huddle was good," Browning said. "Obviously, there are a couple of throws I want to have back. Couple of scrambles I think it could have just thrown the ball away on third downs. You're going to punt either way, but just not taking sacks in those situations, I think is good just for the morale on the sideline, not letting them just tee off."

Of course, Blake, who went on to start 100 games in the next 12 seasons, never had trouble pulling the trigger.

"I was reckless, man. I let it rip. I had nothing to lose, " Blake says. "I let my football instincts take over. I'd been playing football my whole life. I wasn't worried about messing up. I let the chips fall where they may."

Two different quarterbacks. Two different guys. Two different careers. But just a word from someone who has been there.

"I bet he'll go out there and play well," Blake says. "There's a reason he's been in the league five years. He's good enough to be there."

THE MAN: Blake says if you want to be the guy, you have to be the guy and Browning's teammates are saying he's doing exactly that. Higgins says Browning's command of the huddle is Burrow-like and center Ted Karras has no qualms on the road with Browning.

"We're not considering Jake a new quarterback now," Karras said after practice Thursday. "After a game and a half with him at the point, we're very comfortable with his operation and what he brings to the table."

When it comes to a silent count on the road, that's in the more than capable hands of Karras. Right guard Alex Cappa begins the process and Karras handles the count.

FITTING IN: Put this one in the category of something has to give.

Per Next Gen Stats, Travis Etienne, the Jaguars' marvelous running back, has been under four yards per carry in six straight games when he's never had two straight games. He's also been tackled for no gain or a loss 48 times, the most in the NFL.

The Bengals come in with a run defense that has allowed 150 yards rushing in three straight games and they haven't allowed that in four straight in 25 years. With only the Bengals and Broncos allowing five yards per carry, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is aiming to shut it down with extra work.

"We continue to practice the issues that keep popping up. "We're doing more run fits than we've ever done," Anarumo said after Thursday's walkthrough. "We just did 20. We'll do 30 a day. That's outside of practice and my walkthrough and then within another practice period. And then in practice, we'll do another set of it."

But fits only do so much, Anarumo says. The one that galled him came at the end of the first quarter when the Bengals had the Steelers pinned on their own 11. But on the first snap running back Najee Harris moved the pile 20 yards.

"We had a mush. A rugby scrum for 20 yards, literally. We just have to tackle the guy. It's got nothing to do with a fit," Anarumo said. "He kind of got lost in the shuffle. Then we had a (22-yarder). At the end of the game, we've got a pressure called and we've got a guy right in the hole. We've got to make the tackle there (on a play that went for 13 yards).

"We can all do better. It starts with me. But that's 60 somewhat yards of rushes. We just have to eliminate those three or four plays that just come out of nowhere. They just pop up out of the ground. It's like, what? How can we prepare for that? It's just making a play when it needs to be made and making sure we getting our point across as coaches."

There is some concern about the number of plays tackles DJ Reader and B.J. Hill are playing. But Reader is playing only three more snaps per game than he did when he averaged 39 while playing 15 games in 2021. It looks to be more of a factor with Hill. He played 47% of the snaps in 2021, when he had a career-high 5.5 sacks. Since then he's been in the 70 percentile and has seven total sacks. He's actually on pace to play fewer downs this year (72%) than last year (79%) and with four sacks this season he's got a shot for a career-high.

"Those guys have played a lot of football over the last really two years. It's over 40 some-odd games coming into the season, which is great. We want to play a lot of games," Anarumo said. "We're trying to keep their numbers down. But the games are tight. You want to have your best guys out there, so it becomes challenging, but we're trying to certainly keep an eye on that."

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