BENGALS S REGGIE NELSON VS. JAGUARS QB BLAKE BORTLES
Just the mere mention of a rookie quarterback coming into Paul Brown Stadium for Sunday's 1 p.m. game against Jacksonville can send a shiver through Bengaldom.
It hasn't been easy against the kid quarterbacks in the 11 previous seasons under head coach Marvin Lewis or the first three years of the Green-Dalton era. The Bengals have barely had their way most of the time, starting with the win over Baltimore's Kyle Boller in 2003, while crafting a 12-10 record vs rookie quarterbacks. Andy Dalton is 5-4 vs. rookie QBs.
But in the last 13 PBS games dating back to the 2012 finale, this has been a much different building for both rookie and veteran quarterbacks alike.
In that unbeaten stretch for the Bengals they have allowed just 12 touchdown passes and forced twice as many interceptions with 24 while returning five of them for touchdowns. The passer rating of the 15 quarterbacks that have tried their luck is a combined 59.4, far below their NFL-leading 73.0 rating against this year's schedule of passers in all seven games.
It wouldn't appear to be a good matchup for Bortles' first NFL road victory. He comes in right in between as the NFL's second-lowest rated passer at 68.3, ahead of only the Jets' Geno Smith, the lone rookie the Bengals have beaten in the home stretch. He's already thrown four interceptions that have been run back for touchdowns and he comes into a yard where the Bengals have racked up seven defensive touchdowns in the streak and are looking for their first one of the year.
Lurking for the Bengals in the secondary is a former first-round pound of the Jaguars. Since a felony robbery of the Jags in training camp of 2010 when they gave up a special teams cornerback, David Jones, and a seventh-round pick for him, Nelson has started 58 games for the Bengals and come up with 13 interceptions while anchoring the middle of one of the top passing defenses in the league.
"Just the mindset. Don't get beat deep," Nelson says. "When you get beat deep, a lot of bad stuff starts happening. You don't want to give up no deep balls and put the defense in a bad predicament. So what me and George (Iloka) try to do is try to get out of them to get jams and stuff and make it easy on the safeties without worrying about vertical routes down the field.
"A lot of it is just tackling, getting the guy on the ball. That's what we have been working on the past couple weeks just dedicating and making great tackles and stuff and not getting beat. I think we've been doing a pretty good job of trying to not get beat deep."
Bortles is a terrific prospect, but hasn't been able to harness his flashes for an entire game. In the Jags' lone victory, he had three of his NFL-high 12 interceptions and is taking a run at Peyton Manning's rookie record of 28 picks.
"They're doing a lot of good stuff," Nelson says. "They putting their quarterback in position where he can make plays and they are doing a good job running the ball and not making too many mistakes. He makes some here and there. We got to execute as a defense and take advantage."
Some of Bortles' mistakes have been caused by pressure, although profootballfocus.com rates him 14th in the league under pressure. Yet he's thrown no touchdowns and four interceptions while completing just 48 percent of his passes under the gun.
Other mistakes have been because he has, at times, four other rookies with him in the lineup and there could be three on the offensive line Sunday if left tackle Luke Joeckel doesn't play.
Or, because he simply is learning the league. For instance, one of his pick sixes came when he ran a bootleg and didn't wait for the receiver to cross in front of him and he committed the cardinal sin of going backside.
He had two pick sixes last week against Miami and that may or may not bode well for the Bengals. Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, the long-time Bengals secondary coach, runs some of the stuff he picked up in Cincinnati.
"I think just how sound they are, they do a lot on third down with mugging guys up and they bring pressure from different places," Bortles says. "But on base downs, they're sound in what they do. They have some veteran guys in the secondary with a bunch of talent; they have some first-round picks back there. They get after it. They're super-talented and athletic as any defense there is."
Iloka doesn't want to hear how a rookie QB is supposed to be easy pickings.
"We're not buying into that," Iloka says. "We know he has a strong arm and he's a decent athlete so we have to play sound defense and just give him different looks and try to confuse him."
They should have a leg up on confusing him. With 208 NFL passes, Bortles is going against a starting secondary that has 382 starts.
"He can sit in the pocket, but he's also pretty quick. He can move around," says Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko. "But playing against Andrew Luck and playing against Cam Newton will kind of help us out. We're used to that. They're doing a good job. They just need to take care of the ball a little more. That's where they've been getting killed, with their turnovers. We've got to take advantage of that, and I think we will this week.
"He's a rookie. He's young," Peko says. "But also, guys are getting in his face and putting their hands up and pressuring him. That's going to be one of the big keys to the game, is stopping the run and getting after Bortles. We need to get in his face and show him different looks and try to rattle this rookie. I think we can take advantage of that."
There have been days against rookies that just hasn't happened as expected. Beginning with Ben Roethlisberger's sweep of the Bengals for Pittsburgh in 2004, stretching through T.J. Yates' sweep of them for Houston in a span of 27 days in 2011 that included a Wild Card Game, to the last time a rookie bested them when Cleveland's Brandon Weeden shocked them on The Lake for one his five wins in 20 NFL starts, it hasn't been a lock or logical.
They roughed up the second pick in the draft when they beat Robert Griffin III in Washington in 2012. But sixth-rounder Bruce Gradkowski beat them on the last play in Tampa in 2006. The 2012 Bengals knocked off two past Super Bowl champions (Roethlisberger and Eli Manning) and the one who would win it that year (Joe Flacco), yet lost back-to-back games to rookies Ryan Tannehill and Weeden.
The 6-5, 230-pound Bortles was drafted just high enough in the top ten with the third pick like Tannehill (the eighth pick), is just big enough like Roethlisberger, and is just athletic enough like Yates to be dangerous and keep defensive coordinator Paul Guenther in the office late this week.
"They're real multiple. They use a lot of different personnel groupings," Guenther says. "It all depends on what they decide to fancy themselves on. But they're in three or four different personnel groupings each week and they get guys in and out."
One guy is there from when Nelson was there. Kicker Josh Scobee. The coaching staff and front office that dealt him are long gone. Nelson doesn't like Jacksonville questions.
"That's old, old news," Nelson says. "It's just another game I got to prepare for and do my job."
But Nelson loves the town. Enough that he still lives there.
"The thing is, I root for Jacksonville. It's good for the city," Nelson says. "You always want to see the city do well. It's like what we're trying to bring here. It's all about our fans. Just as long as they don't do well this week."
In order for that to happen, they have to keep Bortles a rookie for 60 more minutes.