“We can’t be undisciplined with our rush lanes because he’ll make you pay for that,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said Thursday before practice.
The Jaguars no longer have Leonard Fournette to rely on in the backfield – after he rushed for 131 yards against the Bengals last year – but Minshew rushed for 48 yards in that game, and rookie running back James Robinson has shown capable with 210 yards on 43 carries.
Daniels said the defensive line is the key to improving the run defense but in a week when it seemed that unit might be getting healthy, that no longer appears the case. Geno Atkins began practicing this week for the first time since suffering a shoulder injury Sept. 3 but is still out of action, and Daniels came up with a new elbow injury Thursday and is back to the sideline, listed as “out” for Sunday.
Linebacker Logan Wilson also is out with a concussion, and slot corner Mackensie Alexander is doubtful with a rib/hamstring injury after he did not practice all week. The Jaguars are without offensive lineman Brandon Linder because of an ankle injury.
2. Eyes on the O-line
Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has been pressured 51 times in less than 2.5 seconds, which is five more than any other quarterback, according to ProFootballFocus.com, and he’s been sacked a league-worst 14 times.
As much as he’s capable of extending plays and making things happen outside the pocket, he could use some help in pass protection and a more prominent running game. Solving the problem at right guard is the first step, and Bengals coach Zac Taylor indicated the team might give Alex Redmond the start at after Fred Johnson and Billy Price failed to get the job done in attempts to replace injured Xavier Su’a-Filo.
The rest of the line isn’t immune to criticism, but fortunately for the Bengals, the Jaguars are one of the weakest pass-rushing teams in the league with just three sacks (only the Panthers have fewer). Jacksonville traded Yannick Ngakoue in August and is young up front. Defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale (knee) is out Sunday as well.
Running back Joe Mixon was added to the injury report on Saturday with a chest injury and is listed as questionable.
3. Chemistry with receivers
Burrow has established a level of comfortability with Tyler Boyd and seems to be developing a rhythm with rookie Tee Higgins, who had two touchdowns and a couple other close plays. Burrow, though, hasn’t been able to connect with A.J. Green on the big plays.
Green has just 13 catches for 116 yards – eight fewer receptions and 114 yards less than Boyd – and no plays for more than 15 yards and no touchdowns. Even Mike Thomas already scored a touchdown – his first NFL touchdown after just 10 career catches with the Rams.
“I would say that we need to get more out of A.J.,” offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. “There’s no question about that. He’s felt his way through three weeks here after not playing for two years. And I think every time he steps out there, he gets better and gets more comfortable. … We need A.J. to help us. We’ve gotta continue to find ways to get him the ball and give him more opportunities to make plays as well.”
With depth concerns at other positions, Taylor has needed to make decisions on which receiver to sit, as there are seven on the roster and only a need for six on gameday. Last week it was John Ross, who was unproductive in the first two games, and the week before Auden Tate.
Taylor said Friday he hadn’t decided who would sit Sunday.
4. Red-zone offense
The Bengals have settled for field goals on four of nine of their trips to the red zone (four ended in touchdowns and one in no score), and solving those issues are a big priority.
Taylor said playing from behind has hurt the run game and led to more pressure on Burrow, and Cincinnati needs to get more out of those chances inside the 20.
“The key for us is to play with a lead, so we can lean on the run game and marry it with the play actions and the nakeds,” Taylor said. “Not depend on the dropback game, which is really where our first two games ended up there in the fourth quarter. Even in overtime, we were struggling a little bit in the run game. … It’s just things that we continue to work through as we are fitting new pieces into the puzzle. It’s an ongoing process. It doesn’t click overnight. A lot of guys started practice here about eight weeks ago. We just continue to look for improvement every single week from our guys.”
Jacksonville’s strength on defense is in the linebackers, Taylor said, especially with newcomer Joe Schobert and Myles Jack. The Jaguars have retooled their secondary but rookie C.J. Henderson has been impressive at left cornerback, and although the defensive line isn’t known for its pass rush, the interior guys have been solid against the run. Jacksonville ranks 15th in run defense, allowing 116.3 rushing yards per game.
5. Trending in different directions
Both teams are building their roster, but while the Bengals went out and made some big free-agent signings this offseason, the Jaguars dumped a lot of their top guys and it feels like a game Cincinnati has to win.
Jacksonville just hasn’t been consistent. After opening with a 27-0 win over Indianapolis, the Jaguars lost 33-30 the following week and then got thumped by Miami, 31-13. The Bengals at least have been close in all three games, losing the first two by eight points combined and then tying Philadelphia last week.
“We just need to win period,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t matter, really, who we’re playing. ... Sure there’s things we have to concern ourselves with the opponent. We gotta be ready for things they’re going to do. But we need to fix ourselves in a lot of ways right now and come out ready to go on Sunday. I’m very confident that our players will be ready to do that.”