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5 key Bengals to watch for in Houston

The Bengals players you should be eyeing this week aren’t necessarily the team’s best players, but guys who will be of interest for one reason or another.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals’ playoff ended last Sunday against Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t mean the NFL season stops. There’s two more games left on the schedule and Marvin Lewis says he’s committed to win them, and won’t necessarily use the opportunity to give younger players some much-needed experience. That aside, this Christmas Eve matchup with the Texans has some under the radar notes that make it an interesting game.

This will only be the third primetime game the team will have played all season, after the Steelers game was flexed out of Sunday Night Football. Also, Tom Savage replaced Texans starter Brock Osweiler off the bench in Week 15, and was able to rally his team to a comeback victory over the Jaguars. This will be Savage’s first career NFL start and it’ll be interesting to see how the Bengals prepare for him with limited tape. Luckily, T.J. Yates is with the Miami Dolphin, so we don’t have to worry about the Yates of Hell opening up on Saturday night.

Finally, long time Bengal Johnathan Joseph continues to play well with the Texans and has had an interception the last two times he’s played Cincinnati. If the Bengals want to get the best of Bill O’Brien and his new signal caller, these Bengals will need to be on their A-game:

1. Carlos Dunlap

The Bengals mustered up a disappointing, almost non-existent, amount of pressure against the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger. Tom Savage may be getting his first start, but he showed last week he’s willing to stand in the pocket and take a hit to deliver the football. He’s shown an innate ability to not sense pressure that isn’t there, something young quarterbacks struggle with all too often. Dunlap is going to need to be the catalyst to force some errant throws or at least hurry the decisions of the former Pitt Panther. If he doesn’t, Savage could very likely have a big day through the air. I was impressed by his performance last week to say the very least. He’s a bigger problem to Cincinnati than I think most fans would like to believe.

2. A.J. Green

If there’s any sort of Bengals-related Christmas present that fans could enjoy at this point in the year, it would be the return of their All-Pro receiver. Green was on pace for his best year ever, possibly leading the league in receiving yards, but his hamstring injury ruined that possibility for him. Regardless, Green will only play if he’s truly ready to go, so fans shouldn’t worry about re-injury to his hamstring. He’s just shy of an incredible milestone: joining Randy Moss as the only other player to start a career with six straight 1,000 yard receiving campaigns. Regardless of if he would put up big numbers or not, the attention alone that a player like Green draws helps an offense in itself.

3. Rex Burkhead

Burkhead has been playing well in the stead of Giovani Bernard after his torn ACL against the Bills. I’m not a believer that Jeremy Hill can play a great game against anyone but the Browns anymore. Burkhead is heading toward free agency, so the Bengals may limit his snap count just to keep the amount of tape on him down (making him cheaper to potentially retain). But if they plan on winning the game, Burkhead should see more of the field than he has been. As a runner, receiver, and a blocker, Burkhead has proven to be superior to Hill in all facets of the game.

4. Dre Kirkpatrick

DeAndre Hopkins is no joke. His game-winning touchdown catch last year was a thing of beauty, even if it did give the Bengals their first loss of the 2015 season. Hopkins doesn’t have amazing numbers this year, but it’s largely because the $72 million man Brock Osweiler was unwilling to push the ball down the field. Tom Savage showed against Jacksonville that he isn’t intimidated to throw the deep ball and give his receivers a chance. I expect at least a few occasions where Hopkins will test Kirkpatrick with a double move, a part of the game where the Bengals’ fifth year cornerback continues to struggle. He’ll have to be keen to not oversell on Hopkins’ first break, at the risk of being burnt over the top.

5. Nick Vigil

With Vontaze Burfict self-reporting a concussion this week, it’s unknown if he’ll be available to play against Houston. This means more snaps for the Bengals 2016 third round draft pick. Out of Utah State Vigil was mostly seen as a middle linebacker, but he’s played a fair amount of outside linebacker for Cincinnati so far. Lamar Miller is one of the top rushers in the AFC as well as the NFL this year, so the rookie is going to have to be on his toes against one of the better running games in the league. This will be a great litmus test for Vigil going into 2017 to either see if he can handle the job, or where he needs to improve in the offseason.