When the season began, the Cincinnati Bengals were perceived as one of the New York Jets' most difficult opponents. That they are a formidable challenge cannot be denied. However, they have shown vulnerability. The Jets can beat them.
Granted, the Week 8 matchup between the two takes place in Cincinnati, where the Bengals are 3-0. The combined margin of victory for the Bengals at home is 21 points, against teams with a combined record of 11-8.
- They beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-10.
- They beat the Green Bay Packers 34-30.
- They beat the New England Patriots 13-6.
Against common opponents in the Buffalo Bills, New England and Pittsburgh, the Bengals again are 3-0 while the Jets are 2-2. The Bengals outscored these teams 60-40; the Jets were outscored 79-73.
But some of these Bengals victories have been both impressive and revealing. For example, Cincinnati gave the Patriots their first loss. But that was a 13-6 defensive struggle, similar in score to the 13-10 Jets-Patriots contest in Foxborough.
There was also the 27-24 victory over Buffalo, when the Bills' undrafted rookie quarterback, Thad Lewis, brought the Bills back from a two-touchdown deficit to force overtime before the Bengals won with a field goal. The Jets needed a fourth-quarter comeback against Buffalo too, blowing a 20-6 lead. However, that was while E.J. Manuel was still the Bills' starting quarterback.
Comparing these performances against common opponents tells me that the Bengals are beatable. But they also represent a challenge that the Jets have yet to face successfully. That's the challenge of defeating a winning team on the road. The Jets are 0-2 in such situations so far, losing to the Patriots in Week 2 and the Tennessee Titans in Week 4. (The Patriots entered that contest at 1-0. The Titans were 2-1.)
But enough discussion of the past. It's time to put these observations aside and dissect the matchups that have the greatest bearing on this Week 8 contest.
Jets Wide Receivers vs. Bengals Cornerbacks
Cincinnati's major setback during its Week 7 victory against the Detroit Lions was the loss of starting cornerback Leon Hall. When Hall tore his Achilles tendon in the first quarter, the Bengals resorted to a "cornerback by committee" approach that included Adam "Pacman" Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and Terence Newman. Barring a last-minute veteran signing, that approach will continue in Week 8.
The Jets may have good news in that Santonio Holmes might be available, per Matt Ehalt of ESPN New York. His participation in Wednesday's practice was limited to stretching drills, but Rex Ryan held out the possibility that Holmes might return to action against Cincinnati. That could be a welcome addition to Geno Smith's arsenal.
It should prove to be an interesting chess match as Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer mix and match personnel to create the most advantageous matchups.
Kickers: Nick Folk vs. Mike Nugent
Both Folk and Nugent have made their share of high-pressure kicks this year. Nugent won the Buffalo game for the Bengals with an overtime field goal and a week later kicked the game-winner against Detroit in the last play of the game.
Folk has kicked the game-winner in three of the Jets' four victories. He has yet to miss a kick this year. However, that streak benefited from the "Pushgate" call in which a penalty nullified a 56-yard miss and moved the line of scrimmage 15 yards closer to the end zone.
This matchup pits Folk's superior accuracy against Nugent's superior range.
Folk has converted all 16 of his field-goal attempts. However, he has yet to kick a field goal of 50 yards or longer.
Nugent has converted 10 of his 13 attempts. He missed one of two attempts between 30 and 39 yards, one of six attempts between 40 and 49 yards and one of three attempts of 50 or more yards.
In other words, Nugent has missed attempts in ranges where Folk has not. On the other hand, Nugent has made two of three attempts of 50 yards or more. Folk has not made an official attempt at that distance. However, the 56-yard miss that the Pushgate penalty nullified indicated where Folk's accuracy might suffer.
Based on this season's work, if I had the ball inside my opponent's 33-yard line and needed a last-second field goal, I'd look to the "Folk hero." But if the line of scrimmage were farther away, I'd want Nugent's apparently stronger leg.
Watching how the kickers' ranges affect their teams' play-calling near the end of the half or game could get interesting.
Antonio Cromartie vs. A.J. Green
Wide receiver A.J. Green is the Bengals' principal big-play threat. Green's last game was a six-catch, 155-yard effort that included a career-high 82-yard touchdown. According to Pro Football Focus (requires paid subscription), Green's totals for 2013 are 75 targets and 43 catches for 619 yards and five touchdowns. Of those yards, 199 have come after the catch.
Against the Jets, Green gets to face last year's Pro Bowl selection, Antonio Cromartie. Unfortunately for the Jets, hip and knee injuries have reduced Cromartie's effectiveness this year. Cromartie has surrendered 23 receptions for 399 yards and three touchdowns. Nearly half, 183 yards, has come after the catch. Cromartie has also missed six tackles.
However, there's some good news for Cromartie. Cromartie earned his best coverage grade of 2013 in Week 7 against the Patriots. The bad news is it was an average grade of 0.0 and New England's best receiver, Danny Amendola, did not play.
If Cromartie can't shut Green down, he at least must stand between Green and the end zone. Missed tackles are not an option as a dynamic receiver like Green will convert them into touchdowns.
The Jets should consider giving Cromartie some safety backup against Green to address that possibility.
Quarterbacks: Geno Smith vs. Andy Dalton
Both Geno Smith and Andy Dalton are striving to achieve respect, but at different points in their careers.
Smith has established that he has the physical tools to be a complete NFL quarterback. He's working on catching up mentally. He'll make a big throw one minute, then throw a pass into coverage the next.
Right now, the Jets coaching staff is handling Smith's inconsistency by lowering his in-game profile. He's become more of a game manager than an impact player. That helped the Jets beat the Atlanta Falcons and New England.
That's great for the team in the short run. But what are the consequences for Smith's long-term development? He risks taking a similar path as did a young Mark Sanchez. Will the result be different?
Meanwhile, Andy Dalton, in his third year, is facing a crossroads of his own. The Bengals have given Dalton a collection of offensive weapons like receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones, tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham, and running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
That group gives Cincinnati the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Dalton's 82-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green against Detroit is evidence. However, Dalton's lack of arm strength may prevent that group from reaching its potential.
On that 82-yard play, Green had to slow down and wait for an underthrown ball after beating his man, making a potential walk into the end zone more suspenseful. It was the most dramatic example of Dalton's receivers adjusting their routes to accommodate underthrown passes. That's something the numbers describing Dalton's day can't communicate.
The question that Cincinnati must answer is: Can Dalton take the Bengals to the Super Bowl? If he continues to play like he has in Weeks 6 and 7, the answer is probably yes. His receivers will continue to make him look better than he is.
If Dalton had Smith's arm, the Bengals might be unstoppable. If Smith outgrows his rookie mistakes and receivers like Stephen Hill play to their potential, the Jets offense will be formidable. Week 8 provides yet another chance to measure each man's progress.
Jets Pass Rush vs. Bengals Offensive Line
Pro Football Focus rates the Bengals offensive line second in the league in pass-blocking efficiency. (The Jets line is 17th.)
That's a major challenge to a defense that relies heavily on its pass rush to stop its opponents' passing game.
For example, Tom Brady and the Patriots put 14 offensive points on the board before Calvin Pace got the Jets' first of four quarterback sacks. Once the Jets' quarterback pressure improved, the Patriots never scored another touchdown.
The Jets had better do just as well or better against the Bengals.
The vulnerability of the Jets defense lies in its inability to stop an opponents' top receivers.
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers's Vincent Jackson torched the Jets for 154 yards in the season opener.
- Tennessee's Nate Washington gained 105 yards and scored two touchdowns.
- Atlanta's Julio Jones gained 99 yards in the Jets' Monday Night Football victory. Tony Gonzalez added 97 yards.
- New England's Rob Gronkowski gained 114 yards in his 2013 debut.
Receivers like A.J. Green and Marvin Jones are just as capable of big days as any others the Jets have faced.
Fortunately, there's hope. The Cincinnati offensive line isn't nearly as consistent as its cumulative ranking would have you believe.
In Week 2, the Bengals line placed 18th in pass-blocking efficiency, one position ahead of the Jets. That's when the Bengals beat Pittsburgh. When the Jets played Pittsburgh in Week 6, their line placed 13th.
It's just one more example of the "On any given Sunday..." adage. The Bengals offensive line is good, but so is the defensive line of the Jets. May the best line win.
These matchup dissections haven't covered every possible key to this game. Other factors to monitor are the role the running game plays in each team's attack and the success of the Bengals pass rush, formidable in its own right, in disrupting Geno Smith's game.
If Week 7's games revealed anything about the two teams' vulnerabilities, they showed that the Bengals are vulnerable to a grind-it-out, ball-control attack while the Jets are vulnerable to a passing attack unless they get to the quarterback consistently.
Detroit almost beat the Bengals with only one sack. If the Jets equal the four sacks they had against New England and repeat the success they enjoyed on the ground, they should be competitive in this game.
That's provided, of course, that they don't beat themselves.
Basic player and game statistics come from team websites and NFL.com.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.