The Jacksonville Jaguars and Cincinnati Bengals, two rebuilding franchises at different stages of their reconstruction, will duke it out in the Queen City on "Thursday Night Football" to kick off Week 4 of the NFL season.
The Jaguars (0-3) are all-around bad. They've lost 18 straight games dating back to Week 1 of last season and are probably the only team to waste a 109-yard kick-six in a loss. (Probably. Don't look that up. I didn't.) Jacksonville looks like the early favorite to get the No. 1 overall first pick in next year's draft (again), as the Jags probably won't be favored in a game for the rest of this season. Coming off a backbreaking and avoidable loss to play a road game, on a short week no less, sure won't be an easy task for a team struggling to do just about anything correctly.
The Bengals (2-1) are certainly on the upswing. Sure, it took overtime to defeat a 1-2 Vikings team in Week 1, they lost to a Bears team that averages about three yards a play, and they beat a Steelers team with a washed-up Ben Roethlisberger and their best defenders out of the lineup. But it's not easy to win in the NFL. (Just ask the Jaguars.) The Bengals are still certainly flawed, but definitely improving and there is no reason they shouldn't move to 3-1 with Jacksonville coming to town on Thursday night.
Thursday Night Football: Jacksonville (0-3) at Cincinnati (2-1)
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 30, at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Bengals -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jags' lack of identity hurting Lawrence's development
The Jaguars had just put together arguably their best scoring drive of the season: eight plays and 75 yards in a little more than four minutes. Running back James Robinson gashed Arizona's defense for 66 yards on six carries, including a drive-capping, four-yard touchdown run, making it a two-score Jacksonville advantage halfway through the third quarter. Trevor Lawrence attempted just one pass on the drive.
On Jacksonville's very next possession, after a corresponding Cardinals score, with a two-point lead and deep in their own territory, the Jaguars called for a flea-flicker. The Cardinals didn't bite as their entire front line broke through to attack Lawrence. Instead of taking the sack, Lawrence threw a heave toward the sideline off his back foot and toward an alleged teammate. The pass never had a chance, as Arizona's Byron Murphy Jr. intercepted the throw and waltzed into the end zone untouched. That play flipped the tide of the game.
Urban Meyer wants to be aggressive and creative, and that's fine, but he isn't coaching "The Little Giants," and running the "Annexation of Puerto Rico" isn't going to cut it in the real world. His offensive principles are putting his rookie quarterback, and, in effect, the whole Jacksonville offense in no-win situations.
The first way to remedy this is to simplify the passing attack. Make throws easier for Lawrence by making receivers' routes quicker and shorter. Most of his throws should be off of three-step drops or to short and intermediate routes, not a seven-step dropback. Right now, that's not happening. Lawrence's average intended air yards (9.6) are the third highest in the league, meaning he's throwing downfield more than just about every other QB. While his bad throw rate (23.3 percent) is the worst in the league, his quarterback rating (60) is third worst, his completion percentage (54 percent) is second worst, and his seven interceptions are the worst. Save Lawrence from himself by making the offense simpler to execute.
And how do we do that? By running the football — something that Meyer apparently refuses to do. Robinson's 5.2 yards per carry currently ranks fourth in the NFL, but his 31 attempts are 27th. Meyer said after the loss on Sunday that he'll continue to give the ball to Robinson and backup Carlos Hyde (5.0 ypc, 19 att.). Continue? How can you continue to run the ball when you're 27th as a team in rushing attempts? You can't continue something you've never started doing. Better start on Thursday night against Cincinnati.
2. Burrow to Chase
Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase knew one another pretty well before the Bengals drafted Chase with the fifth overall pick in this year's draft. Together, Burrow and Chase were part of arguably the greatest college football offense ever assembled in LSU's 2019 title team. Twenty of Burrow's record-setting 60 touchdown passes went to Chase as LSU cruised to a national title and Burrow became a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.
Fast-forward one year, past Burrow's knee injury and past Chase opting out of his junior year of college, and the two are reigniting their connection on the Bengals. The duo has connected for at least one touchdown in each of the first three games this season and four total. Last week, Chase burned the Steelers for two, including a perfectly thrown 34-yard lob from Burrow with 37 seconds left before halftime that essentially put the game away.
Chase's four touchdown catches are tied for second in the league, while his 20 yards per reception not only show his big-play ability but also rank fifth in the NFL. Burrow's 151 passer rating on throws to Chase is one of the highest QB-to-WR marks in the league thus far. Thursday, Burrow and Chase take on a Jaguars secondary that has given up the fourth-most passing yards this season (907 yards) and the second-most net yards gained per pass attempt (8.6). It's obvious that the Bayou Connection is a primary driver in the Bengals' early-season surge, but more importantly, it could prove to be a franchise cornerstone for the next decade.
3. Cincy's O-line improving?
One of the biggest deterrents in a young quarterback's development is a lack of protection from his offensive line. We've seen it time and time again: a rookie quarterback tabbed to rebuild a struggling franchise is thrown to the NFL wolves because his offensive line is hot garbage. Ask Jeff George, Randall Cunningham, Tim Couch, David Carr, Ryan Tannehill, and Deshaun Watson. You can ask Burrow too.
Last year, in his rookie season, Burrow was hit and pressured as much as any quarterback in the NFL, and it's not unfair to say that the lack of protection up front resulted in his season-ending knee injury against Washington. Before the injury, Burrow was sacked 32 times in 10 games, on pace to lead the league with approximately 51 sacks. He was sacked at least three times in a game six times and was pressured on 25 percent of all throws. It's hard to learn how to play the game with an entire defense in your face, all the time.
The Bengals' offensive line was back to being awful to start the 2021 season, allowing Burrow to get sacked five teams in each of the first two games. But the group bounced back against the Steelers last week. Burrow made it through the game completely untouched, literally — never getting sacked, hit, hurried, or even pressured for the first time in his career — and snapping Pittsburgh's NFL-record 75-game sack streak. The protection mattered. Burrow went 14 for 18 with three touchdowns, a 122 passer rating, and a stellar 9.6 yards per completion. True, the Steelers were without their best pass rushers in T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Stephon Tuitt, but let's not let the facts get in the way of a good story.
The bottom line is if the Bengals want to continue to keep trending upward, their front line has to keep Burrow as clean as possible. This week, Cincy faces a Jacksonville defense that doesn't blitz very often and is 31st in sacks (4). But the Jags still get to opposing quarterbacks, as they rank seventh in pressures (34) and are in the upper third in quarterback knockdowns (11).
The Bengals are certainly on the upswing with a healthy Burrow running the show, while the Jaguars are still on square one with Lawrence. A road test on a short week certainly won't help the rookie find his flow in an offense that has been rather putrid.
Prediction: Bengals 26, Jaguars 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.