The Cincinnati Bengals offensive line may face their biggest challenge this season by protecting second-year quarterback Andy Dalton just enough to allow him to throw comfortably without the anxiety of pressures breaching his peripheral vision. The Houston Texans come into this weekend tied for fifth in the NFL with 43 quarterback sacks and an astonishing 153 quarterback pressures (Bengals recorded 178).
Antonio Smith leads the Texans with 31 quarterback hurries, second with 7.0 quarterback sacks, one ahead of Whitney Marcilus. Fantastic. Yet the name in pass rushing with the Texans centers around defensive end J.J. Watt, obviously part of defensive player of the year discussions. And you better believe that the view on Watt is much like the perspective Bengals fans have with Geno Atkins.
"J.J. Watt’s bones are made of adamantium," writes TexansDC from SB Nation's Texans site Battle Red Blog. "His blood? He doesn’t bleed. And he pisses fire."
Would it work if we called Atkins Project X?
Bengals fans might agree after their cringe-induced observations from last season. During the Wild Card game with :59 seconds remaining in the second quarter and the game tied at 10, Watt intercepts an Andy Dalton pass, returning it 34 yards for a touchdown and a 17-10 lead. Watt further concluded the first half with a quarterback sack on Cincinnati's 40-yard line as time expired. If examples for the unsubstantiated "momentum" argument were to be examined for possible example, this is where you'd draw the starting point. Thus the hostile environment become untenable and Cincinnati never recovered.
"Slow down Watt," TexansDC prompts. "I haven’t seen it done. Double-team him and throw a chipping running back at him? He swats passes. Run away from him as teams did in December? He still puts up 15 tackles for a loss. Fifteen! I don’t think you can slow him. He finds a way to make plays. Best you can do is ball control, to wear him out, and run away from him."
Earlier that year during Cincinnati's Week 14 loss to Houston, captured by the Texans in the closing seconds of the game, Watt was equally disruptive, forcing incomplete passes due to overwhelming pressure with a presence in the rushing offense that resulted in minimal Cedric Benson gains and significant Bernard Scott losses.
Yet Cincinnati's pass protection, compounded by Andy Dalton's anxiety that forces him to abandon the pocket, leads to a concern that we've highlighted all season. The Denver Broncos, first in the NFL with 52 sacks, dropped Dalton five times and that wasn't even a season-high. The Cleveland Browns (week two) and Pittsburgh Steelers (week 16) each generated six quarterback sacks. Unfortunately of the quarterback sacks Dalton has taken this year, Pro Football Focus attributes nearly a quarter of those to Dalton.
Watt figures to lineup on the left, typically on the strong-side of the formation with outside linebacker Brooks Reed, leaving Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith with an extremely challenging assignment this Saturday. Smith and Zeitler have allowed a combined 11 quarterback sacks this season and 34 quarterback pressures.
Zeitler is completely aware of Watt's effectiveness. Both players grew up a mile apart, becoming teammates at the University of Wisconsin and eventually selected in the first round of their respective NFL drafts. There's familiarity there.
"He has really long arms and takes advantage of them," Zeitler said. "He can swim over you, he can pull and rip you. He has very few weaknesses if any. The big thing because he jumps and swats so many balls down you have to get on him and hold him down. You can't let him jump."
Watt has the same level of respect for Zeitler, telling the Cincinnati media this week:
"He's a heck of a player. I have a lot of respect for him and the way he approaches everything," Watt said Tuesday morning on his conference call with the Cincinnati media. "I love Kevin. He's a great guy."
Writes Geoff Hobson with Bengals.com.
It turned out that when Zeitler moved his junior year in high school, he was about a mile away from Watt over the bridge and they met that year at a gym where they still train. The Bengals and Texans shared the same bye this year and the duo found themselves working out together again.
"I would definitely say that's quite true," Watt said of their approach. "Just a guy who's going to come to work every single day with his hardhat and lunch pail and give you everything he's got. I think that's why I like him so much. That's why we're similar players, similar people. We’re going to give it everything we've got and it's not about the fame and it's not about the money. It's about what we do best and trying to be great."
Yet football is one of the least complicated sports, because simplicity often leads to success. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, listed as probable, will start this Saturday and truth be told, his second half explosion was a significant contributor during Cincinnati's 7-1 charge that eventually earned a postseason bid. Establishing the run to force a balanced attack, would generate one of the greater vulnerabilities against this Houston's defense.
"The Texans gave up over 100 yards to something called Vick Ballard," writes TexansDC, "but they had focused on shutting down Andrew Luck. They shut down Adrian Peterson and held him to under 100 yards, but then let Christian Ponder look like Joe Montana. I think the vulnerability depends on their focus, and I think A.J. Green will be that focus. Vulnerability is up the middle. Nose tackle Shaun Cody is an average player, at best, while Houston has lost both its starting inside linebackers due to injuries. Bradie James and Tim Dobbins are fine reserve players, but this group shouldn’t be starting. I wouldn’t do more than run inside."
So minimize Watt's effectiveness and run up the gut.
That's not so hard, huh?