Q: As an outsider, I was a little surprised when the Texans benched Ryan Fitzpatrick for Ryan Mallett. At the time of the change, Fitzpatrick was 4-5 and on pace for nearly 3,500 yards, 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Why was Fitzpatrick benched? And though it has only been one game, how has Mallett looked?
A: Fitzpatrick was benched because, as I'm sure Bengals fans remember well, he was never really the guy. He was just who happened to be the least bad option on the roster at the time of his signing. Fitz may be a gunslinger, but he is not a gunslinger who can keep up in a shootout, nor is he a quarterback who can be depended on to play a safe enough game for the rest of the team to carry him to a win. He was just kind of...there. Sure, Fitzpatrick might be good for a win or two on a roster with as much talent as Houston's, but he was more of a hindrance to that talent base than something that could bring out the best of it. Mallett, however, is talented enough to raise the level of this team.
I charted Mallett's throws in his debut against Cleveland, and beyond the statistics his game film shows a confident, intelligent, ridiculously strong-armed signal caller who has a higher ceiling as a passer than anyone else this franchise has ever seen. When Cleveland blitzed, he was content to "throw hot" and pick up easy yardage for first downs. When they played single high safety looks to help stop the run, he made them think twice with his effortless deep bombs to DeAndre Hopkins. As the Browns became more and more concerned with Mallett's deep ball ability, they softened the box and allowed Alfred Blue to pound away inside for over 150 yards on the ground. In short, Cleveland had absolutely no answer for the Texans offense last week. With any luck, that kind of offensive output will soon become the norm rather than the exception as it was with Fitzpatrick at the helm.
Q: It sounds like Arian Foster (groin) will be back in the lineup for week 12 and he has had success against this Bengals defense - especially in playoff games. If Foster does play Sunday, do you expect the same explosive player who has been averaging 5.1 YPA? If Foster can't go, what does Alfred Blue bring to the offense?
A: I am half expecting Foster to sit this one out. The Texans are only a game back in the division and cannot risk losing their best offensive player for even more time in the event of a playoff run. Alfred Blue is by no means a dynamic runner, but he may be just good enough to get this team through the next few weeks until Foster is absolutely 100% ready to go. Blue started out the Browns game a little rough with some crucial missed reads on multiple zone stretch runs, but by midway through the second quarter he seemed to really hit his stride. Whether on zone or power runs - Blue's true strength - I did not chart him missing a single read throughout the entire second half. He may not have the speed or cutting ability of Foster to break big gains at will, but with his great lower body power and seemingly improving vision Blue shouldn't be a liability in the back field either. A decent stat line of 80-ish yards and maybe a touchdown would not shock me.
Q: Ryan Mallett's stats in his first game looked pretty good (20/30, 211 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception), but stats don't always tell the whole story. How comfortable did Mallet look running the offense? And how does the offense change with Mallett at the helm?
A: There is something to be said for a quarterback just "getting it". The best signal callers in the league - Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees, etc - they all "get" the game and how to play it at such a high cerebral level that it almost looks like they are turning a chess game into checkers. That was the feeling I got seeing Mallett run the show. For the first time in a long time, I felt absolutely calm while watching a Texans game. Mallett's confidence, aggressiveness, and leadership showed up in every offensive player on the team. It almost looked as if for once everyone knew what the hell they were supposed to do. Blockers blocked, receivers received, runners ran, and Mallett just sat back like a conductor and made sure everyone did their jobs with as much confidence as he did his. The numbers weren't flashy, but the fact that I could watch this team on offense without covering one eye and expecting an entirely preventable turnover was a welcome relief. This must be what it feels like to not be in QB purgatory anymore...I hope.
Q: With Foster, Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, it is not surprising to see the Texans in the top half of the league on offense. What is surprising to me is the ranking of what I thought would be a pretty good defense: YPG (30th), passing YPG (31st), rushing YPG (16th) and sacks (19th - half of which are Watt). Despite being tied for eighth in PPG (20.4), it seems as if this has a been a disappointing season for the defense. Why have they struggled?
A: A brutal combination of injuries and the offense being pretty atrocious contributed heavily to those numbers so far this season. Brian Cushing has missed time while he recovers from his second major knee injury in two years and still does not quite look himself, Johnathan Joseph is perpetually banged up, Kareem Jackson is out with a knee injury, and Jadeveon Clowney just got back from his own string of ailments. Combine all those bumps and bruises with an offense that struggled mightily to stay on the field when Arian Foster didn't do 90% of the work, and you have a recipe for some pretty poor defensive numbers. Now that Clowney is back, Cushing is feeling a bit better, and Ryan Mallett is guiding the offense to (hopefully) new highs, I expect those numbers to improve.
Q: Number one overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney has been injured most of the year, but in three games, he has just four tackles and zero sacks. How has Clowney looked?
A: As mentioned above, Clowney made his second return from injury of the season last Sunday against the Browns and played a pretty decent game considering the guy welcoming him back was Joe Thomas. He did not make any splash plays against a surefire Hall of Fame tackle - nor did I expect him to - but he didn't get manhandled either. That is about as good as I can hope for in what has been a lost season so far for Clowney due to multiple injuries and ailments. When he is on the field, he is the most explosive athlete we've got, and that's saying something considering that he has J.J. Watt on the other side of the line. Nobody has as good of a first step as Clowney - nobody.
I noticed while charting the Browns game that Clowney looked much more comfortable planting and stunting off of his surgically repaired right knee than he did nearly a month ago against the Titans, which is very encouraging. Hell, he even won a few times by slashing inside off that knee, which he has not been able to do since he first injured it in week one against Washington. If Clowney really is starting to get close-ish to healthy again, he is nearly as big a difference maker for this defense as Watt himself. In the few glimpses of a healthy Clowney we got in the preseason, he is absolute force of nature. One could argue he even looked better than advertised in his limited action, which should scare the living crap out of everyone who isn't a Texans fan.
Q: At 5-5, the Texans are second in the AFC South and just a game back of the Colts. Where do you see this team finishing in 2014?
A: Realistically the Texans could be competing for a wild card spot with the slew of other AFC teams that could finish in the 10-6 range, including your very own Bengals. That being said, Houston is only a game back in the division and conceivably could push Indianapolis for the throne if everything breaks right for them in the last month and a half of the season.
For starters, this weekend's game against Cincy is a must win. With the entire AFC North in playoff contention, the more tie breakers this team can collect along the way the better. Cleveland has been taken down already, so notching a couple more victories against the Bengals and Ravens would go a long way to sneaking into the playoffs. Beyond that, Bill O'Brien and company have to take care of their four remaining division games, including a potentially massive showdown in Indianapolis towards the end of the year. It is a very tough road ahead that might require the team winning out for the remainder of the year to even have a chance, but hope is alive.
Q: What are the biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses of this Texans team?
A: The run game has been a strength all season, but a lot of that has to do with Arian Foster being a brilliant running back (as you have seen multiple times in the last few years). Without Foster, it is tough to say how much success this team will have on the ground against a Bengals defense that has Vontaze Burfict back on the field.
As for weaknesses, I would have said the passing game was a big issue before Ryan Mallett took over the helm. We might not know if the Texans' aerial attack has turned into a strength for another few games when we have a larger sample size, but the progress last week was encouraging. Beyond the offense, I would say the Texans' biggest issue is speed. Our inside linebackers, including a not-fully-healthy Brian Cushing have been beaten by speed out of the back field this season, and none of our safeties have been track stars either. If Gio Bernard plays this week, he is the perfect space weapon to exploit what looks like an athletically deficient middle of the defense.
Q: If you were the Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, how would you attack this Texans defense? If you were the Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, how would you attack this Texans offense?
A: This may sound weird, but I would run the wishbone with both Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in the back field. Pound away with Hill on the inside, get Bernard moving to the edges, and make the defense confused as to which guy is taking the hand off and which hole is the right one. Run, run, run and then run again with both guys until you are content to take a deep shot or two to A.J. Green. The more protected that Dalton is by a strong run game, the less likely it is that he will be broken in half by either J.J. Watt or Jadeveon Clowney. Will this actually happen? Probably not, but it would be awesome to watch if I were a Bengals fan.
As for how to attack the Texans offense, I am not quite sure about that yet. We still know so little about what Ryan Mallett is that there isn't really a game plan to stop him yet. Not only that, but Bill O'Brien caters his offense to his opponent every single week so there isn't even an established blue print to follow like there was against Gary Kubiak's repetitive, vanilla scheme. Ryan Mallett is not some wide eyed rookie, and blitzing proved to be ineffective against him last week. Playing two-deep to stop the vertical passing game didn't do much either because he was content to just throw underneath and take YAC all day while handing off against light boxes. There was nothing the Browns did that the Texans didn't have an answer for, which was awesome for us but frustrating as hell for Browns fans. Paul Guenther has his hands full with this one.
Q: On Sunday, the Texans win if...
A: If Ryan Mallett is what I think he is, which is a really, really good quarterback.
Q: On Sunday, the Texans lose if...
A: If Andy Dalton is what I think he is, which is a really, really good quarterback in 1:00 PM games.
Q: What is your prediction for Sunday's matchup?
A: I expect a pretty good game this weekend. Their records may not reflect it, but these are two really good teams that are essentially playing a playoff game a couple months early. Both quarterbacks are trying to prove their worth, both defenses are getting key pieces back, and both organizations are going to do everything they possibly can to secure that all important tie-breaker. This should be a good one, though because it is taking place in Houston I will give a slight edge to the home team.
Texans 22 - Bengals 17