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New York Jets: 5 Things to Watch for vs Cincinnati Bengals

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New York Jets: 5 Things to Watch for vs Cincinnati Bengals

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

We are through seven weeks of the NFL season, and the New York Jets are 4-3 and one of the most positive surprises in the league. They are right in the middle of the playoff race in the AFC, and this week they face what may be their biggest test of the season thus far.

The Jets will travel to take on the Cincinnati Bengals, who are 5-2 and on the verge of running away with the AFC North. The Bengals don’t get a lot of national attention, but they are a very good team that will test the Jets in every way.

The Jets are coming off a thrilling overtime win over the rival New England Patriots, and they want to keep the momentum going. The Jets have alternated wins and losses every week this season, and they are trying to put together their first winning streak.

In order to do that, the Jets need Geno Smith to continue to improve. He continues to have issues with interceptions, and he threw a pick-six against the Pats on a ball that never should have been thrown. Smith is continuing to learn and progress, but he needs to have better decision making this week.

Defensively, the Jets have been outstanding against the run, but their pass defense has lagged behind a little bit. The Bengals will look to air it out and target A.J. Green heavily, and stopping him is the Jets’ No. 1 priority.

This game is a big challenge for the Jets, but a win would solidify their standing as a legitimate contender. The Bengals are a good team, but if the Jets play at the top of their game they are capable of beating them.

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Who Will be Feature Back?

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One of the most interesting developments from last week was Chris Ivory’s ascension to the lead back role. Bilal Powell has been the No. 1 running back all season, and he has done a nice job. However, Ivory received 34 carries on Sunday, and how the Jets will split touches this week remains to be seen.

In all likelihood, Ivory will get the majority of the carries to start the game, reducing Powell to the third down back role. However, Ivory has averaged just 3.2 YPC this season, so if he is ineffective the Jets could turn back to Powell very quickly.

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Pass Protection Must be Top Notch

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The Jets have had a lot of issues with sacks this season, as they have given up 25 of them, ranking 28th in the NFL. The line does not deserve all the blame for that though, as Smith has an alarming tendency to hold onto the ball far too long.

The Bengals don’t have the sack numbers that you would expect from a defensive line of their talent, but Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are all quality pass rushers, as is linebacker James Harrison. The Jets need to give Smith time to throw so he doesn’t have to make the rushed decisions that lead to bad throws.

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Will Receivers Continue to Step Up?

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The Jets have been without top receiver Santonio Holmes for the last three games, but Jeremy Kerley, Jeff Cumberland and David Nelson have all filled the void nicely. Holmes is doubtful for Sunday, so those three players will continue to be Smith’s top targets.

The one player missing from this equation is Stephen Hill, who has been very disappointing this season. The Jets need him to start playing like the No. 1 receiver of the future they think he is, and he remains the team’s best deep threat. The dreaded bust label is starting to hover around Hill, and it is time for him to step up and prove his worth.

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Can Jets Slow A.J. Green?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I covered this in much greater detail yesterday, but it’s worth discussing again. Green is the Bengals’ best offensive player by a very wide margin, and everything they do revolves around him. The Jets have to slow him down and force Andy Dalton to look elsewhere.

This is by far the biggest challenge Antonio Cromartie has faced this season, and he has not been having his best year. However, Cromartie has the size and speed to stick with Green, and he needs to have a huge game for the Jets. The Jets traded Darrelle Revis because they were comfortable with Cromartie as their No. 1 corner, and these are the types of matchups that require him to play like one.

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Takeaways Could Change Game

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Dalton has been a turnover prone quarterback throughout his career, and the Jets need to take advantage of that. The Jets have struggled to force turnovers this season, but they saw the benefits last week when Antonio Allen’s pick-six changed the dynamic of the game against the Patriots.

Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are the core of arguably the best front seven in football, and they need to get a consistent pass rush on Dalton. He will force passes when under pressure, and he often locks onto Green. If the Jets can force Dalton to throw elsewhere, preferably under pressure, they will have a huge advantage.

Greg Sulik is a New York Jets writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GregSulik or add him to your network on Google