Morale had never been higher last year when the Cincinnati Bengals entered MetLife Stadium to face the New York Jets. Coming off a key divisional win, the 5-2 Bengals were expected to suffocate backup quarterback Mike White for an easy win.
The exact opposite transpired, setting the scene for a hard-fought back half of 2021.
This year’s installment of Bengals-Jets features a hungrier visiting squad, determined on the verge of desperation. Cincinnati stands at 0-2 and a game away from virtually throwing the season down the drain. The players won’t say the year’s over if they come out of New Jersey with a loss, but that’s certainly going to be the vibe.
It is worth noting the Bengals are once again a big favorite, as DraftKings Sportsbook has them as a 6-point favorite as of Saturday afternoon.
Here are the matchups to watch for in the Bengals’ must-win Week 3 game.
Joe Burrow vs. Lamarcus Joyner
Scheme is going to be such a huge factor in this game. The Bengals need quick answers for dealing with coverages that take away vertical routes, primarily two-high looks, but they might’ve found the perfect opponent to empty their bag of known tricks. The Jets primarily play a single-high defense and let their corners alone on islands, with the single-high safety being Joyner.
Two games is a minuscule sample size, but Joyner has not had a good start to the season. He’s Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded safety out of all starters who’ve played two games. If New York sticks to their scheme despite the Bengals’ unproven ability to move the ball against Cover 2 looks, this will give Burrow a chance to get back on track by testing a struggling centerfield safety.
Tee Higgins vs. D.J. Reed
One of those island corners is playing fantastic football. Reed has surrendered just three catches for 23 yards on 10 targets on the young season and sports PFF’s highest coverage grade for starters. He was targeted six times against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1 and didn’t allow a single catch. The scheme works when the defensive coordinator can trust that one-third of the field will be locked down.
The Bengals will know where Reed is because he only plays right cornerback. Higgins isn’t locked into lining up against him the whole game, but the 23-year-old who wants to leave 2021 in the past would do well to replicate his outing against the Jets last season. Higgins put up 97 yards on just four receptions last year in East Rutherford.
Akeem Davis-Gaither vs. Michael Carter
Germaine Pratt missing Friday’s practice has made him doubtful for Sunday’s game, and being doubtful translates to having a 1% chance of playing. In for Pratt will likely be Davis-Gaither, who usually comes onto the field when the defense deploys three linebackers. Now he’ll be next to 2020 draft mate Logan Wilson for most of the day.
The Jets are splitting rushing duties pretty evenly between Carter and rookie Breece Hall, but the former has had the slight edge in missed tackles forced and breaking off explosive runs as a result. Carter is primed for at least 15 touches both as a rusher and receiver. Davis-Gaither can’t have many open-field miscues against him if they expect to get off the field in a timely manner.
Mike Hilton vs. Garrett Wilson
No matter who’s at quarterback for the Jets beyond this week, the offense has a solid trio at receiver, and the rookie Wilson has already become the clear No. 1. He’s averaging nearly 2.2 yards per route run and is coming off a two-touchdown game against the Cleveland Browns (the second one won them the game). Both of those scores came on plays where he was aligned out wide, but his slot usage rose from 32% in Week 1 to 48% in Week 2.
Hilton has started the year solid in the slot, but Wilson is the best athlete he’ll have faced thus far. Elijah Moore and Corey Davis will also take their turns against the veteran defensive back.