Geno Smith this season has looked a lot like relatively promising rookies usually do. Outside of a few exemplary performances (three touchdown passes against the Atlanta Falcons, 331 yards passing against the Buffalo Bills) he has largely struggled. On the season, he is completing less than 60 percent of passes and has thrown eight touchdown passes to 11 interceptions. New York Jets fans have reason to be optimistic about the future, but at the moment, Smith is in the bottom echelon of starting NFL quarterbacks, ranking 27th with a 74.3 quarterback rating.
The season is still young. We're not even at the halfway point of the season, after all. Smith still has plenty of time to climb the ranks and finish the year among the better quarterbacks in the league, rookie or not. To do so would require drastic improvement, but who is better-suited to pull a statistical u-turn than a first-year player? Andrew Luck threw eight touchdown passes to eight interceptions through seven games last season, and went 15-10 the rest of the way. Russell Wilson had eight touchdown passes to seven interceptions through seven games last season, and finished the year 18-3. Rookie quarterbacks improve fast.
If Smith is ready to make the proverbial "leap," than this week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals could be the perfect proving ground. Few defenses in the NFL are as sound against the run and the pass as the Bengals. Cincinnati ranks in the top 10 in the NFL against both going by Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric, giving it the league's seventh-best overall defense. Among the defenses that the Jets have already faced this season, only the Buffalo Bills rank higher at No. 6 overall.
Cincinnati will be tough, but Smith does have one thing clearly in his favor: The Bengals will be without top cornerback Leon Hall, who was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn Achilles tendon. Hall graded out as the fifth-best corner in the NFL through Week 7, according to Pro Football Focus. He has been by far the Bengals' best pass defender, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 50 percent completion percentage when throwing into his coverage. Terence Newman has been solid this season (37th-best corner, per Pro Football Focus) but he hasn't been as good as Hall, and his promotion means someone from the Bengals' second tier of defensive backs will need to take on a bigger role.
The Bengals did not hit free agency very hard in the wake of Hall's injury. Head coach Marvin Lewis admitted as much by challenging the Bengals' backups to step up in comments that appeared to be targeted at Dre Kirkpatrick. The former first-round pick appears to be the Bengals' de facto starter opposite Newman for Sunday's game. He has appeared in just 10 of a possible 24 games due to injuries since being drafted in 2012. As with Smith, Sunday may be the perfect opportunity for a breakout performance.
Of course, if Smith is to challenge a weakened secondary, he will need to stay upright. Unfortunately for him, his offensive line hasn't given him much help in pass protection. The Jets have given up 25 sacks on the season, fifth-most in the NFL. Adjust for pass attempts, and Smith ranks 32nd out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks in sack percentage, going down on 10.1 percent of his pass attempts. The Bengals may not be an elite team when it comes to getting to the quarterback, but they're good enough with 18 sacks this season. The Jets have given up pressure to some of the league's worst pass-rushing defenses. The Pittsburgh Steelers earned three of their eight sacks on the season against the Jets. The Falcons picked up four of their 14 on the year.
What will it take for the Jets to beat the Bengals? The Jets' defense has certainly proven more than capable of holding its own this season. That unit is the main reason why the Jets are off to a somewhat surprising 4-3 start. But let's say for argument's sake that both defenses are equal (Jets rank No. 4 in DVOA), can the Jets' offense keep pace with the Bengals? Andy Dalton has thrown for a combined 709 yards and six touchdowns over his last two games, A.J. Green has no peer on the Jets' sideline and Giovani Bernard is blossoming into one of the most dynamic back in the NFL. The Jets know what they have in Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley, Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. It's not an elite group of skill talent.
Smith is the wild card. His arm has put up circus numbers before, hearkening back to his days at West Virginia, and we have seen rookie quarterbacks turn their seasons around at the midway point as recently as last season. Based on what we have seen of Smith and the Bengals this season, the odds appear to be stacked against him, but if he is truly an NFL-caliber quarterback, it would behoove him to beat those odds at some point, no?