Week 4 of the 2021 NFL season is already here. Through three games, trends are starting to form -- for better or for worse. This week's edition of "Thursday Night Football" features two teams on opposite ends of the spectrum facing off in primetime.
The 2-1 Cincinnati Bengals are surprisingly occupying first place in the AFC North, albeit by virtue of a tiebreaker. The Jacksonville Jaguars, meanwhile, are 0-3, have the league's third-worst point differential, and are only kept out of last place in the AFC South by virtue of, again, a tiebreaker.
These two teams squaring off means we get a look at the most recent two No. 1 overall draft picks, as Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence take the field for their respective sides. Let's break down the matchup.
How to watch
When the Jaguars have the ball
Woo boy is the Urban Meyer era off to a disgustingly bad start. The Jaguars rank 27th in yards, 23rd in points, and 29th in offensive efficiency (per Football Outsiders' DVOA). Their 5.1 yards-per-play average is a half-yard below the league average mark, and ranks 24th in the NFL. Just 17.1 percent of their drives have resulted in a touchdown or field goal, which ranks second-to-last ahead of only the decrepit Jets offense (11.4 percent), and checks in far below the 38.3 percent leaguewide mark. Their 25.7 percent turnover rate, meanwhile, is the worst in all of football.
The offensive line in front of Lawrence is struggling to hold up. He's been pressured on 32.3 percent of his dropbacks, according to TruMedia, despite being blitzed at one of the lowest rates in the league (18.9 percent). He's holding on to the ball and forcing throws downfield because nobody is getting open soon enough after the snap to operate the quick game, and because the team is so often behind the stick that it feels like he needs to make a big play at every opportunity. As a result, he has one of the league's highest average depth of target marks (9.32 air yards per attempt) yet has turned his throws into first downs at the NFL's lowest rate (24.6 percent).
The Cincinnati defense is coming off a game in which it held Ben Roethlisberger to just 5.5 yards per attempt while picking up four sacks and intercepting two of his passes. It's tough to discern how much of that performance is attributable to anything the Bengals did and how much of it is attributable to Roethlisberger being completely washed. It's notable that Kirk Cousins lit up the Bengals for 351 yards and two scores in Week 1, but it's also notable that both Andy Dalton and Justin Fields largely struggled against them in Week 2.
It's not a particularly imposing unit, personnel-wise, but it does at least have the requisite cornerback depth to go up against Jacksonville's wide receiver trio of Marvin Jones, DJ Chark, and Laviska Shenault Jr.. Chidobe Awuzie and Eli Apple have gotten the majority of the perimeter snaps so far, though Trae Waynes may be ready to make his Bengals debut after missing the first 19 games of his tenure due to injury. He'd likely slide into Apple's place in the lineup across from Awuzie, while Mike Hilton maintains his hold on the slot corner role. However, Awuzie is listed as doubtful for the game, so it's possible Apple remains in the lineup in his place.
That'll leave Awuzie and Waynes (or Apple) working mostly against Jones and Chark, while Hilton deals with Shenault. The Jags receivers should be able to win some of those matchups, but that also could have been said about the matchups in each of their first few games, and the passing game has struggled regardless.
The run blocking of the group up front has been better than the pass blocking, but the Jags have been down so often and by so much that they've totaled just 50 rushing attempts between James Robinson and Carlos Hyde through three weeks. The Jags seem to have decided that Robinson is simply a better all-around back than Hyde, which, I mean, welcome to the party. Robinson brings versatility as a pass catcher that could prove valuable against the Cincy linebacker corps that doesn't have much in the way of experience.
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When the Bengals have the ball
The Bengals have so far run a surprisingly conservative offense seemingly designed around keeping Joe Burrow from getting killed. They had one of the league's highest pass rates over expectation while Burrow was healthy last year, and that has been reversed this season as they rank in the league's bottom five.
Burrow threw only 18 passes last week against Pittsburgh, though he was notably not sacked -- just the third time in 13 career starts that has been the case for the second-year QB. (The previous two times were against the pass-rush-deficient Titans in Week 8 of last season and against Washington in Week 11, when he left early due to his season-ending ACL tear.) He'd been sacked five teams in each of the first two games this season, giving him a 14.7 percent sack rate that was more than double what it was last season. That number is down to a more manageable but still quite scary 11.8 percent after the sack-free game a week ago.
Burrow still has a very strong group of weapons around him, and that's the case regardless of whether Tee Higgins can get back on the field for this game. (Update: He was ruled out on Wednesday.) Rookie wideout Ja'Marr Chase has overcome his preseason case of the dropsies to catch 11 passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns in the first three games of his career, and he's scored at least once in every game. Tyler Boyd is doing his usual work in the slot, and Auden Tate is one of the NFL's more underrated No. 4 wideouts, capable of filling in when one of the starters is out of the lineup. With Joe Mixon and rookie Chris Evans coming out of the backfield, Burrow also has solid checkdown options available to him.
The Jags have been thrown on by every opponent so far, allowing Tyrod Taylor, Teddy Bridgewater, and Kyler Murray to scorch them to the tune of 75 of 101 for 907 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception. (They also allowed 60 yards rushing and another touchdown on the ground.) They have been far better against the run (3.4 yards per carry allowed), so if there were ever a time for the Bengals to begin putting more on Burrow's plate, this would seemingly be it. They might even be able to get away from the quick-game-only stuff because Jacksonville has not gotten much in the way of pressure on opposing QBs, in addition to the issues they've had in the secondary.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Jaguars 17