Rookie running back Jeremy Hill has added some red-zone punch.
BENGALS C RUSSELL BODINE AND RB JEREMY HILL VS. JAGUARS MBL J.T. THOMAS III
The Bengals are coming off a bruising, effective effort against the Ravens' NFL leading red-zone defense with three touchdowns on four journeys inside the 20 in last Sunday's 27-24 victory. Now after knocking the Ravens out of the top spot, they face a Jaguars defense ranked first in the red, where they allow a touchdown just 35 percent of time.
And it's a preview of what the Bengals are going to see all over the field because, like the Colts defense that shut out Cincinnati two weeks ago, the Jaguars are expected to stack the box with their own physical front, constrict the entire field like it's in the red zone, and dare quarterback Andy Dalton to beat them against a front generating the second most sacks in the NFL.
"The key with these guys is staying out of third and long," says left guard Clint Boling. "They really like to bring the pressure and it comes from all over. We've got to watch for that."
The Jags have been salty of late, giving up just 3.75 yards per rush in the last four games, good for 11th in the NFL.
"It's a lot tighter and a lot less area to work with down there (in the red zone), but in the middle of the field I guess you could say the same thing," Hill says. "If you get a team that's playing gap sound football and they have an extra guy in there it's obviously going to be tough to get them all blocked up. The onus is on us as backs to make people miss, because once you get past that second level there's no back there."
The 6-1, 230-pound Hill steps into Sunday's spotlight with tag-team partner Giovani Bernard expected to miss his first NFL game with a variety of nicks after not practicing Wednesday and Thursday. But even though Bernard and Hill are on pace to give them the most rushing touchdowns by a tandem since rookie Corey Dillon and Ki-Jana Carter combined for 17 in 1997, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson isn't happy with the running game. He wants longer blocks and longer runs and the word has gone forth in practice this week.
But he already sent his message in crunch time last Sunday. With the season on the line and needing six yards on four downs in the final two minutes, the Bengals called four runs. Of course, the last one was originally called a pass when Dalton checked into the winning one-yard sneak with 57 seconds left. But the fact remains that Jackson is going to pound it until they can pound it. It plays into Dalton's strengths. He has a 24-3-1 record when they run it at least 30 times, including 3-0-1 this season.
"I think attempts really tell the story," Hill says. "If you look at all the games we lost, our rush attempts have been extremely low. In the games we won we had 50-50 run/pass so if we can get those attempts up and make the defense respect it, it can help us out as an offense.
"I don't really think there's a magic number. I think it's the ratio with the pass and the time of possession. If you can control the clock and you're not passing 70 percent of the time I think it's going to help you win."
Of Sunday's 20 red-zone snaps, 12 were runs and it reflects the identity Jackson is slowly giving this offense, For the first time since 2009 and for only the second time in the Marvin Lewis Era, his quarterback is on pace to throw fewer than 500 passes. They already have nine red-zone rushing touchdowns after 12 all last season. So while the run has been inconsistent, it has been more productive down close.
"I think Hue calls it more (in the red zone). And we get more rhythm," says offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "And it's exciting, really. And we're going to keep getting better. We're not there yet. We have a large playbook. We're still hammering away and working at it."
Helping them along with this new-found red-zone commitment is Hill's fellow rookie, Bodine. While Hill is the quintessential power back, Bodine showed his strength on the winning touchdown when he backed up Ravens tackle Brandon Williams into his linebacker.
"Oh," Alexander says of the ultimate for an O-lineman. "That is one powerful center. The only thing that would have been better if there was one tick on the clock…. Last week he was a big factor. Six times he put a defensive tackle on his back in an NFL game."
Bodine looked around and saw most of his teammates with him in the end zone. A good sign.
"We caught them a little off guard. I don't think they expected a quarterback sneak," Bodine says. "That said, our whole offensive line was in the end zone. When seven or eight guys end up in the end zone, it usually ends up going well for you."
Like the Bengals, injuries have knocked the Jaguars for a loop at linebacker, particularly in the middle, where they lost their best player, Paul Posluszny, for the year. The 6-1, 236-pound Thomas, a waiver wire pickup last year, started four games on the outside until he moved to the middle last week against Miami. There is some talk that Jeremiah George, a rookie plucked off the Jets practice squad last month, could be in there as well. At 234 pounds, he's also not the biggest guy.
The size factor would seem trigger a Down Hill campaign, but the Jags' two defensive tackles , Roy Miller III and Sen'Derrick Marks, have played well enough to let the backers and their defensive ends (Red Bryant and Chris Clemons have combined for five sacks) make enough plays to be a top ten defense in the last four weeks. During that stretch, they haven't allowed more than 16 points and they're tied for sixth in the league for allowing the fewest yards.
"They're a lot better than their record shows. Their front seven is good," Bodine says. "Baltimore two gaps you a little bit more. These guys try to penetrate up the field a little bit. Baltimore is going to try and fall off your block and make those arm tackles. These guys are trying to penetrate up the field and kind of cause chaos."
It all comes down to mindset. The Bengals are still just 19th in scoring red-zone touchdowns, another irksome thing for Jackson.
"Hue's stressed in our meetings to improve that area of our offense," says right guard Mike Pollak, "and I think guys have taken it to heart and when we get in there, guys are tightening up on their execution."
Hill is on pace to have six rushing touchdowns, the most by a rookie Bengals back since Dillon's 10 of 17 years ago. With Bernard on pace to score 10, they're continuing to cure an ill that plagued them before Bernard arrived in 2013. In Dalton's first two seasons, they combined for just 21 rushing touchdowns. Last year it spiked to 14, a number that Hill and Bernard figure to combine to pass if the red-zone punch continues.
"Once you smell the red zone and you smell that end zone and its close, you've just got to dig deep," Hill says. "It gets real tight in there sometimes with the defenses. The holes get smaller. You just got to hit it. The great backs are able to get those tough yards and squeeze it in there when there's not anything there. That's one thing I've always prided myself on."