The Bengals are in the playoffs. They certainly didn't arrive to the party on time and they weren't even dressed very well, but a back door was left cracked so Cincinnati hopped the fence and let themselves in. This team knows what these shindigs are like; you got to be careful. Everybody there is looking to outclass all the others. One slip and you're back out in the January night. Got to keep a low profile and hope to get near the bar and that's about it.
This year has certainly been one of the stranger entrances to such a thing. What should be a sweet taste of success, is more like soap in the mouth. That Ravens finale was a litmus test of playoff contention and the Bengals failed again, yet they're issued an invitation to the postseason anyway. Funny world, this one.
But they're in and that's all that matters today.
First up is Houston. Here was a team that was all glitz and glamor earlier this year. All the talk among the party regulars was high on Houston when things started up in September. Despite never being invited before, the playoff gods decided they earned a crack at it this year and the door man showed them in. Yet as Houston removed its coat and stomped the snow from its boots, the others gasped at the newcomer. Houston had been sharp and dapper earlier this season but now without a starting quarterback and an embarrassing loss to the Colts, it stood there tattered and smudged. It mumbled something about ruffians out on the roads and fixed itself a stiff drink before explaining further.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, hung back out of sight in the kitchen, snacking from a plate of cheese cubes and glaring at Houston. It decided it would take a charge at the newbie and show the others it can take out the fresh meat. That's the only way Cincinnati would be allowed to stick around, so it took a deep breath, stuffed a salami with cream cheese in its mouth and set out to handle some business.
Much has been written about this game, but very little has been actual on-field analysis. The only thing anyone brings up about the Bengals is their inability to beat the quality teams. That is a legit knock on them and the numbers certainly back that up, but that isn't going to be what the Bengals are thinking about when they line up on Saturday.
To me, the game comes down to one kind of play: the stretch hand-off. Houston, like Baltimore, wants to run off-tackle hand-offs where their fullback plows the way for huge gains by the tailback. Then, once they establish their cut-blocking outside run attack, they typically run play-action off of the stretch play and roll out T.J. Yates with a shallow crosser (Owen Daniels) and a deeper crosser (Andre Johnson) rolling with him. This makes the Bengals linebackers either bite on play-action handoffs, forcing them to scramble back to their coverage assignment, or resist flowing to the ball carrier for fear of getting beaten on play-action. Either way, the scheme forces the linebackers to think more than react, which is rarely good.
They way to stop this is with zone defense. Mike Zimmer would likely prefer to allow the shallow crosser to catch the pass and run up and make the tackle for five yards, rather than a linebacker get beat individually in man coverage for twenty-five yards. The problem is, the Bengals secondary has problems communicating in zone coverage and all too often outside corners release their man without safety coverage behind them. The Bengals defense must be on the same page in zone coverage or the breakdowns will kill them.
The other necessary improvement the Bengals defense must achieve is rallying to ball carriers better. When this unit was consistently good, you would see defenders slow runners down just enough while the help would rally around them and gobble up ball carriers for minimal gains. Lately, the second tier has been unable to shed their blocks and the play has too often come down to one man making the tackle. All eleven men must flow together without over-pursuing, wrap up on tackles and help each other out by gang tackling.
The Texans should run a safe, short passing game for fear of Yates making the big mistake. They will likely lean on their stud running backs and dirty zone-blocking scheme. They want to grind it out, use clock and have Neal Rackers try and kick them into the next round. Bengals have to frazzle Yates when he tries to roll out, bait him into mistakes, shed blocks and rally. Stop the stretch-play handoffs and the rest should fall into place for the Cincinnati defense.
On offense, the Bengals might want to use the Texans speed against them. Houston likes their tall, rangy midsized defenders. They want to get you going horizontally and track you down with their speed and length. They lack beef but make up for it with pure athleticism. A team like this is prone to over-pursue—especially one who will be geeked to play their first ever playoff game. Since they are so good moving laterally, I wouldn't get the ball in the flats too much, but rather run right at them on the inside. When Gruden does choose to explore the areas closer to the sideline, I think misdirection plays, end arounds and reverse hand offs could be daggers against an overeager defense.
Brian Cushing is a warrior, Connor Barwin is a maniac and J.J. Watt is a bull, but get these guys out of position and they become harmless. Appropriately-timed deception can take down the Houston Texans. Everyone thinks that Andy Dalton is going to just throw it up to AJ Green all day, but with Joseph lurking over there with safety help, there is no reason just to chuck it down field when you can meticulously allow Houston to beat themselves. Bengal fans remember what Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer did to their team in 2009 with essentially the perfect called game. They didn't crush us on that day, but they decisively beat us, for sure. Jay Gruden has the chance to do the same this Saturday.
Overall, I think Houston is the more talented team, but the Bengals have a better and more diverse scheme. Cincinnati is good on the road, a lot of these guys have postseason experience and I don't think they will come out as awestruck children, but playoff games are serious business and the pressure that surrounds them can do strange things to people. It's been a long time for this grizzled and downtrodden football city to feel it truly belongs in the upper echelon of the league and there are many worried people in the area right now, but our guys have a chance to do it right this time and because it's what makes football fun, I think they will.
Bengals 23, Texans 13
Mojokong—here for the memories.