Unfortunately, the Cincinnati Bengals are officially out of playoff contention for the first time since 2010, but the team is still playing for pride over the next two games. On Christmas Eve, the Bengals travel to Houston in a game with a lot of interesting storylines for both squads. The Texans are in the midst of a late-season quarterback change, while Cincinnati needs to figure out their future plans with certain players.
There are many aspects the Bengals need to achieve in order to get a win against the Texans. Here are the top five for Week 16.
Take advantage of J.J. Watt’s vacancy:
Even though the NFL’s poster boy had a poor showing in these teams’ last head-to-head in 2014, Watt has been a consistent threat to the Bengals’ offense. The troubling aspect? Without Watt, the Texans’ defense is still rated No. 1 in overall defense and No. 2 against the pass.
Even so, they are ranked last in the NFL with just 24 quarterback sacks on the year. With the Bengals’ offensive line putting forth a poor performance all year against opposing pass rushes, it’s imperative that they provide a clean pocket for Andy Dalton without No. 99 bearing down on them. Jake Fisher got the start last week at right tackle against Pittsburgh and fared pretty well, so another solid performance will be needed from him.
Additionally, the struggling Cedric Ogbuehi might start at left tackle, as left guard Clint Boling is battling a shoulder injury. If Boling can’t go, Andrew Whitworth would kick inside with Ogbuehi playing in Whitworth’s place. This shuffling will need to work well if the Bengals want to succeed offensively.
Welcome back, A.J.:
After missing basically the past four games, newly-named Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green will be back on Saturday night. While there might be a bit of a selfish aspect as he chases the prospect of being the second pass-catcher in NFL history with six straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons to start a career (Randy Moss), he’s still saying some admirable things, as is his classy nature, with his team out of the postseason race.
While Dalton has made some nice throws and spread the ball around well without having Green at his disposal, the big-play ability has been missing from the passing game over the past month. The Bengals don’t want to risk any long-term issues with Green, but getting their star receiver the ball often has to be in the game plan.
Defensively trick Tom Savage:
After 14-plus games of experiencing a bland offense with Brock Osweiler at quarterback, Bill O’Brien decided to make the change to Savage. The third-year pro finished 23-of-36 for 260 yards on Sunday in relief of Osweiler. His play led to Houston to a much-needed 21-20 win over Jacksonville and the Texans are going with the hot hand against Cincinnati.
While tearing up the struggling Jaguars doesn’t sound like much, Jacksonville’s pass defense is actually ranked No. 4 in the NFL this year. So, the Bengals will need to disguise their blitzes and confuse Savage with diverse coverages. If Paul Guenther again decides to employ soft zone coverage with the front struggling to get to the quarterback, it could be another breakout game for Savage.
Continue to use Rex Burkhead as a weapon:
Jeremy Hill has become the primary back with Giovani Bernard out of the lineup, while Burkhead has stepped into Bernard’s role. Burkhead hasn’t consistently had the amount of snaps Bernard received, but he’s made the most of opportunities as both a runner and receiver.
Over the past handful of weeks, Hill has had some nice runs, but has really only churned out quality stats against the Browns in Week 14. Most of those good runs have come in the first halves of games, so sprinkling in Burkhead a little bit more as the game wears on might be something Ken Zampese would want to think about.
Adjust, adjust, adjust:
Speaking of second halves and Zampese, the Bengals haven’t been able to close out games in large part because they aren’t showing anything different after the halftime gun. Last week’s loss to the Steelers was a prime example, as the team managed under 40 total yards and scored zero points, giving up a 20-9 halftime lead. With Houston’s defense playing well, the offense will need to be diverse.
It isn’t on just Zampese, though. As we mentioned earlier, Guenther didn’t do much to change up the game plan and Pittsburgh began to take advantage late in the game. There’s a fine line to walk in sticking with what works and making changes, but the Bengals’ staff just can’t get so ornery with their plans.