The Cincinnati Bengals travel to Houston this weekend to take on the Texans and will attempt to exorcise some playoff demons from years past. In 2011 and 2012, the Queen City Cats took postseason trips down south and were embarrassed on both occasions. Their doom was created by T.J. Yates and subsequently Matt Schaub, two guys that aren't current NFL starters.
Andy Dalton and Co. nearly did sneak a regular-season win at the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium in 2011, making another loss to a fifth-round rookie (Yates) just a month later that much more hurtful. Undoubtedly, the Bengals have grown and learned a lot since those two postseason losses and it's time to put their money where their mouth is this Sunday.
There are many facets and keys that could be highlighted this week, but here are our top-five as we see them.
Contain Frankenstein's Monster, AKA J.J. Watt:
Stick bolts on the guy's neck and the villagers will be chasing him around with torches and pitchforks. In all seriousness, the NFL's latest media darling is an animal on the Houston defensive line and could be in the running for league MVP if Houston keeps winning football games. So far this season, Watt has 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four recoveries, seven passes defensed, and a couple of touchdowns on offense. Oy.
In his three games against Cincinnati, Watt has two sacks and an interception return for a touchdown--all being key momentum shifters in the games. He can line up inside or on the edge and still be disruptive in both the running and passing games. The Bengals won't have Mike McGlynn filling in this time around and should be at full strength on the offensive line, which should help.
It's simple, really: no big plays on either side of the ball for No. 99. Double him, knock him around, if possible, run away from him--whatever it takes. If the monster gets the Houston crowd revved up, it could be a long afternoon for the orange and black.
Stop The Run In The Same Fashion As In New Orleans:
With their solid showing against the Saints last week, the Bengals defense managed to boost themselves to No. 28 in the NFL against the run (ring-a-ding-ding). Brandon Thompson and Rey Maualuga returning have been boosts, but Geno Atkins still doesn't look like the 2012 Pro Bowler and Vontaze Burfict probably won't play this week. That isn't good news for the Bengals, as they face the third-ranked Texans running game.
Houston is averaging almost 145 yards on the ground per game, and while Arian Foster has been excellent this season, Alfred Blue proved last week that it might just be about scheme and overall blocking more than anything. The Bengals must win at the point of attack, otherwise it will be a playoff-redux. Fans must remain hopeful that Paul Guenther hasn't rested on his laurels with the unit's performance last week and has pushed film review hard this week.
Pressure The Immobile Ryan Mallett:
If you thought Carson Palmer couldn't move, watch some tape on Mallett. The guy has a cannon, but is an absolute statue. He was impressive in his first NFL start, particularly on the road against a scrappy Browns team, and now gets to play at home. Like many other quarterbacks, if you give him time, he'll find the open receiver. And with Mallett's arm, it will be completed.
The Bengals have a very un-Cincinnati-like 13 sacks on the season, good for a tie for second-worst in the league. However, the good news is though they aren't getting the quarterback to the ground, they have been getting pressures--particularly from Carlos Dunlap. It's just Mallett's second career start, so the Bengals will need to make him as uncomfortable as possible. If pressures can be created, Mallett won't be able to escape sack opportunities and/or could be forced into errant throws.
Don't Forget About Jeremy Hill:
The Bengals received some great news this week in that running back Giovani Bernard has returned to practice and appears to be set to play for the first time in about a calendar month. He'll bring speed and hands out of the backfield and is one of the better weapons on this offense.
However, rookie Jeremy Hill has stepped in the past three games and has 361 yards and two touchdowns in that span. Maybe most impressive is his 5.7 yards per carry average the past three weeks and the hope is that that will continue. It's no secret that the Bengals will need to have an effective running game this week against a vaunted Texans front seven.
Both Hill and Bernard need to get carries, but they also need to be used to their respective strengths. I won't go into huge detail on the ideas here, as that might be a risk of beating a dead horse, but get Bernard the ball in space and let Hill do the slashing between the tackles.
Andy Starting A Hot Streak:
If there is one thing we know about Andy Dalton, it's that he is streaky. When you look at his game stats over any given year, you'll see consecutive weeks of major dry spells and others of All-Pro quarterback play. In the four games preceding last week's win against the Saints, Dalton had two touchdown passes against six interceptions. Last week, he had three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Could last week's game signal the onset of a hot streak for Dalton? If so, this is a good week to ride the momentum as he is going up against the 31st-ranked passing defense in the Texans. Quick-release passing, utilizing play-action and taking calculated shots deep will be key. If anything, it would be nice to see A.J. Green get the best of former Bengals corner, Johnathan Joseph, as Green has been largely contained in his past three match-ups.