Mention the Bengals’ offense to Jeff Ulbrich and one word comes to his mind.
“Scary,” the Jets’ defensive coordinator said.
The Jets’ defense, which showed many vulnerabilities in the first two weeks of the season, will have to shore up its weaknesses on Sunday against a hungry Bengals team or Ulbrich, Robert Saleh and their group could be in for a nightmarish day inside MetLife Stadium.
They’re the masterminds of a defense that likes to attack up front and has been prone to giving up explosive plays and chunks of yards. The Jets have allowed 14 plays of at least 15 yards this season, and the Bengals are a big play waiting to happen with quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon and receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins.
“They just have so many weapons,” Ulbrich said. “They utilize them in such unique ways, and they have a quarterback who can facilitate it all, so it is a great challenge. It is an explosive offense that can sputter, sputter and [then] 75-yard gain. They can sputter, sputter and 80-yard gain. They have that type of explosiveness. They have the athletes. They have the playmakers, so we absolutely have to be our best version of ourselves come Sunday.”
The Jets (1-1) are coming off the high of last week’s dramatic comeback victory in Cleveland in which they scored 14 unanswered points in the final 1:22 for a 31-30 win. They have never won two in a row under Saleh, who is in his second season as their coach.
On the other side, the reigning AFC champions are 0-2, and surely they haven’t forgotten what happened here last year. The Jets enjoyed their best win of the season, beating Cincinnati in the game that introduced Mike White to the world. Joe Flacco will be running the offense for perhaps the last time, though, with Zach Wilson nearing a return from a knee injury.
The offense had little trouble last week, as Flacco threw four touchdown passes. The Jets’ issues were on defense. They let Nick Chubb run all over them and got little pressure on Jacoby Brissett, who had a strong game. If they give Burrow as much time, he could carve up the Jets, especially with Chase and Higgins his targets on the outside. Chase had 1,455 receiving yards last year and Higgins 1,091.
“It’s rare that a team has two true ones, with one of those ones being the best, if not a top three receiver in this league,” Ulbrich said. “We’ve got to have schematic answers. We have to create gray for Burrow. We can’t make the picture clean all the time. I think it’s me trying to do a good job as far as clouding the picture for the quarterback, also clouding the picture for the receivers [by mixing up the coverage] from down to down.
“We have to keep them in front and we have to eliminate the explosives as best we can.”
The Jets won’t change their approach. Saleh wants his front four to rush every down and he’ll try to throw in a wrinkle on third down to disrupt the quarterback. The Bengals have had trouble with the pass rush. They’ve allowed a league-high 13 sacks this season.
“We should have more opportunities to absolutely go forward and rush and jump out of our shoes as far as rush is concerned,” Ulbrich said.
This is a huge challenge for the back end, but the Jets’ cornerbacks have played well. They signed D.J. Reed and drafted Sauce Gardner for matchups like this one. Gardner has passed his first two NFL tests well. This will be his toughest one to date.
“They got a lot of great receivers,” Gardner said. “It makes me tighten up even more. I’m extremely excited. I’m fortunate to be able to be in a position to go against those type of guys. I look forward to every single matchup. I can’t wait.”
The Jets already have a lot of faith in Gardner. Generally, the Jets don’t let their cornerbacks travel; they stay on one side. Saleh let Gardner travel with Ravens tight end Mark Andrews in Week 1 and he allowed only one catch in his NFL debut. There have been some breakdowns with the safeties that the Jets need to clean up.
Reed, Gardner and nickel back Michael Carter have been impressive in their coverage. This is the best receiving group they have faced thus far.
“I wouldn’t say this is a challenge, it’s a whole bunch of challenges,” cornerbacks coach Tony Oden said. “They have a phenomenal receiving corps, they got a quarterback who can spin that thing, we got to be able to tackle this big back and understand the situation. The team’s coming in hungry.
“It’s multiple challenges and just adjusting to all the things they’re going to give us. I’m excited about our guys. They’ve been working hard, studying hard. It will be a good challenge in general for us. We’re looking forward to it.”