Here's a key matchup to watch as the Bengals try to win their third consecutive game — and the Jaguars try to move to the .500 mark:
Bengals passing game vs. Jaguars pass defense
When these teams last played almost a year ago, the Bengals pulled away in the final minutes en route to a 30-20 win. However, the Bengals' final seven points were on a 10-yard fumble return by DT Geno Atkins on the game's last play after a series of last-ditch Jacksonville laterals ended in disaster.
In essence, this was a three-point Cincinnati win, and defeat very much looked like a possibility for the visitors until the final moments.
One reason the Bengals prevailed: their passing game made just enough plays.
Facing 4th-and-6 at the Jacksonville 19 and trailing 20-16 with 3:53 left, Bengals QB Andy Dalton took a shotgun snap and looked for TE Jermaine Gresham, who had run an out route against Jaguars SS Dawan Landry. Dalton delivered a high throw, and the athletic Gresham leaped to grab the ball. The nine-yard gain gave the Bengals a 1st-and-goal at the 10. Two plays later, Dalton delivered a nice touch pass to in-cutting WR Andre Caldwell for an eight-yard gain. On the next snap, Bernard Scott scored the go-ahead TD, giving Cincinnati the lead for good.
For the game, Dalton completed 21-of-33 passes for 179 yards with a pair of TD tosses. Both highlight the challenges of dealing with the Bengals' passing game. The first was a 37-yarder to A.J. Green on a 3rd-and-17 play. The swift Green simply ran through the Jaguars' defense, which was in zone coverage, and Dalton hit him in stride. His second TD, a three-yarder to Gresham, was a testament to Dalton's mobility and accuracy and Gresham's athleticism and hard work. Gresham was initially covered, but he worked free, and Dalton, who had scrambled right, delivered a strike.
Green and Gresham both played key roles in the Bengals' 38-31 win at Washington in Week Three. The Bengals' go-to receiver, Green hauled in nine passes for 183 yards, including a 73-yard TD on the Bengals' first offensive play. With the Bengals in the "Wildcat," Green ended up being covered by Redskins S DeJon Gomes, and Green broke free with ease en route to the score. Gresham caught five passes for 64 yards and showed great strength in fighting for a six-yard fourth-quarter TD.
Green is one of the NFL's toughest matchups at his position, and the Jaguars will have their hands full trying to stop him. Gresham, too, is a challenge to stop. The Bengals are also getting positive contributions from WRs Armon Binns (12-157-1) and Andrew Hawkins (12-208-2). Binns is a big, reliable possession target, and the diminutive Hawkins' quickness and elusiveness are impresssive.
Dalton (65-of-95 passing, 867 yards, six TDs, three interceptions in 2012) has started his sophomore season on a positive note. However, he has been sacked 12 times, so how the Bengals handle the Jaguars' pass rush is an issue to watch. If Jacksonville — which has just two sacks in three games — can pressure Dalton, it will help in the efforts to cover Green and Co. The Jaguars sacked Dalton twice in last season's matchup, and they picked him off once, with S Dwight Lowery stepping in front of a deep pass intended for Green.
The Jaguars are perhaps stronger than they were at cornerback a season ago, with ex-Giant Aaron Ross joining starters Rashean Mathis (left side) and Derek Cox (right) among the club's top three players at the position. Mathis (knee) and Cox (hamstring) each returned to the lineup in Week Three. It will take a team effort to slow the Bengals, with the pass rush and safeties Lowery and Landry chipping in, but the Jaguars' CB situation certainly looks improved entering this game, and that's a positive.