Rookie quarterbacks have caused the Cincinnati Bengals problems in recent seasons, as their 7-8 record against them since 2008 attests. On Sunday afternoon in the familiar confines of Paul Brown Stadium, they hope to pull that record even when Geno Smith and the New York Jets come to town.
Just like the Bengals' own young quarterback, Smith has found the winning formula the past five weeks, winning three games in that span. All four of the wins he has engineered this season have become victories because of game-winning drives he has led. While there might be other factors at play that are contributing more to New York's 4-3 record, there isn't much denying that Smith has had some hand in it, too.
As they interrupt a four-cities-in-five-weeks road tour with this home game, the Bengals are looking to extend their winning streak to four. In this edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Jets reporter Rich Cimini look at what could contribute to that happening or to Cincinnati losing and dropping to 5-3.
Coley Harvey: So Rich, Sunday’s game will feature two of the three players in the league named Geno. Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Jets quarterback Geno Smith have earned rather impressive headlines this season. In Atkins’ case, it was for signing his $55 million contract extension five days before the season opener. Recently, Smith’s headlines have come from the four game-winning drives he’s led. Both are good young players, but something will have to give. How confident are Smith and the Jets that they’ll be able to keep Atkins and the rest of Cincinnati’s defensive line out of their backfield?
Rich Cimini: You just hit on one of the keys to the game, Coley. The Jets have allowed a lot of sacks (25), but I think many of those can be attributed to Smith, who tends to hold the ball too long. That said, the line needs to do a better job, especially the left side. Tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and rookie guard Brian Winters allowed two sacks apiece last week, bringing their totals to four and three, respectively. That's not a good number for Winters, who has started only three games. I don't see how he handles Atkins; he's simply not ready for that kind of challenge this soon. There are some tough matchups across the board for the Jets. The coaches will have to game plan ways for Smith to get the ball out quickly. I see Andy Dalton is coming off a big game. Is the Bengals' offense for real?
Harvey: It’s tough to really answer that question, Rich. One week the Bengals' offense looks for real, the next, it looks like a cheap imitation of its former self. Thankfully for the Bengals, though, the ineptitude they have shown offensively at times this season hasn’t shown up in the past three weeks. You could say Dalton is a big reason why. He is, after all, coming off back-to-back 300-yard passing performances. The more likely reason this offense has started taking off, though, lies in something Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth talks about often: the apparent “matchup problems” the Bengals create. In addition to receiver A.J. Green, the Bengals have quality second- and third-tier receivers in Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, a pair of ball-seeking tight ends in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and a balanced rushing attack led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the shifty Giovani Bernard. Cincinnati has finally figured out how to use all these weapons, and it's paying off.
The Bengals’ offensive line has been a group of unsung heroes of sorts, too. They had a fairly easy challenge last week preparing for Detroit’s line-first pass rush. Just how complex are the looks the Jets’ multiple defensive fronts give teams this season? Could the Jets' defense be a key to this game?
Cimini: Definitely. The Jets are ranked fourth in total defense, due largely to the line. We're witnessing the emergence of something special. The linemen are all good, and they're all young, starting with Muhammad Wilkerson, who is on his way to his first Pro Bowl. The next-best is rookie Sheldon Richardson, a high-energy player who shows up in the running game and the passing game. Quinton Coples is listed as a rush linebacker, but he's often in a three-point stance. He's coming off his best game of the season. This is what happens when you draft a defensive lineman in each of the past three first rounds. The Jets will control the Bengals' running game, and they will get after Dalton on obvious passing downs, but they're vulnerable to quick, short passes. That's how you neutralize the Jets' big fellas.
The Jets did a good job last week against the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, but now they face a double threat at tight end with Gresham and Eifert. How are they being utilized?
Harvey: So that’s the way to neutralize the Jets’ front, huh? Bad news for Gang Green: Short, quick passes are the Bengals’ forte. Dalton has thrived throwing them all season. On passes that have traveled 5 yards or less, he has the league’s highest completion percentage at 76.7 percent. On 66 completions from that range, he has thrown for 500 yards. Of those, 316 have come after the catch.
Eifert and Gresham certainly are major contributors to that short-passing game, grabbing balls off flare screens and slants across the middle. Last week, though, Eifert caught his first touchdown pass of the season when he ran a seam route deep into the Lions’ secondary for a 32-yard reception. While they are tight ends and do their share of pass blocking and run blocking, Eifert and Gresham are true threats in the Bengals’ passing game, too.
Going back to Geno Smith for a moment. What has been the trick the past few weeks to him leading these game-winning drives?
Cimini: The trick? I go back to something Rex Ryan said a few weeks ago. I asked him what he learned from his first experience with a rookie quarterback (Mark Sanchez, 2009), and he said, "Make sure you have a great defense." So, yes, Smith has enjoyed some dramatic moments, but they're 4-3 because of the defense. But since you asked about Smith ...
He became the first rookie since the merger in 1970 to register four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven games. Clearly, his signature drive came against the Falcons, when he drove them to the winning field goal in the final two minutes. In the other three game-winning drives, he attempted a total of five passes, including a 69-yard touchdown strike. Obviously, we're not talking about a lot of passing shows. But he never gets visibly rattled, he always seems in control -- good qualities to have. Do you think Smith could have some success against the Leon Hall-less secondary? The Lions' Matthew Stafford picked them apart for 357 yards.
Harvey: It’s certainly possible. The Bengals are going to be bringing in one of their own young players, second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to perform some of the responsibilities that had been Hall’s. Kirkpatrick will be playing some in the slot, he’ll be playing some outside. You’ll see recently signed veteran Chris Crocker taking some of Hall’s snaps. Adam Jones will be getting some, as well. And assuming he’s healthy enough to play, Terence Newman will be getting his share of opportunities to lock down the Jets’ receivers. In short, without Hall, it’ll be a cornerback-by-committee setup for the Bengals. It’s worked before, most notably against the Patriots in Week 5, when Hall was out with a hamstring injury. The week before, the Bengals still held the Browns in check defensively, even though they ended up losing that game 17-6.
Cincinnati’s main concern, judging from last week’s Jets-Patriots game, seems to be stopping New York’s running game. A lot of people here this week have been comparing the Jets to the Bills with respect to the potency of their multi-back running game. As someone who will see the Bills twice this season, do you think that’s a fair comparison to make for a defense that’s used to facing truer pass-first offenses?
Cimini: The Jets use a two-man committee, Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. In that sense, they compare to the Bills. In terms of ability, they're not as potent as the Bills. The Jets don't have a C.J. Spiller-type, meaning a home-run threat. They are the ultimate grind-it-out rushing attack. Their most explosive back, Mike Goodson, blew out his knee two weeks ago, so he's done for the seaosn -- and they will miss his ability to threaten the perimeter. Powell and Ivory are a nice tandem, each capable of a 100-yard rushing day on any given Sunday, but I wouldn't say either one possesses special qualities. Powell is more of a slasher than Ivory, who reminds me of a poor man's Marshawn Lynch. In other words, he runs with some nasty. You won't see them running too often outside the tackles. They also mix in some Wildcat and read-option, maybe five to 10 plays a game. Recently signed Josh Cribbs, no stranger to the AFC North, got a couple of reps last week in the Wildcat. I wouldn't sleep on him if I were the Bengals.
There was a lot of chatter in New York before the draft about the possibility of picking Bernard. What has he brought to the Bengals' offense?
Harvey: Yeah, I don’t think anybody in Cincinnati is going to sleep on Cribbs. They know better than most teams just what he can do. With respect to the Jets’ overall rushing game, it was kind of surprising to hear Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict almost nonchalantly dismiss it this week. He said he didn’t think the Bengals would have much issue stopping it, saying that after “15, 20 plays” the Jets would realize it wouldn’t work. Big, bold talk from the NFL’s leading tackler. Then again, Burfict is the one who was scolded this training camp for bringing Bernard to the ground during a practice drill, so maybe he really can talk that talk.
Bernard really is a special player, Rich. New York had good reason to be excited about possibly drafting him. He’s quick, shifty, has great acceleration and is a home run threat. His two receiving touchdowns have come on short screen passes that ended up becoming longer gains. Both scores were caught at the line of scrimmage and resulted in 20- and 27-yard touchdowns, respectively. He certainly brings a unique dimension to the passing game.
This game features a pair of head coaches who know one another quite well. When Bengals fans, like most people outside New York, think Rex Ryan, they think of his hijinks with the media and his always-second-guessed decisions. Who is Rex the coach, in your opinion?
Cimini: Ryan has changed this season, Coley. He's not the walking sound bite he was in his first few years. A few reasons for that, I think: First, he has a new boss, general manager John Idzik, an old-school, buttoned-down guy who doesn't care for all the yapping. Obviously, Ryan is coaching for his job, so in the interest of self-preservation, he has conformed to fit Idzik's head-coaching model. Second, I think Ryan realized before the season this was going to be a very young team. He knew he wouldn't be doing the players any favors by making bold predictions. Maybe you can do that with a veteran team, as he did in 2009 and 2010, but it doesn't make sense to put that kind of pressure on kids. He also has taken on more of a teaching role, running the defense on a day-to-day basis. So far, it's all working out. I don't think there's any doubt that, through seven games, he's on his way to a contract extension.