BENGALS S REGGIE NELSON VS. JAGUARS RB MAURICE JONES-DREW
Nelson comes home to his NFL roots Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) as the straw that stirs the drink for the tangy, top-ranked Bengals defense. At first blush it would appear the big matchup would be Nelson working against Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis, a Pro Bowl selection last season that scored 10 touchdowns.
But with Lewis catching just seven balls for 81 yards and no touchdowns in the first four games in Jacksonville's passing-challenged offense chaired by rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert, former Bengals cornerback and Patriots safety Artrell Hawkins says it is Nelson's work in the running game that is going to have more of an impact.
Hawkins, an analyst for the Bengals radio network who has an eye on coaching next season, says the 5-11, 206-pound Nelson has to stop Jones-Drew, the 5-7, 208-pounder second in the NFL in rushing with an average of 5.1 yards per carry and 97 yards per game from popping the big play. Hawkins is a big believer in Nelson and thinks his play in coordination with the front seven is a reason the Bengals are limiting foes to an NFL-best 3.1 yards per carry:
"If I had to pick one guy from that defense to start a defense, it would be Reggie. He can run, he can tackle, he can cover. He's the most versatile and he brings the right attitude. He's playing great. He's had a couple of breakdowns, the 56-yard pass in Cleveland, a real competitive big pass to (tight end) Vernon Davis against San Francisco, and he took a bad angle on a missed tackle in the middle of the field on a route not covered well by the corner that went for 44 yards against Buffalo.
"But he's been solid. I thought he played well against Davis, arguably the most physically gifted tight end in the business. The one big pass he gave up to him (39 yards) was perfectly thrown. Lewis isn't the same kind of threat. He's not going to hurt you vertically. Gabbert hasn't really looked for him in the last couple of games. You just have to worry about him in the red zone where he can get body position on you and out jump you.
"But the bigger matchup right now with the rookie quarterback struggling is in the running game because they're relying so much on the running back. They live off MJD. They do a lot of different things in the run game. Draws, screens, scat packages out of the backfield that are really going to put a premium on tackling. There are going to be several chances for Reggie and MJD to be one-on-one and it can go either way.
"MJD is shifty, he's stronger and faster than you think. He can cut in the open field. I can see that as pretty even. Reggie has to take a good angle in the middle of the field and that's what safeties do, but he's been doing it at a high rate.
"I think the entire defense has to get credit for the 3.1 per carry. The front seven is doing their job and not giving up creases that continually involve the safeties. And yet Nelson is stopping plays that could have gone for longer.
"In a game where points are going to be hard to come by with rookie quarterbacks going against good defenses, Nelson can't let Jones-Drew go the distance."