Questionin' The Irrelevant During Cincinnati's Loss To The Houston Texans

Many veteran players and coaches will admit that more games are lost rather than won. Was it T.J. Yates (an impressive young man no doubt) that won the game for the Houston Texans, or a shockingly conservative Mike Zimmer defense that offered a limited pass rush and soft coverage during Houston’s final two possessions, ultimately winning the game? Was it the fumble early in the fourth quarter that the Bengals initially recovered that was later recovered by Houston? Bengals recover that and the game is over. Was it Brandon Johnson reacting too late to Kevin Walter’s crossing pattern, the injury suffered to Bobbie Williams, Adam Jones’ pass interference or the absolute refusal to cover tight end Owen Daniels? Can yes be an answer to every question, like a batch job or a “fill down” response within an Excel spreadsheet?

The Houston Texans are a fine team with a fantastic rushing offense and a playoff-winning defense. Pride swells up from a local product in Connor Barwin making a name for himself in the NFL – but that wasn’t pride swelling after the linebacker striped an early third quarter fumble from Andy Dalton’s grasp. We’re not taking anything away from Houston’s product or their success in branding a championship caliber team this season, even with a third string rookie quarterback. And quite honestly if the Bengals fail to make the playoffs, Houston is the type of team I stand behind in the AFC.

But we can’t help it. Not as fans that felt comfortable early in the fourth quarter. Houston’s rushing offense was largely contained – though hardly stopped. Arian Foster was limited to less than three yards per rush and Ben Tate, though pounding out chunks of yards, was slowly eliminated as a threat as the clock was winding down and Houston’s offensive philosophy shifted to a pass-happy offense on the arm of a rookie quarterback. That’s exactly how we needed this game to unfold. A combination of a calm rookie quarterback and a defense doing everything to ensure his beautiful success story would grab a romantic national headline shifted Cincinnati’s comfortable lead into a panic stricken fan base that had Houston on Cincinnati’s doorstep once again, mere yards and seconds away from winning the game. Or was it yards and seconds away from Cincinnati losing the game? I’ve never been good at figuring out where the line between both stands.

+ YOU’RE TRIPPIN’. The touchdown that won the game for the Houston Texans with seconds remaining in the game was a product of Kevin Walter’s crossing pattern and Brandon Johnson’s obsession with Owen Daniels, already covered by Nate Clements. Johnson, covering the middle zone where Walter crosses, realized his mistake of tracking Owens and literally dove out of his shoes in the hopes of disrupting Walter’s route. It was too late.

Once Johnson left his feet, Walter literally walked into the endzone unopposed. The attention on Daniels is understandable, who cleared the zone with a standard out route at the line of scrimmage. By this point in the game, the Houston Texans tight was targeted 10 times, hauling in seven receptions for 100 yards receiving.

+ THE REY MAUALUGA FUMBLE (ON THE GOALLINE). Though missed tackles and over-pursuit remain strong in his (what seems to be) limited capacity as the team’s middle linebacker, Rey Maualuga had one of his better games this season against the Houston Texans. With 10:56 remaining in the second quarter, the Texans lined up on Cincinnati’s one-yard line readying their 12th snap on a drive that began at their own 10-yard line.

Maualuga lined up five yards off the line of scrimmage, over the right guard. As soon as the football was snapped, Maualuga both diagnosed and reacted to the play, targeting the point of attack between the right guard and right tackle. Laurence Vickers, the Texans fullback and lead blocker on the play, unwisely targets Kelly Jennings giving Maualuga a free lane. He didn’t disappoint.

Two yards short of the line of scrimmage, Maualuga stones running back Ben Tate and during the process of making the tackle, claws the football out of Tate’s possession and, what the hell, recovers his own forced fumble.

Not only did Maualuga prevent Houston from taking a 10-6 lead, he gave the football back to Cincinnati’s offense, who went 15 plays over the length of the field to score their own touchdown and take a 13-3 lead with just over three minutes remaining in the first half. That’s what we call a 14-point swing.

+ THE CURIOUS CASE OF CEDRIC BENSON. Cedric Benson’s Sunday afternoon steady decreased from an explosive back to an ineffective pawn on a Chess board. After posting 53 yards rushing on four carries in the first quarter – including a 42-yard explosion in which he was forced out at the one-yard line – Benson posted 39 yards in the second quarter, four in the third and -5 in the fourth.

Benson’s 91 yards rushing is only the second time this season that the running back posted 60 yards or more rushing and the Bengals lost.

Ever the diplomat Benson hinted that the Texans adjusted in the second half by bringing more eight-man in the box formations.

"They brought more run-defending blitzes. Brought the safety in and he was just running through the gaps," Benson said.

One could point out that once the starting right guard went down with an ankle injury with six minutes remaining in the second quarter, Benson’s afternoon was not unlike a head-on collision against an impenetrable brick wall – especially on the right side. On five second half rushing attempts to the right side of Kyle Cook, Cedric Benson an accumulated seven yards.

+ THE REY MAUALUGA FUMBLE PART II. Though the epoch of Cincinnati’s collapse was largely in the fourth quarter, it didn’t start that way as a growing feeling of victory was swelling in the guts of Bengals fans, observing a defensive-rich team leading the game 19-10 in the fourth quarter. During Houston’s first possession in the game’s final period, the Bengals stoned a fourth down attempt by the Texans with a quarterback sack by Geno Atkins and Robert Geathers.

Then on Houston’s very next offensive snap with 11:50 remaining in the game, T.J. Yates connects with running back Arian Foster on a screen to the right. It appeared on the initial viewing that Foster was juggling the football just before losing it thanks to the jarring hit by Rey Maualuga. It was deemed completed and the officials throw a blue beanbag and chaotic scrum ensued.

Geno Atkins initially recovered it and returned it to the five-yard line where he lost it. Manny Lawson and Reggie Nelson, both in a perfect position to just fall on the football and claim possession for the offense, tried picking it up – it squirts from them both. Lawson tried again, this time with Robert Geathers and the football further squirts to the two-yard line where a Texans offensive lineman has the presence of mind to just fall on the football and end the play.

Since Atkins claimed possession before losing it, the Texans were given a first and ten rather than second and 23. And if the football gods weren’t pleased enough with chaos and mayhem, the Texans go 83 yards on 13 plays, closing the deficit to within a touchdown on a Neil Rackers 33-yard field goal.

Rey Maualuga was credited with six tackles, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery during the afternoon.

+ STORY OF TWO HALVES. After a three and out to start the game in the first quarter, the Bengals finished the first half with a field goal, field goal, touchdown and field goal. They would only score once on their final five possessions of the game.

+ WHEN AGGRESSION ACTUALLY WORKED. Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals are generally a conservative bunch, which actually bit them late in the game playing a semi-prevent defense and giving Houston plenty of opportunities to string together back-to-back 13-play possessions at the end of the game to swing a nine-point advantage into a one-point loss.

That being said with 5:09 remaining in the second quarter from the Texans 35-yard line, the Bengals elect to go for it on fourth and three, rather than using the trusted leg of Mike Nugent. It speaks measures about the team’s confidence with the rookie quarterback and Dalton delivered.

After taking the shotgun snap with Cedric Benson flanking his left, Dalton uncorked a beautifully thrown pass to A.J. Green, who is running a shallow crossing route inches beyond the first down marker. Green hauls in the reception in stride, with former Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph trailing the rookie wide receiver, who picked up 11 yards and the first down.

Later in the second quarter, following a failed Neil Rackers field goal attempt with only 35 seconds remaining, the historically conservative coaching staff elects to make something out of nothing, starting with an unexpected shovel pass to Andrew Hawkins, who for my money, is the team’s third-best rookie this year. Lined up in the slot to the right, Hawkins motions to the left and as he reaches Nate Livings at left guard, stops and positions himself to Dalton’s left. Kyle Cook snaps the football and Dalton flips it to Hawkins, who follows his blocks (including a beautiful block by Jermaine Gresham that opened the lane) for 22 yards before he’s tackled in-bounds and forcing the Bengals to use their final timeout.

On the following play, from Houston’s 41-yard line, Dalton dumps the pass off to Gresham, running a quick out and finding space around him. Realizing that the team has no means to stop the clock, Gresham spins off an attempted tackle out of bounds. An incomplete pass later and Mike Nugent converts a 49-yard field goal to give the Bengals 16-3 half-time lead.

+ WHEN MIKE ZIMMER DEMANDS TAKEAWAYS. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer threatened that unless the defense starts generating turnovers, players will be sitting. How does the defense react? A season-high four forced turnovers, including three fumbles.

+ THE QUARTERBACK SACK TURNED TOUCHDOWN. The Bengals must have been feeling good coming out of the lockerroom. As a hardened Bengals fan, I know I was. But I don’t know if it was just a feeling of complacency or a terrible play design by Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator.

On second down from their own 22-yard line following a kickoff through the back of the endzone, Andy Dalton fakes the handoff to Cedric Benson and looks downfield. Conner Barwin fires off the right edge with tight end Colin Cochart blocking – seriously, you have a tight end pass blocking the Texans’ best pass rusher… and you’re hoping for a head coaching job? Barwin easily outmaneuvers Cochart and strips the football from Dalton, who was cocking his arm for a throw to his right. Houston recovers and, four plays later, reduce Cincinnati’s 13-point lead to six.

+ THERE’S JEROME SIMPSON. Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson led the team with 38 yards receiving in the first half on two receptions, including a brilliant 17-yard touchdown reception on third down with just over three minutes remaining in the first half.

As Simpson reached up for the football a yard beyond the goalline, safety Danieal Manning hit Simpson underneath, knocking the wide receiver – back first – into the endzone.

+ AND THEN HE’S GONE AGAIN. That was Simpson’s final reception of the game, targeted only two times in the second half with one pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage.

+ THE CASE FOR TEAM ROOKIE OF THE YEAR. I believe Andy Dalton is having a fantastic rookie season. After 13 career games, Dalton is closing in on 3,000 yards passing and 20 touchdowns. You really can’t ask for more from a rookie after the offseason the Cincinnati Bengals had during the NFL lockout.

At the same time A.J. Green is the team’s best rookie and largely why Dalton received the attention he has. Many of Dalton’s passes to Green are chucked prayers into double coverage and a lesser man wouldn’t be able to haul down the receptions like Green has.

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