April 16, 2014

Preview: Texans @ Bengals

To secure a playoff spot, the Bengals have to find a way to knock off at least one of the two 9-3 teams remaining on their schedule: the Texans or the Ravens.

The Texans come to Paul Brown Stadium with their 3rd-string QB, T.J. Yates, at the helm of the offense. While no team that is down to their third QB is in a good position in the passing game, the Texans have gotten by on tough defense and a pair of powerful RBs even before turning to Yates.

Meanwhile, the Bengals are beginning to suffer from injuries themselves. Pat Sims joined Leon Hall in IR this week, and Nate Clements and Carlos Dunlap did not participate in the fist practice of the week. With significant players limited, the Bengals need some backups to seize the opportunity to shine in this game.

When the Texans have the ball…

The loss of Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart looked at first like it might spell doom for the Texans’ offense. But with Arian Foster and Ben Tate running behind a solid offensive line, the Texans need a game manager at QB who does not throw picks and is accurate enough to hit defenses when they are crowding the box.

QB T.J. Yates v. Mike Zimmer. There is not a lot to know about Yates so far, other than that he is 20/45 (44.4%) for 258 yds, 1 TD and 0 INTs in 6 quarters of play since taking over for Leinart. The stats are not impressive, but they do not need to be.

Zimmer will likely try to jam the running game and force the inexperienced Yates to beat the Bengals with his arm. That is no small task. If Clements can go for the game, I like that plan. But I do not trust Jennings at this point. Houston may be hoping for an opportunity to pick on a guy like Jennings to give their young passer some confidence on the pro level.

Offensive Line:

The Texans’ O-line has been effective in both protecting the QB and opening holes for their terrific running backs. I have not verified this stat, but I heard it said by someone who covers the Texans that they are the only team to start the same 5 guys in all 12 games this season , which speaks to both their effectiveness and their ability to stay healthy.

LT Duane Brown v. RDEs Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. You aren’t going to find Brown on anyone’s list of top 10 left tackles. Then again, you are hard pressed to find Andrew Whitworth on many of those lists as well, and we tend to think he is pretty good. The fact that the Texans have surrendered one less sack and only one more QB hit than the Bengals have means he is keeping guys off of his QB.

LG Wade Smith v. DT Geno Atkins. With Dunlap struggling to return to the lineup, a dominating performance by Atkins becomes a pivotal factor in the Bengals’ ability to stop the Texans. Sacks are not the key to me this week because there will be a limited number of opportunities. QB pressure and tackles for loss are everything this week. He and Peko must clog the running lanes and keep the O-line from getting to the second level to throw extra blocks.

Running Game:

Talk about your dynamic duo, Batman. And when Derrick Brown gets in on the act, the Texans can have a true three-headed monster to run opponents. In the past 6 games, they have averaged 37.5 carries and 177 yds per game. Now that includes the 261 yds they dropped on a terrible Browns run D, but that is still flat out getting it done.

RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate v. LB Rey Maualuga. Letting these two combine for anywhere near that 177 yds will prove fatal for the Bengals. Jacksonville was able to hold them to just 91 yds two weeks ago, so it can be done. But it won’t be easy. And if it going to happen, Rey absolutely, positively must stay in his gaps. If he starts guessing, he over-pursues. If he over-pursues, the defense is hosed.

Passing Game:

The Texans took a hit to their passing threat when Andre Johnson came up with another hamstring injury. Without Johnson, Owen Daniels and Arian Foster become the top receivers on the field. For a hobbled CB core, this is welcome news.

WRs Jacoby Jones, Kevin Walter and Derrick Mason v. CBs Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings. Without Johnson, the highest ranked receiver for Houston on FO is Jones, who ranks one spot ahead of Jerome Simpson. I trust Adam Jones to be able to largely neutralize Jacoby Jones. If I’m Houston, I do what I can to formation JJ to be covered by Kelly Jennings instead.

Walter and Mason are aging but still serviceable, and having Jennings covering one of these two still concerns me but not as much. (Can you tell I am scared to death of Jennings? The Bengals got jobbed in that trade.)

It is imperative that the CBs hold their own. Keeping the receivers covered will force the Texans to become one-dimensional and let the Bengals put 8 and 9 in the box to stop their incredible running game.

TE Owen Daniels v. LB Thomas Howard. At the risk of jinxing them, the Bengals have improved this year in containing TEs. The power of the D-line and the new LBs have a lot to do with that. They must continue their run of good games against TEs, as Yates will need to use his check-down guys a lot.

When the Bengals have the ball…

Last week’s loss was shockingly ugly, but that will happen when a team flushes a TD on its first drive and then gives up 3 TDs in 4:14 to a team with a strong defense. If the Bengals let that game linger even the slightest bit, they are toast. They need the focus that allowed them to score 24 against a Ravens defense that is just as tough as the Texans are.

QB Andy Dalton v. fatigue. The Texans’ defense is playing at a high level. They are currently ranked #3 in pass defense and #4 in run defense. Phillips has taken a good thing and made it even better.

There is a little part of me that wonders if fatigue has or will soon become a factor for Dalton. It is simply the pessimist in me that doesn’t want that to be true but fears it is. That is something we will only know in hindsight, and one thumping by the Evil Empire doesn’t mean he is worn out.

Each time Andy has been held under 200 yds passing, he has bounce back the next week. In week 1, he had only 81 yds (in 2 qtrs), and then he threw for 332 yds in Denver. In week 3 he was limited by SF to 157 yds, and the next week he rang up 298 yds on Buffalo. And in week 10 the Steelers held him to 170 yds, and the next week he shredded the #1 Ravens secondary for 373 yds. With the Steelers holding him to 135 yds last week, let’s hope the pattern continues.

Offensive Line:

This group has had a rough time the last few weeks. I think last week’s problems were mainly due to frustration allowing break downs in discipline. More than any other area, this is the group that can least afford to let last week carry over. A solid, disciplined game from all 5 guys for a full 60 minutes are vital to a win.

LT Andrew Whitworth v. RDE Antonio Smith. As goes Whitworth, so goes the whole line. If he gets beat, the whole line will struggle. He has to shake off the bad memories and make sure that Smith goes home with the same 4.5 sacks that he brings to PBS.

RT Andre Smith v. LDE J.J. Watt. I am a little concerned with this matchup. Watt matches his opposite, Smith, with 4.5 sacks of his own. Andre must play his best game of the year, as Watt is the best end he has faced this year.

Running Game:

This is where the Bengals’ offense will be made or be broken. The running game has been less than potent most of the year. Removing the yards racked up against the anemic Browns run D, Cedric is averaging a paltry 56.5 yds/game. That won’t cut it against the Texans. The Bengals must be able to maintain balance, or they will find themselves playing from behind yet again.

RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB Connor Barwin. Barwin, a University of Cincinnati alum, is having a fantastic year after being injured all of last year. Not only must the pair elude Barwin on runs, more importantly they must pick him up on blitz packages to prevent him from adding to his impressive 8.5 sacks. Get the hot tub ready, boys, there is going to be plenty of hitting with this trio.

Passing Game:

Will the Bengals put up big numbers on the Texans like they did on the Ravens? Or will they get held largely in check like they did twice against the Steelers?

WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Johnathan Joseph and Ike Taylor. This may frighten you, but the key to the Bengals being effective in passing the ball does not rest with A.J. Green. A.J. will gets his yards, at least 100. No, the key rests with the often invisible man, Jerome Simpson.

When Jerome has gone over 100 yds, Andy has had a great day each time, twice going over 300 yds. But the problem is that in the other 9 games, Simpson has a total of 188 yds. That is not good enough to beat the Texans. And if not Simpson, then Caldwell or Hawkins must come up big. Green can’t beat them alone.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Brooks Reed. Hopefully Gresham got in Green’s grill and ended the false starts for good. If Gresham can grab at least four catches for 50+ yds, I like the odds of the Bengals’ passing game having a decent day. But like the RBs, Gresham is going to be called on plenty to protect the QB from Reed and his 6 sacks.

Special teams…

P Brett Hartmann v. P Kevin Huber. These two have nearly identical numbers. Both average 44.4 yds/punt. Huber has 13 more, and his net average is 1.4 yds better. The one who shanks will hurt his team. Both guys know about cold weather, with Huber being a local boy and the rookie Hartmann growing up in WI and playing collegiate ball at Central Michigan.

PR Jacoby Jones v. PR Brandon Tate. Jones is grabbing an extra 1.4 yds per return this year over Tate. And Tate has yet to pop something big in a while now. If either guy can do something above average, he will give his team a lot of help.

K Neil Rackers v. K Mike Nugent. Yes, Rackers is still in the NFL. He has missed 4 of 263 attempts this year. Nugent was denied for only the second time last week.

KR/PR Sherrick McManis v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. Tate did himself no favors with Bengals fans by effectively putting the game out of reach with his kickoff fumble last week. He needs to atone for his sin.

The Bengals have the capacity to beat the Texans. A performance similar to what they did in Baltimore could very well put the Bengals on top at the end of 60 minutes, because I don’t see the Texans banging out 31 like the Ravens did (short of another Bengals meltdown). But given that the Bengals have had more stinkers against quality opponents than good showings, I have real concerns about this game. Here is why…

Carlos Dunlap still isn’t practicing. The D-line has lost some of its punch since he headed to the bench. Without adequate pressure, the secondary will struggle to hold coverage long enough and the backers will have to do more to slow down the running game. Without Dunlap, I don’t think the defense has quite enough mojo.

Cedric Benson is not practicing either. Benson’s numbers are meager enough as it is, and they have to have some semblance of a running game to stay competitive. A gimpy Cedric does not help that.

I simply can’t count on the invisible man, Jerome Simpson. I hope he surprises me, but I’m not assuming it in this game.

Final Score: Houston 24. Cincinnati 17.