The idea of a head-to-head battle between the former Bengals cornerback and the shiny new Bengals wide receiver may not have the same poetic implications it did last season, but it’s undoubtedly one of the more important ingredients of a winning formula for the Bengals on Saturday.
At this point, most should know the history of Johnathan Joseph: He wasn't under contract, he went with the Texans in hopes of greener pastures, and the Bengals grabbed Nate Clements as a stop-gap solution. Enter A.J. Green. In 2011, Green was a rookie wide receiver fully living up to his draft pedigree, and many viewed Joseph vs. Green as the match up of the season. They faced each other in Week Fourteen of the 2011 regular season and It was widely believed that the better performance of the two would be the key element in a victory for either team.
Green was held to 59 yards on five catches. Not a terrible game by any means, but the Bengals lost nonetheless. When the Bengals faced the Texans again in the playoffs, Green was held to 47 yards on five catches, and the Bengals lost by a much wider margin. When all was said and done, Joseph kept Green out of the end zone in both contests.
Now, they meet again. Can Joseph, or the Texans secondary for that matter, shut down A.J.?
Joseph is now in his seventh season in the NFL. He's been a serviceable cornerback plagued by a struggling secondary unit. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why he declined a bit from his great 2011 season, but it could be argued that he is simply another year older. He's taken a small step back in his athleticism, and hasn't been able to compensate with other aspects of his game. He cannot continue to rely solely on his athletic ability, and his better years at Cincinnati where a result of Mike Zimmer imploring the technique he demands of his defensive backs. A current example of Zimmer's stress on technique is Leon Hall. Here is a technician who may not be the most athletically gifted corner, but his attention to detail and the fundamentals of his position is what allows Hall to succeed in Zimmer's defense. Today, Joseph has a great defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips, but Phillips thrives as a result of his system. His system relied on Joseph to put a lot of single-coverage on wide receivers last year, and I can't imagine that working out too well in Saturday's game.
A.J. isn't in danger of his athleticism peaking any time soon and his technique has only improved. He's getting off jams better, his route running is sharper, and his chemistry with Andy Dalton has grown. Green has absolutely taken the next step in his second year, and has become one of the more dominant wide receivers in the NFL. There's no question that Green is the Bengals most lethal offensive weapon, and shutting him down typically means the Bengals will struggle moving the football down the field. The Texans will need more than Johnathan Joseph to shut down A.J. Green, and the question remains if they have enough in their secondary to do it.
The Texans have shown their weaknesses defensively, particularly over the past four games as they have allowed 847 passing yards and nine touchdowns. During those four games, the Texans failed to force a single interception. Green will simply need to rely on Andy Dalton to find his receiver often and it could make all the difference on Saturday. That won't be the easiest of tasks. J.J. Watt leads the league in sacks and the Bengals have allowed 46 this season. The Texans will do everything in their power to get Watt involved in disrupting the Bengals passing rhythm. However, once you get past the front three or four of the Texans defense (depending on where J.J. Watt is playing) you're left with a struggling secondary that A.J. is fully capable of hurting.
Regardless of the excessive number of sacks the Bengals have allowed this season, Dalton has clearly found Green often enough. Of course, the run game will also determine just how often Dalton will be able to connect with Green as well.
So who will win the battle of Joseph vs. Green? I believe we'll look back on Saturday's playoff game knowing that A.J. Green has fully embraced the role reversal as the more dominant force, but it all rests on Andy Dalton's (and his offensive line's) shoulders.