Ten franchise legends converge at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) and the Bengals are looking to give them something to remember as they rally around a decimated depth chart against a Jaguars team looking to find its claws in the AFC South.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable, which has to feel it's been at Urgent Care all week rather than at practice as it updates the Cincinnati injury reports, turns to its own legend in Vito Stellino to anchor this week' work.
Stellino, 78, author of vitostellino.com, has covered the NFL every season since 1963 except for two years he was drafted into the service, starting with covering Alex Karras' gambling suspension to this season's NFL bosses gambling with pass interference penalties. Stellino, who once shared an airport shuttle ride with Bengals owners Paul and Mike Brown when Paul informed him, "We're not limo-type people," covered the Jags for the last decade of his run as a newspaperman.
We teamed up Vito with John Oehser, the senior writer for Jaguars.com who documented the labor and pains and birth of the Jacksonville franchise more than 20 years ago and has covered every head coach the Jags have had.
With the Bengals facing a rookie quarterback for the fifth time in the past 14 games, the Cincinnati contingent consists of a pair of first-year Bengals beat reporters in The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon and ESPN.com's Ben Baby.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and seniority first. Then the alphabet:
It looks good for the Jaguars. Cincinnati has so many guys out and down to their fourth left tackle. There is a little concern in Jacksonville because there's such a distraction with the whole Jalen Ramsey thing. The most interesting thing is how Cincinnati plays defense for the first time since New Orleans kind of shut down Jags quarterback Gardner Minshew.
They kept him bottled up in the pocket. They doubled wide receiver DJ Chark and Saints head coach Sean Payton, who tends to gloat a little bit after the game, "We could have played eight quarters against them and they wouldn't have scored a touchdown.' Now Cincinnati doesn't have New Orleans' talent, but I'll be curious if they try the same scheme and the Jaguars have a counter or whether Cincinnati does whatever it does and doesn't worry about what happened last week.
I don't know how Cincinnati stops running back Leonard Fournette. He's really been playing well. New Orleans put a good rush on Minshew. They didn't sack him that much, but they kept him in the pocket. He's very good if he escapes and he plays on the run. The Saints kept an eye on Chark and kept two safeties deep. The middle was open, but he didn't have time to make a play. When you rush four against him and let him escape, he has made plays.
This is a big game for the Jaguars. I know they're all important, but after this one they host the Jets and they look a little more dangerous with Sam Darnold. And then they go to London to play Houston. So if they beat Cincinnati, the Jets and Houston, all of a sudden they're 5-4 and in the middle of the race.
THE EDGE: Sometimes 0-6 teams are dangerous at home, but you look at all the injuries they've got. If there are a couple of turnovers, that kind of a thing, a pick-six, but it just doesn't look like Cincinnati has the manpower to keep up with them. JAGS, 27-13
The Jaguars rookie quarterback struggled for the first time last week. Up to then he had been magical, lightning in a bottle kind of thing. The Saints game planned to make him throw to the middle of the field and not get outside and it was his first rookie-type game. I'm assuming the Bengals will do a lot of what the Saints did. It's hard to picture the Jaguars not trying to emphasize the run.
They feel like they're close to running the ball really well. Leonard Fournette has been over 70 yards in the last three games and he had 225 against Denver two weeks ago. I've got to think they're looking at it, if we can't run the ball well this week, when can we run? There's got to be an element of that.
This team is probably not going to put 35 points. They're not the defense they were in '17, when the Jags and Bengals played last. They're not that kind of dominant, but their X factor is if they get a lead. They've only really led against Tennessee when they beat them, 20-17. Beyond that they have not held a lead for a significant amount of time. They're still a good pass-rushing team, when they can do it. If they can run and get a lead, that's their hope for turning it into a game they feel comfortable at the end. They could maybe 5-1. They got blown out in Kansas City, but had a shot in the last five. They feel like New Orleans is the best team they played, better than Kansas City, and they left it on the table. Any kind of offense, one big play, they beat the Saints.
The Jaguars are 2-4, they've lost to the four teams over .500, they've beaten two teams under .500. They've got to feel like if they beat Cincinnati and the Jets, they get back into this thing. So I think it's going to be a motivated Jaguars team. I don't think they're a 2-4 team. They feel more like a .500, 9-7 team to me right now. They're looking at it as a must win. Usually when a team looks at it that way they figure out a way to get it done.
THE EDGE: I think it's probably a running-type game where the Jaguars get back to establishing what they think they are, which is a running team that can be complemented by a rookie quarterback. And to them, it's a must. JAGS, 24-17.
On paper it seems like another tough matchup like most of them are right now. Rookie pass rusher Josh Allen when you look at the numbers, he's doing such a great job putting pressure on opposing tackles. He's got great versatility and you're seeing his game translate really well to the pros, so I think he'll be a handful for the Bengals.
Minshew is a little different than what they've faced. Zac Taylor said early this week that quarterbacks that come from some of these systems are better suited for the pros. Minshew is out of Mike Leach's system and Leach prepares his quarterbacks as well as anybody. He's got a great eye for developing them and I think that's one of the reasons why Minshew has been so effective. When you look at what the Bengals don't do well, you don't even need a quality quarterback. It really is about stopping the run right now. The Bengals pass defense is pretty good compared to what it was last year, but I think part of the reason is that teams know they can get six, seven yards a carry and when you do that you don't need a quarterback to throw.
For whatever reason, the Bengals offense hasn't been able to get any rhythm the entire season. Running the ball or picking up third-and-short, whatever it's been. Whether that's guys not sitting down in routes or a bad ball on third down, there's always been one thing or the other. If they can get something going early, but they just haven't been able to find anything.
THE EDGE: For all the reasons listed above, I think the Bengals are a few weeks away from getting a win. Especially with how many guys are hurt on defense. The biggest problem has been for the last five weeks teams have known exactly how to attack the defense. The defensive coaches know exactly what the problems are and there is still no ability to stop them. JAGS, 21-13
Take a look at some of the photos from the series between the Bengals and Jacksonville Jaguars.
I don't think the Jaguars are a great team. They run the ball well with Leonard Fournette, so that creates a matchup problem for the Bengals because they obviously haven't been able to stop the run. Fournette is a between the tackles runner, which is to the Bengals' advantage because a lot of teams are finding success running to the outside with jet sweeps and outside runs. That gives me some optimism for the Bengals to have success against the run game because Fournette is more of a down-hill guy.
The Jaguars defensive ends, led by Calais Campbell, can rush the passer and the Bengals have shown they can't really contain premier pass rushers. They did a pretty good job last week in Baltimore, but overall when you have premier rushers on the outside the Bengals have shown an inability to protect Andy Dalton.
The Jaguars are 2-4 for a reason. Offensively they leave much to be desired in the passing game. I know this Minshew Mania has been getting a lot of hoopla, but I don't consider him to be a great quarterback. Still, the Bengals are down two starting cornerbacks.
THE EDGE: The two corners being out are going to hurt them and the Bengals have not presented a pass rush and they can't stop the run. That's a recipe for disaster and that's pretty much why they've been losing each and every week. JAGS, 24-21.
THE BOTTOM LINE
On a Legends weekend the Bengals can look to history. In the first year of The Paul the Bengals got their first win at 0-6 and gave head coach Dick LeBeau his first victory behind running back Corey Dillon's NFL-record 278 yards. In 2008, they stopped an 0-8 start with a victory over the Jags at PBS in a game the Bengals jumped to a 14-0 lead on two Ryan Fitzpatrick TD passes to Chad Johnson, one of the legends in attendance Sunday.
Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who wears Dillon's No. 28, doesn't need to set any records but he needs to have a big day for a bunch of reasons.
Without their two starting cornerbacks and two best edge rushers, the Bengals defense needs to be on the field as little as possible. Especially against a Jaguars running game that can't wait to put the Bengals' last-ranked run defense in the grinder. And they can, too. Jags running back Leonard Fournette is two weeks removed from ripping the Broncos for 225 yards.
And then there's the Bengals third straight different offensive line combo facing a Jags' pass rush with the NFL's fourth most sacks. An intriguing stat given that Jacksonville has rarely had the lead this season. The Bengals can't let them get ahead.
And that's a good place to start. The start. You wonder how at least four games would have panned out if the Bengals converted red-zone chances early so that they would have had the lead. They could have gone up, 24-14, in the opener in Seattle instead of turning the ball over in the red zone on the first possession of the second half. They could have been up at 7-0 in Pittsburgh after the first series, they could have been up 17-13 after the first drive of the second half against the Cardinals and been within a field goal of the Ravens at last week' half.
Timing. It's all timing. Good things happen early and it can change everything. Tyler Eifert catching the third-down ball in the end zone in Pittsburgh on the first drive. Auden Tate walking in on the first drive against Arizona. Or just simply having a pulse to open the game. In the last three games the Bengals have averaged 110 yards in the first half.
That takes you back to the red zone, where Jags rookie QB Gardner Minshew has been gold. He leads the NFL in completion percentage (77) in the red zone, where Andy Dalton is at 59. He's got six TDs and no picks inside the 20, compared to Dalton's 3-1. Which helps explain why Cincinnati is last in red-zone TD percentage but not why Jacksonville is 29th. The team that figures it out Sunday wins. It's how the Bengals have 13 drives of at least 10 plays and have just 97 points.
And as Minshew gears up for his sixth NFL start, it's time for the Bengals to get these kid quarterbacks under their thumb. They're 0-4 against rookie QBs in the last two seasons and in the last five games the most experienced QB to beat them is Josh Allen in his 14th start.