A month ago, the New York Jets were almost the same level of bad as the Cincinnati Bengals.
After a 1-7 start, they’ve won three straight games coming into Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium, and the Bengals (0-11) are looking for their own spark as they seek their first win.
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Bengals coach Zac Taylor reinstated Andy Dalton as his starting quarterback after a three-game trial with Ryan Finley failed, leading Taylor to believe the best chance of winning comes with the veteran.
Here are five storylines to watch in Sunday’s game:
1. Dalton’s next chapter
Dalton said Wednesday the three-game period he sat on the bench was just part of his story. Now he’s hoping his second chance under Taylor is a chance to re-invent himself and prove what he can do for the organization.
That starts Sunday when he returns to the field for the first time since a Week 8 loss to the Rams in London.
Dalton wasn’t sure he would throw another pass for the Bengals, but ironically, he could etch his name atop the record books in his first game back. Dalton needs one more touchdown pass to become Cincinnati’s all-time career leader, as he currently is tied with Ken Anderson at 197 career touchdown passes. He also needs just eight completions to become the organization’s all-time leader in career pass completions.
2. Help has arrived
Through the first eight games, Dalton didn’t have much help from the running game or the defense, but both have made strides in recent weeks.
The Bengals have rushed for 100 yards in three of the last four games and now average 81.1 rushing yards per game (they averaged 59.5 yards through the first eight games). The defense, which had allowed 460 yards in Dalton’s last four games, hasn’t surrendered more than 380 yards during the last three games, and Cincinnati held Oakland and Pittsburgh to 17 and 16 points, respectively.
Now the passing game just needs to get going, which is where Dalton’s experience should play in.
“Any time the defense is playing better and obviously the running game, you look at all the teams doing well this year, they have good defenses and they run the ball well,” wide receiver Alex Erickson said. “That formula is true around the league, so I feel like that’s going to help us as a team.”
3. Not so fast…
The Jets won’t make it easy for the Bengals offense, though. They rank No. 1 against the run and eighth overall in yards allowed, so Joe Mixon and the offensive line are going to have to play well to get things going against a New York defense that has allowed just 78.1 rushing yards per game and 321.1 total yards per game under former Browns coach Gregg Williams.
“It’s a team that moves around a lot,” Taylor said. “On defense, they’re not standing in one spot. They’re all over the place. They have some blitz schemes and different things. You need to be prepared for all of the different movements that they have. Gregg Williams has been around for a long time and he’s been a very successful defensive coordinator. He’s had a lot of really good defenses, and this is one of them.”
Safety Jamal Adams presents his own set of challenges, especially causing disruption in the passing game. He’s had 5.5 sacks, nine quarterback sacks and two forced fumbles in the last three games.
4. Jets taking off
Much of the reason for the Jets’ recent success is the increased production from the offense. New York has scored 34 points in each of its last three games, despite the offense ranking 31st in total yards. The Bengals have only scored 34 or more points in three straight games once in their history – in 2005, they lost to the Colts 45-37 before beating the Ravens 42-29 and Steelers 38-31.
Quarterback Sam Darnold, who was the No. 3 pick in the draft last year, has had two of his best games the past two weeks, including a four-touchdown performance in a win over Washington and a 315-yard passing, two touchdown outing last week in a 34-3 win over Oakland.
“He’s been pretty accurate on some tough, tight-window throws,” Taylor said. “… … You see him coming into it. It’s his second year, and it’s a new system for him. You see these last three weeks, he’s really done a good job and found a good rhythm.”
Le’Veon Bell has 557 yards rushing and three touchdowns to lead the running game.
5. Opportunity for sacks
The Jets are one of the three teams allowing more sacks than the Bengals, and Cincinnati’s pass rush has been showing improvement the last few weeks. Six of the Bengals’ 16 sacks have come in the last two games.
New York has allowed 42 sacks this season, and three of the five starters on the offensive line are banged up. Right tackle Chuma Edoga is out with a knee injury, while left tackle Kelvin Beachum (ankles) and left guard Alex Lewis (elbow) are questionable after limited participation in practices this week.
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