The 2-1 Cincinnati Bengals travel to Jacksonville to take on the 1-2 Jaguars on Sunday. Though Jacksonville projects to be one of the less difficult opponents the Bengals will face this season, they can't go into the game unprepared or underestimating Jacksonville's talent, lest they leave town with their second loss of the year.
Here's a three-step game plan for Cincinnati to help prevent that from happening.
Stop Maurice Jones-Drew, Stop the Entire Offense
It's likely not much of a surprise that the area in which the Jaguars offense excels the most is the run. The Jaguars average 26.7 run attempts (with most of those going to Maurice Jones-Drew, who has 314 of the team's 363 total rush yards) and 121 rush yards per game, and of their meager 15.3 first downs per game, 6.7 of them are coming via the run.
Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert has completed just about 50 percent of his passes so far this season, and his receiving corps is yet again doing him few favors. His best receiver thus far is Cecil Shorts, with 154 yards and three scores, and he's just one of two Jacksonville wideouts with over 100 yards.
In contrast, four Bengals have over 100 yards receiving thus far this season, with Andrew Hawkins above 200 yards and A.J. Green above 300. Clearly, passing is not the Jaguars' strong suit. Only two teams pass the ball less per game than Jacksonville, and though this is still an area in which the Bengals must make preparations, stopping the run is clearly their top priority on Sunday.
The Bengals defense hasn't had the greatest success in holding down opponents' run games, giving up an average of 155 rushing yards per week. They've dealt with some of the more stout rushing offenses, as well, like the Baltimore Ravens (with Ray Rice ) and the Washington Redskins (with a one-two punch of Alfred Morris and Robert Griffin III).
Though it does help the Bengals defense somewhat that they know the only time the Jaguars are dangerous is when the ball's in Jones-Drew's hands, that's only the first step in stopping him.
Sure, the Bengals can crowd the box, but that leaves receivers in single coverage or potentially uncovered. They can try to force Gabbert to throw the ball, but when one good throw results in one good touchdown catch, that can be the difference between winning and losing the game.
It's about a balanced approach. The Bengals certainly will be playing the run, but they will also need to do so without giving up too much in the passing game. Ultimately, the key to keeping Jones-Drew at bay will rely heavily on good tackling to prevent him from getting to the second level of the defense.
The Jaguars have basically forced themselves into being a one-dimensional offense. The Bengals, therefore, have an easier time of responding to their offensive attack, but they must be wary of the fact that Gabbert will have opportunities to make throws if they put most of their resources against the run. It's about not making themselves vulnerable to that possibility.
Don't Back Down on Offense
Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote earlier this week that this Bengals offense is one of the best the team has ever fielded, and that's not just hyperbole—the numbers firmly support this hypothesis.
Four receivers have had 50 yards or more apiece in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history, and much of the credit for this goes to second-year quarterback Andy Dalton and an improved receiving corps. Through three games, Dalton has a completion percentage of 68.4, ranking him fifth in the league, and his receivers have dropped just four passes so far this season.
The Jaguars defense is giving up an average of 258 passing yards per game, while Dalton is averaging 266 yards per game himself. Jacksonville also ranks 30th in the league in rushing yards allowed (154.3), and Cincinnati has been surprisingly more productive on the ground this year with BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their starting back—he's averaging 68 yards per game and could definitely have more than that this week.
All the Bengals seemingly need to do on offense this week is the same thing they've been doing all season long (even in their loss to the Ravens in Week 1, the Bengals still had a strong offensive showing in terms of yardage).
Considering that the Jaguars defense hasn't shown much skill in stopping either the run or the pass while the Bengals appear to be getting better in both areas with each week, Cincinnati should be primed to put up at least 400 total yards of offense and at least two-dozen points—more than enough to win, considering Jacksonville is averaging 14 points per game.
Check the Overconfidence
The Jaguars do have a secret weapon that could allow them to escape with a victory over the Bengals this weekend—low expectations. A team like the Bengals, which is quickly becoming one of the best in the league thanks to their offense, can often overlook a struggling opponent like Jacksonville and ultimately lose as a result.
Last year, this very same thing happened to the Baltimore Ravens when they took on Jacksonville in Week 7. And though the Bengals are on the right track, there are still areas in which they are weak, areas that Jacksonville can exploit.
There's that aforementioned struggling run defense, and their secondary hasn't fared very well either this season.To add to their problems in pass defense, starting cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements did not practice on Wednesday and their playing status is in doubt for Sunday.
The strong safety position has been particularly unspectacular this year, with both Taylor Mays, Jeromy Miles and Clements getting starting snaps, thus leading Cincinnati to re-sign their former starter, Chris Crocker, in the hopes he can revive the position as early as this Sunday.
With a defense as shaky as they've been thus far, the Bengals can not simply approach this contest against the Jaguars as an easy win. There are ways that Cincinnati emerge victorious or even blow them out, most certainly, but underestimating Jacksonville isn't how they'll get there.
"Trap games" aren't so termed because of the opponent; it's more about a team trapping itself, beating itself by not being prepared enough for the task at hand. There aren't easy wins in the NFL, just ones that seem that way. As long as the Bengals are aware that this game will be as tough as any other they'll play this year, they'll perform well.