BENGALS MLB REY MAUALUGA VS. JAGUARS RB MAURICE JONES-DREW
No-brainer here, right?
The Bengals rush defense, ranked next-to-last in the NFL, faces the defending league rushing champion. Not only that, Jones-Drew is currently second with 5.9 yards per carry after he ripped the Colts for 177 yards in last week's 22-17 win at Indianapolis.
Last year when the Bengals were in the process of becoming the best defense in the league in yards per rush during two weeks in October, MJD nicked them for more than four yards per in Cincinnati's 30-20 win in Jacksonville on Oct. 9.
Since then, teams have gone downhill against the Bengals. In the last 12 games, including the playoff loss, they are allowing 5.9 yards per carry and have allowed teams to rush for 100 yards in 10 of the games, including all three this season with the 213 from last week coming mainly from Washington's funky option.
The 5-7, 210-pound MJD offers the similar challenges of Baltimore's Ray Rice and Rice has racked up 6.7 yards per on 54 carries in three of those games.
"Short and squat runner," says Bengals right end Michael Johnson. "He's tough to bring down. He runs behind his pads. He's just a good player. We're going to have to go out there and tackle with our arms and run to the football.
"Similar, very very similar. I think Rice does more in the receiving game, but they're both tough backs to go against. (Smaller backs) can be a challenge. Like I said, we've got to focus on our technique."
The left end, Carlos Dunlap, has insider knowledge on MJD as one of his offseason workout partners in Florida. Jones-Drew's exhaustive film study is the subject of Jim Trotter's piece this week in Sports Illustrated, but as Dunlap can attest, he's also put in plenty of work in the weight room.
"You've got to come at him, you've got to gang tackle and just make sure you wrap him up," Dunlap says. "He's short and he runs with his pads low, so that makes it even harder to tackle him, especially taller guys like me. But hey, we've got to do what've got to do - gang tackle and get him down and stop the run, then we can pin our ears back and go get the quarterback."
MJD can look on tape and see where the Bengals have been hurt. Right up the middle. A total of 32 of 76 charted runs by the NFL have gone over left guard, center and right guard for an average of 6.4, 5.7 and 8.1 yards, respectively.
The same stats show that more half of Jacksonville's 77 runs have gone over center for its biggest gains, at an average of 5.5 per carry.
The man taking a lot of the heat for the Bengals is Maualuga and his backers, but former Bengals defensive tackle and current media analyst John Thornton thinks he'll be fine once he gets this month behind him.
"In this game the Bengals front four will be fine. It's going to be how their linebackers handle the Jaguars running game," Thornton says.
"I don't think people realize the impact of missing pretty much the entire preseason, which is what happened when Rey sprained his knee. It takes time to catch up to the speed of the game."
Thornton says Cincinnati's issues are at the second level, where backs are getting five yards per carry because the backers aren't getting off blocks or are getting cut-blocked.
"Rey hasn't been really able to get off the block and it seems to me he's not at full speed," Thornton says. "That takes time. Coming back from a knee injury that kept you out a while (three weeks), that will be difficult.
"I think Rey is going to be fine. I'm not discouraged. He's a great teammate, he works hard, and the thing about Rey is he's not going to back down from anything. He really gets after it. He's a tough guy and he really brings it. I just think it's a matter where physically he needs time to get back in the groove."