The Cincinnati Bengals have the chance to shake the primetime stigma once again this week as the Houston Texans travel to Paul Brown Stadium for a Week 10 matchup. Oddly enough at 3-5, Houston has a chance to re-emerge atop the AFC South if they were to pull off an unlikely win against 8-0 Cincinnati.
While the Bengals were able to get a win in Houston last year with a banged up team, the Texans have had the Bengals' number in recent important games. Cincinnati lost at the Texans' hands in the 2011 and 2012 Wild Card rounds down south, and many familiar faces will be recognized by both fanbases on Monday Night Football.
We take a look at some of those familiar faces and the individual matchups they'll be facing as the bright lights of the national spotlight shine in The Queen City.
Defensive Lineman J.J. Watt versus Offensive Guard Kevin Zeitler:
First thing's first: be prepared for the NFL media darling, Watt, to get a near-obscene amount of coverage in this game. That being said, it wouldn't seem right if we didn't mention No. 99 and which Bengals he'll be going up against on Monday night. Aside from his freakish ability to disrupt on offense in a variety of ways, part of what makes Watt great is his ability to cause that disruption from various places on Houston's defensive line.
Really, there could be a number of Cincinnati offensive linemen we could list as going up against Watt. Last season, the Bengals shut Watt down in one of his least productive games as a pro in Houston. Getting those types of non-performances against him are extremely rare, but Paul Guenther will look to do so again this week. Part of the crew responsible will be Zeitler, who has been a solid pro throughout his three-plus seasons. However, the offensive guard suffered an ankle injury on Thursday night against the Browns and just returned to practice this Thursday. He'll team up with both Russell Bodine and whoever is at right tackle on Monday (Andre Smith is still dealing with a concussion issue) to try and contain Watt.
Defensive Tackle Vince Wilfork versus Center Russell Bodine:
The embattled Bengals center had a good game last week against the Browns, as he was a big part in the team's 152 team rushing yards. He's had a few solid performances and some egregious ones this year, and often stands out on a line littered with very good players around him. Bodine definitely has promise, but is lacking consistency, as a lot of young players do at this point in their career. He faces a big test this week in Wilfork, both literally and figuratively.
As the Patriots often do, they embrace Paul Brown's old motto of "everyone's useful, but no one is necessary." As they did with Randy Moss, Richard Seymour and others, they parted ways with Wilfork this offseason, after a possible Hall of Fame career with the club. While former Bill Belichick disciple Bill O'Brien was gleeful to bring him to Houston, Wilfork has not had the impact the Texans' head coach had hoped. Houston is currently ranked No. 27 in rushing yards per game allowed, while Wilfork only has eight total tackles and one stuffed play in 2015. With Cincinnati looking to start establishing the run a bit more, this matchup will be on display on Monday night.
Running Back Chris Polk versus Linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga:
In 2015, the Cincinnati Bengals have yet to have Burfict and Maualuga on the field at the same time. In 2012 and 2013, the defense was one of the best in the league, especially against the run, with both physical linebackers on the field and inflicting pain. Burfict has been back the past two games with some good and some bad, but it's been a positive for the unit as a whole after him missing a year of football. Maualuga left the Week 8 game against the Steelers early with a calf injury and didn't suit up last week against the Browns. Both practiced this week, Burfict being limited and Maualuga full-go on Thursday, and they'll look to shore up the run defense on Monday night.
Former Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster is once again injured and out for the season, so it will be Polk and Alfred Blue splitting the touches for the Texans' offense. Blue might get the lion's share of the carries, but Polk will definitely be used on third downs, with his ability to run the ball and receive it in an effective manner. Cincinnati's defense has bottled up some of the bigger names they've faced this year, but some of the lesser-known guys have gashed them. One weird statistic lies within the league-leading allowance of 4.9 yards per carry and it's in that area where the Texans will use Polk and Blue to try and keep the Bengals' offense off the field.
Cornerback Johnathan Joseph versus Wide Receiver A.J. Green:
The former Bengals defensive back who apparently covets the availability of Gatorade when looking for a free agent deal, has had his share of ups and downs with Houston. In his first two seasons with the team, they made the playoffs and beat his former Bengals, while also gathering Pro Bowl consideration. However, as recent as this season, Joseph was mentioned as a possible salary cap casualty and has zero interceptions through the team's first eight games this season. Still, Joseph has had the last laugh in recent matchups against Cincinnati with a pick-six last season and the shutting down of Green in playoff games.
It's supposedly a different Andy Dalton and Bengals team this year, and while Green is still the No. 1 option in this offense, others have emerged to take heat off of the Pro Bowl wideout and, in an odd twist, opened him up to make plays. With two big games against division rivals (at Baltimore and at Pittsburgh) highlighting his 2015 campaign, he's had his times of dry spells as well. The difference is that the rest of the offense is picking him up in outstanding ways, as they hadn't before. Dalton will still look towards Green, even though Joseph's blanketed him in the past, and it's going to be a key to the game.
Wide Receiver DeAndre Hopkins versus Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick:
One of the few bright spots for the Houston Texans this year is the exciting Hopkins--a wideout who can truly do it all. The team moved on from likely future Hall of Fame wide receiver Andre Johnson with the hope that Hopkins was going to take the mantle of franchise offensive playmaker. In his third season, he's on pace to break his career-bests he set a year ago, in an impressive 1,200-yard, six touchdown 2014 campaign. Brian Hoyer, now the unquestioned starting quarterback in Houston, will be looking at Hopkins early and often against Cincinnati.
The Bengals have employed a bend-but-don't-break mentality in the passing defense, preferring to keep things in front of them to not allow the big play. In his first full season as a starter, Kirkpatrick has been a bit of a disappointment to fans, but Geoff Hobson talked him up on this week's Inside The Jungle podcast, saying he's been solid even though the stats might not show it. It will be athlete against athlete on Monday night when Kirkpatrick lines up against Hopkins, even though they might show down with others from time to time.
Cornerback Kevin Johnson versus Wide Receiver Mohamed Sanu:
The fourth-year Bengals wideout has once again taken a backseat to three or four other receiving options, but he's still had a big impact. Last week, Sanu pitched in with a few catches, but it was a 25-yard touchdown run on a reverse that broke the Browns' will and the game open. With Houston likely paying extra attention to Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, Sanu might have a productive evening moving the sticks. It's that type of production that would give Dalton his much-needed rhythm.
Johnson is a an exciting rookie who was recently nominated for the Pepsi Rookie of the Week for his performance against the Tennessee Titans. He had six tackles and an interception and is emerging as a nice No. 2 corner aside Joseph. Still, Kareem Jackson is the other starter on the depth chart, but Johnson might be going up against Sanu when he's lined up in the slot. At 6'0" and 190 pounds, he has decent size to go up against the 6'2" and 210-pound Sanu.