12-13-02, 11:25 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
A year ago, Dec. 9 to be exact, you could argue was the crowning moment of the Bengals defense's rise to No. 9 in the NFL even though they lost, 14-10, to the Jaguars.
But poor field position, the offense's fear of the Bengals' nickel package, and just plain bad play against the run has made a year seem like a decade.
On Dec. 9, 2001, they continually set up the offense in great field position with a team-record eight sacks, a stingy run defense that allowed less than three yards per rush, and an alert pass defense that didn't allow a pass over 29 yards to big-play receivers.
Who ever would have thought that same unit would drag into Sunday's game 371 days later against these same Jaguars? A unit that has only double those eight sacks with a league-low 16? Is third worst in the NFL against the run? And has allowed 10 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more at a point last season they had allowed just three?
And with virtually the same personnel?
"We're still striving to get to where we were last year," says defensive coordinator Mark Duffner. "And then some. You don't stop doing that just because there is only three games left. We still have goals and we're still trying to reach them."
The biggest difference? It's probably field position. Yes, this defense has underachieved, but it's been helped along by the worst field position this side of a ditch Of the
league-high 387 points it has allowed, 65 have come when the defense wasn't even on the field. Not only that, but 102 points can be traced to short fields on turnovers and special teams play.
"Field position has a lot to do with it," said linebacker Adrian Ross. "Teams don't have to sit back and throw. They've been able to kind of shorten the game on us and not throw it as much."
But even with the field position, it has still struggled and one of the reasons is the Bengals' pass defense hasn't been on the field nearly as much as last year.
Last week, Carolina often threw out of its base personnel on passing downs and the Bengals matched up with it. Which means defensive end Reinard Wilson was hardly on the field. He has no sacks after a career-high nine last year and that's a reason why.
"I don't get to play too much," Wilson said. "Most teams are staying (in a regular offense with two receivers). A lot of it has to do with our base people aren't stopping the run as much, and a lot teams are keeping their regular offense out there by maybe running in an extra tight end as a decoy and then putting him out in the slot."
By not spreading out the offense to pass, teams are also able to offer maximum pass protection against a guy like defensive end Justin Smith. He had three sacks against Jacksonville that day. That's one more than this year combined. Several times last week he faced a tight end coming in motion while he was also trying to deal with a tackle.
"The best way to make a team pass," said defensive tackle Glen Steele, "is to stop the run and make them throw. That's really the only way."
Why can't they stop the run? There are several working theories. Their left end, Vaughn Booker, has been hurt most of the season. Left outside linebacker Steve Foley has never played after getting hurt in training camp, and some have suggested they miss the savvy of free safety Darryl Williams in a secondary that has gone through several changes at safety and has had to force feed two rookies.
Whatever the reasons, it's sure not like Dec. 9 a year ago.
"We're just not playing well as a team," said cornerback Kevin Kaesviharn. "There are times we need to have better coverage and there are times (the rush) needs to get there to help us. We haven't had that mix this year like we did last year."
Reminded his team had eight sacks last year against the Jags, Kaesviharn got a nostalgic look on his face.
"Wow," he said. "And that's with Mark Brunell running around back there. Eight sacks. That's impressive. We could use eight sacks this weekend, couldn't we?"
MATCHUPS: Bengals RB Corey Dillon looks for that elusive second 100-yard game against Jacksonville vs. Jaguars SS Donovin Darius. If that matchup doesn't decide the game, then the showdown with Bengals DT Glen Steele vs. Jaguars RB Fred Taylor should.
Can Bengals WR Chad Johnson bump and run past Jaguars CB Fernando Bryant.? Meanwhile, Bengals CB Kevin Kaesviharn tries to make sure Jaguars WR Jimmy Smith doesn't. He needs help fromBengals DE Justin Smith against rookie Jaguars LT Mike Pearson. Bengals P Nick Harris is back in the saddle against the AFC leader in Jaguars P Chris Hanson.
DILLON VS. DARIUS: When the Jags held Dillon to 62 yards on 24 carries last December, Darius played more like a linebacker and was velcroed to Dillon. His offensive line is going to have to do what they haven't done often enough this year and move out two young first-round tackles in Marcus Stroud and John Henderson in order to make sure Darius doesn't get to Dillon. Darius has missed the last two games with a shoulder problem but is supposedly ready this week. **
STEELE VS. TAYLOR:** Of course, it's just not Steele working on Talyor, but Steele is representative of a Bengals' run defense coming off a good game in Carolina and trying to string together stands. With Oliver Gibson out of the lineup, Steele is showing why he's viewed as a solid backup who can come in, make plays, and be durable. He knows all about Taylor.
"He's a quick, hard runner, but you really can't tell how hard he's running because he's so smooth," Steele said. "If you're not on your toes. He'll run right through you. We can't let him break away."
Overall, it's not a great matchup. The Bengals have allowed five 100-yard rushing games this season and Taylor has five this year, plus he's coming off a 145-yard game in Cleveland.
Steele's take the league's third worst run defense: "If anyone is running the ball on us it's because we've got guys out of a gap. That's all it takes is one person. That's what you get when you're in a gap-control defense. It's not like a 3-4 defense where you two-gap and step from side-to-side. You just have to do your job."
JOHNSON VS. BRYANT: Johnson, two 100-yard games away from breaking the team record with six 100-yard games, is going to get chances to go deep. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna observed during the week that it's rare to see a team play as much man-to-man coverage as the Jaguars do. Johnson may not be as double-teamed as much as he has been and he has to take advantage of his speed in trying to get past the secondary. Particularly if they will eight man in the box Darius.
"That will present big play opportunities for us, which we haven't had a lot lately because teams are starting to double cover Chad and the last couple of weeks we played Cover 2 teams in Baltimore and Carolina," Kitna said.
KAESVIHARN VS. SMITH: There are mumblings about the 33-year-old Smith losing a step, but Kaesviharn doesn't want to hear it with 67 catches for 880 yards. The problem is that Smith no longer has his 1,000-yard running mate in Keenan McCardell. The only other wide receiver with more than 15 catches is Steeler free-agent Bobby Shaw, and three of the club's top five receivers are a back and two tight ends.
"He looks pretty fast to me on film," Kaesviharn said. "He's still quick and he's smart. He's getting double-teamed a lot more. The tough thing when Keenan McCardell was there is you had to choose."
At this point last year, the Bengals had allowed just three touchdown passes of at least 20 yards. Right now for this season, the number is 10.
SMITH VS. PEARSON: If the Bengals had taken tight end Jeremy Shockey or cornerback Phillip Buchanon in the first round instead of Levi Jones, they probably would have taken Pearson in the second round. The Jags' offensive line has allowed just 32 sacks this year after it gave up 63, eight to the Bengals in a game Smith racked up three. That's just one less than his total for this season.
HARRIS VS. HANSON: Last week in Carolina, Harris got sat down so they could see what happened with rookie Travis Dorsch and they ended up getting beat in the punting game when NFL leader Todd Sauerbrun dominated. Hanson leads the AFC in gross and net punting after nailing four inside the 20 last week.
NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for this Sunday's game, including 350 and 729. It will be 350 days since the Bengals last won at Paul Brown Stadium and 729 days since they last beat the Jaguars.
15 _ Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's touchdown passes in last nine games.
9 _ Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell's touchdown passes in last nine games.
361 _ Yards Bengals are averaging in last nine games.
408 _ Yards Jaguars are allowing in last three games.
40-26 _ Jacksonville's record in division games since coming into the NFL in 1995.
23-45 _ Bengals' division record since 1995.
43 _ Touchdown passes from Brunell to Jags wide receiver Jimmy Smith since 1995.
21 _ Career touchdown catches by Bengals' five wide receivers.
1,116 _ Yards Smith has caught against the Bengals in 14 games.
1,114 _ Yards Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson is on pace to record in 16 games this season.
4 _ Consecutive games Bengals running back Corey Dillon has been held to under 100 yards.
6 _ Longest stretch of games Dillon has gone without a 100-yarder since he became the starter, which has happened twice: Oct. 17-Nov. 21, 1999 and Nov. 11-Dec. 16, 2001.
1 _ 100-yard games for Dillon in nine games against the Jags.
3 _ 100-yard games by Jags running back Fred Taylor in five games against the Bengals.