AFC South: Geno Atkins

Jaguars vs. Bengals preview

October, 30, 2014

So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.

One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.

Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.

Instead, they're back in first.

ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:

Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.

Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.

Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?

Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.

Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).

Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?

Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.

I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.

What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.

Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?

Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It’s been a while since the Tennessee Titans had an outspoken player on defense.

It’s been a while since the Titans had a real dynamic presence on defense.

To this point, defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has done everything he can to suggest he’s going to be the rare combination of both.

Sunday, Casey had a disruptive two-sack, four-tackle game that left Greg Cosell of NFL Films suggesting the tackle might become a Geno Atkins-like force.

After the Titans beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh on opening day, Casey offered commentary on both Pittsburgh fans and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

On the fans: “We made sure we put those Terrible Towels up their butts all day long. They waved them at the beginning of the game, but they left pretty early.”

On the quarterback: “You could see it in Ben’s eyes -- he wanted to get back to that locker room pretty quick. As long as we keep getting to quarterbacks, it’s going to be like that all year.”

Later, regarding the Texans, he told some of us: "We're going to go out there and make sure we put our foot up their (butt). Sorry about the cuss word."

My colleague Tania Ganguli took that to Brian Cushing who had a good response.

"Good luck," Cushing said. "He was real quiet at SC, I don’t know what happened to him. He used to be a nice kid."

Casey would like to get 18.5 sacks, breaking a record for a pure tackle held by Titans pass rush coach Keith Millard, who had 18 for the Vikings in 1989.

Casey said he’s happy to do some talking to get his team hyped up, but resisted the Atkins comparison -- he wants to make his own mark -- and said he’s not looking to be the Titans’ next Jevon Kearse of Albert Haynesworth.

“I think I can perform and carry a load if I have to,” he said. “I’ve got a great group of guys around me that I don’t feel like I need to do it.”

Ideally he can do it, and that group of guys can all benefit.
Reading the coverage of the Titans ...

Saying it’s just the preseason doesn’t make David Climer of The Tennessean feel better about what he’s seen from the Titans. “There’s something troubling about the way the Titans are going about their business. This is a crossroads season, yet there seems to be no sense (of) urgency.”

To which I say: It is concerning. Part of it is the vanilla approach, but they should be better even when they are vanilla. And they aren’t good enough to simply flip a switch when the games count.

The Titans expect to activate Delanie Walker from PUP this week, says John Glennon of The Tennessean, who also offers an injury update and details of how Moise Fokou has pretty much won the starting middle linebacker job.

It’s getting harder to figure out Kamerion Wimbley's role, says Glennon.

To which I say: He was used too much last season, but it looks like a guy who got a five-year, $35 million contract may not be used enough to make him worth it this season.

A breakdown of the offense against Cincinnati from Tom Gower of Total Titans. He says Geno Atkins gave Andy Levitre fits and the Titans were in three-wide over half of the snaps.

To which I say: Atkins is going to give just about any guard fits.

The Titans running back tandem is gaining steam, says Craig Peters of the team’s web site.

An interesting point on kickers from an examination of Rob Bironas and the potential for drop-off, from Music City Miracles. “What appears likely ... is that kickers are attempting such a small number of field goals each season that 1-3 additional misses greatly drops their average."

I love this picture of Mohamed Sanu’s touchdown catch against Tommie Campbell based on the background from Paul Brown Stadium. From Music City Miracles.
The Pro Bowl had petered out, reaching walk-through levels a year ago.

Which created a threat: If players didn’t put forth more effort, the game could go away.

So Peyton Manning gave a speech at the start of the week and some defensive linemen -- J.J. Watt, Geno Atkins, Jason Pierre-Paul among them -- put forth solid effort on most snaps that was semi-contagious.

The game will get ratings and with the improved effort, it is sure to survive.

And it’s got its symbol: Watt’s left pinkie.

In the first quarter the Houston defensive lineman, who’d already lined up for a snap as a split out tight end, shredded the finger. In a sideline interview with NBC’s Michelle Tafoya he showed it, and we saw blood from it splattered on his white jersey and his face.

“They can’t say we’re not playing hard in this game,” Watt told her. “Hey, Commish, we’re playing hard!”

Later he told Nick Scurfield of the Texans web site it wasn’t bad.

“It’s doing alright, man,” Watt said after the game. “It’s doing alright. It’s all wrapped up. I’m going to go get some stitches after this and we’ll be just fine.

“(It) just got cut open. I didn’t even realize how bad it bled, but it bled pretty good. I’m alright, though. That’s football. It’s not fun if you’re not going to get bloody.”

It’s just a symbol. But the picture will be Exhibit A of players trying hard in the game. You don’t slice a finger by lollygagging, brother-in-lawing or standing around.

It's over-dramatic to say he's Mariano Rivera with the save, since the likelihood of the game disappearing was pretty small.

But he did his part to ensure it won't fizzle out.

Quick Take: Bengals at Texans

December, 30, 2012
Five things to know about next Saturday's Cincinnati Bengals-Houston Texans AFC wild-card game at Reliant Stadium:

Bengals seeking revenge: The Texans beat the Bengals twice last season. They clinched the first playoff berth in team history after winning 20-19 in Cincinnati on Dec. 11, 2011. Then they won the first playoff game in franchise history on Jan. 7, 2012, 31-10. Rookie quarterback T.J. Yates was at the helm for Houston in both games since Matt Schaub was done from the year as a result of a serious foot injury he suffered in the middle of the season. Cincinnati will be seeking revenge for that game, and will surely tire this week of seeing replays of J.J. Watt’s point-blank interception and 29-yard touchdown return from the postseason matchup.

Late-season struggles: The Texans lost their final three regular-season games last season after that playoff-berth-clinching win at Cincinnati, then won their playoff opener. The Texans lost three of their last four regular-season games this season. When coach Gary Kubiak talks of flipping things back around and getting the Texans playing like they were when they raced out to an 11-1 record that had them looking like the best team in the NFL, he speaks from experience. Last season they were able to regain the form that got them into the playoffs after an end-of-season lull. Of course being without their starting quarterback was a big story a year ago. Schaub is healthy and playing now, but he’s been struggling.

Tough defense: The Bengals went into Week 17 as one of just five teams in the top 10 in the NFL in overall defense, rush defense and pass defense. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (13 sacks) is a highly underrated player who can give major problems to the Texans' interior line, where rookie right guard Ben Jones has been a part of recent problems. Michael Johnson is also a pass-rushing force, with 11.5 sacks. Cincinnati was first in sacks per pass play and 12th in third-down defense. Schaub is not playing his most confident football right now, and if the Bengals are able to knock him around early and set a tone, it could have a strong bearing on the result.

Linebacker depth issues: The Texans suffered a tough blow when inside linebacker Brian Cushing suffered a torn ACL against the Jets on Oct. 8. Now two guys who’ve been part of replacing him may be in doubt for this game. Darryl Sharpton, who was on PUP for the first nine games of the season with a hip issue, came out of the season finale with a hip issue. And Tim Dobbins, who’s been slowed some with a shoulder injury and missed a game, has another injury that Kubiak identified as a big concern after the loss in Indianapolis but was somehow unable to identify.

Pressure on Schaub: The Texans' offense all spins off their ability to run. If they can get Arian Foster going, then play-action and their rollout/bootleg game tends to really work. But in their three recent losses, they’ve gotten to 100 yards twice and run OK at least in stretches. What’s been a problem is Schaub’s decision-making. He’s clicking with Andre Johnson, but that doesn’t always mean good things. The quarterback has a tendency to be over-reliant on his top target when things aren’t going so smoothly with the Texans passing attack. He’s got to do better spreading it around. This is his first playoff game, and he’s long faced questions about big-game performance. He can do a lot for his reputation if he can lead his team to a win over the Bengals.