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Wild Card Preview: Five Bengals Keys Against The Houston Texans

About midway through our weekly Keys to the Game, we realized that most items we presented were roughly the same keys that were applied during Cincinnati’s 20-19 loss to the Houston Texans in week 14. Strong run defense, victory over the turnover battle, pass rushing T.J. Yates, it was all there before. Yet instead of replacing those due to repetition, we're reinforcing them with greater urgency.

Prevent Offensive Collapse In The Fourth Quarter

The talking points still apply – rookie quarterback, rookie receiver, and the implementation of an entirely new offense during a lockout in which coaches were prevented from speaking with players. The truth is Cincinnati’s offense could be the Bengals biggest liability.

Case in point. After Mike Nugent converted a 28-yard field goal to take a 19-10 lead with 2:07 remaining in the third quarter against Houston earlier this season, Cincinnati’s offense registered 22 yards and two first downs in the fourth quarter. Houston won by a point on Kevin Walter’s shallow crossing route within a zone that Brandon Johnson failed to maintain.

The Bengals led Arizona 23-0 in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals outscored Cincinnati 16-0 during the game’s final period. How did Cincinnati respond to Arizona’s fourth quarter assaults? On five possessions the Bengals only registered 40 yards on 14 plays, a first down, two fumbles lost and three possessions that ended with a three-and-out.

Our reference to the most recent games is simply a means to measure the momentum that this offense has entering the postseason.

Futility in the fourth quarter hasn’t always been an issue either. Four of Cincinnati’s nine wins were the result of fourth-quarter comebacks. However the Bengals can’t expect to jump out with the lead, maintain the lead and shutdown during the game’s final quarter.

Containing Wide Receiver Andre Johnson

Dealing with an assortment of hamstring injuries this season, wide receiver Andre Johnson missed week 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals earlier this year. As a result tight end Owen Daniels and former Bengals wide receiver Kevin Walter were targeted on 47.7 percent of T.J. Yates’ passes. Successfully I might add, generating a combined 176 yards receiving on 13 receptions.

Johnson returned (again) during Houston’s regular season finale last weekend, registering 18 snaps against the Tennessee Titans, hauling in two receptions for 21 yards. Of course the question for Houston on how well Yates and Johnson mesh will be interesting enough, there’s no doubt that Johnson has owned the Bengals defense in the past, combining for 19 receptions and 278 yards receiving during his two most recent games against Cincinnati.

Talk about X-Factor, considering that Johnson didn’t play and those that took up the slack greatly contributed to Cincinnati’s defeat. Adding Johnson only compounds Cincinnati’s desperate need to…

Generate Pass Rush Against T.J. Yates

One could justifiably argue that this will be Cincinnati’s only reasonable way to disrupt Houston’s passing game. Though he generated 300 yards passing against the Bengals defense, T.J. Yates was also sacked five times against the vaunted Mike Zimmer blitzing scheme in week 14. Exploring this one can only conclude that once Yates avoids the pass rush, it’s open season in the secondary.

Clearly a fierce pass rush against a rookie quarterback will generate results. If not for a quarterback sack, a pressure that forces Yates to throw the football before the route is completed and the receiver is ready. Most importantly those incompletes makes it more likely that Houston will have plenty of third and long situations where Carlos Dunalp and Geno Atkins can really pin their ears for an all-out assault.

Win The Turnover Battle (Again)

The Bengals are 4-2 this season when the defense registers two or more turnovers during the game. Those losses were against the Denver Broncos (week two) and Houston Texans (week 14). Additionally the Bengals are 5-2 when winning the turnover battle (registering a positive differential between take-aways and give-aways). Those losses again were against the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans.

Not only did the Bengals win the turnover battle against the Texans, they generated a season-high four turnovers in week 14. The Bengals scored ten points off Houston’s four turnovers. If not for the complete breakdown in coverage late in the game, along with irresponsible negligence to prevent T.J. Yates from escaping the pocket, Cincinnati cruises to a win.

Stand Strong against Houston’s Rushing Attack

Houston’s Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for 2,166 yard rushing, a 4.8 yard/rush average and 14 touchdowns this season. As a team Houston averages 153 yards rushing per game, ranked second in the NFL behind the Denver Broncos (164.5). Needless to say, they can run the football.

However the last time both teams squared off (December 11), Arian Foster only averaged 2.7 yards/rush on 15 rushing attempts and though Ben Tate exploded for a 44-yard run in the first quarter, the backup running back only averaged 3.3 yards/rush on his seven remaining rushing attempts.

As a result the Bengals secured a 19-10 lead early in the fourth quarter by containing Houston’s rushing attack. It wasn’t until Cincinnati’s secondary lacked last in the game that eventually doomed the Bengals to a gut-punching 20-19 loss.

Compounding the problem however is that the Bengals are fresh off a game in which they allowed 221 yards rushing to the Baltimore Ravens -- including two long touchdowns of 70 and 51 yards.