To say that the 2011 Bengals season is at a crossroads would be an understatement. While a 7-5 mark at this point in the year would have seemed like a miracle to most Bengal fans back in July, it’s now regarded quite differently. A rebuilding year that began with such promise and optimism hangs by a tenuous thread. Although their current position as the 6th seed is beyond most expectations, keeping it will be very difficult with 5 AFC teams sharing their record.
Head coach Marvin Lewis senses the urgency, perhaps more so than most. “My opinion it’s our biggest game in nine years,” he said—even bigger than both playoff games. In Lewis’ mind, this game is a watershed event for the state of his rebuilding efforts in 2011 and an opportunity for his charges to get over the hump, meet the challenge and grab their fate by their own hands. Beating a 9-3 division leader would help cement his message and provide a launch-pad in confidence the team will need for the stretch run.
Of all the 9-3 teams in the AFC, the Texans are the best one for the Bengals to face, and the Bengals seemingly have some advantages.
Firstly, the Texans will be giving rookie 5th-round quarterback T.J. Yates his second career start. He was serviceable in a home win over Atlanta a week ago, but wasn’t asked to play from behind or throw the ball predictably. Still, Yates completed under 50% of his passes and had an interception called back on penalty.
Secondly, the Texans are without Pro Bowl WR Andre Johnson due to a gimpy hamstring. Johnson is a match-up problem for any secondary, but would have been even more so for Cincinnati’s thin corps of corners. Jacoby Jones, Kevin Walter, and Owen Daniels are no slouches, but the absence of Johnson is a welcome sight for a hobbled secondary.
Thirdly, the Bengals will be playing at home, and while the game will not be a sell-out, the home fans will provide a boost. The weather may be a factor for the domed Texans as well. Temperatures are expected to be in the lower 40’s at game time.
Fourthly, there’s the desperation factor. The Bengals are far more so for the win than are the Texans. At 9-3, Houston holds a 2 game lead on Tennessee in the AFC South with 4 games to go. They are clearly in the driver’s seat there while the Bengals must win to hold onto the last wild card. Additionally, Cincinnati will be seeking redemption after the 35-7 drubbing they took at Pittsburgh last week. That embarrassment, coupled with Lewis’ comments, should help ensure that the enormity of the game is not lost on his charges. Houston, by comparison, is riding a five-game winning streak with 3 different quarterbacks. You don’t win that many without good karma and a few lucky bounces. Eventually, luck runs out and road games are usually when it happens.
As for the actual strategy of the game, again the Bengals should find the advantage. With Yates, the Texans will clearly want to keep him out of harm’s way by relying on their powerful run game, led by Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The Bengals should be prepared for the Texans run game, and their desire to be fairly one-dimensional. If the defense that is ranked 6th in the league in stopping the run can force Yates into 3rd and long, they should be able to limit the Texans offensive output.
Offensively, the Bengals will of course try to establish Cedric Benson and the ground game, but Houston is ranked 4th in that department. However, Atlanta exposed Houston’s vulnerability to the deep pass, so look for A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson to get opportunities deep. The Texans are very good at rushing the passer, but the Bengal offensive line should hold up. The 3-4 base Houston runs is something Cincinnati is used to seeing from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and, up until recently, Cleveland.
Here are my keys to a Bengals victory:
- Stop the Run: Force the Texans into obvious passing situations. If the defense can contain Foster and Tate, the pass rush should be able to rush Yates enough to get off the field, or perhaps even force an interception (something Mike Zimmer is begging for). If the defense plays like they did last Sunday against Pittsburgh, the Texans ground attack will keep them on the field all day. Maintaining gap responsibility and sure tackling will be key to this effort.
- Win the turnover battle: The Bengals can ill afford to give Houston any extra chances. Ball security will be paramount in this, both on offense and on special teams (I’m looking at you, Brandon Tate).
- Get the lead early: The Bengals have been a come-from-behind team all year. It’s been their trademark, but they should really try playing from ahead for once. The Texan pass rush will be even tougher to stop when they can “pin their ears back” if Cincy has to throw it predictably. On the flip side, if the Texans are forced to call a lot of passes for Yates, the Bengals should be able to exploit that for their gain.
- Field Position: Remember earlier in the year when it seemed the Bengals were doing such an outstanding job of field positioning? They seemed to always have a better starting position than their opponents. That’s changed over the past month.
Beating Houston at home is absolutely vital to Cincinnati’s hopes for a playoff bid. Quite simply, it’s a must win. The Jets, Broncos, Raiders, and Titans are all looking to pounce on any Bengal missteps. On the other hand, a win at home could reinvigorate this young Bengal team, and get them the confidence they need to win out and secure a berth.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Houston 23