October 25, 2014

Postseason Preview: Bengals @ Texans

Welcome to the playoffs, WhoDeyFans! The good guys are back for another shot at ending the dry spell of playoff victories. With the number of bad streaks this team has snapped this year, I am excited for this game to see yet another streak end on Saturday.

Two rookie QBs square off in a playoff game for the first time in the modern football era. By now you’ve probably seen the opinion of Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle that having a rookie QB puts the Bengals at a disadvantage. Personally, I’d rather have the rookie that has started 20 games (Dalton) than one that has started 5 games (Yates).

The Texans have mostly struggled in the AFC South since entering the NFL in 2002. This season was only their second winning season in the 10 that they have existed, and it is their first time ever making the playoffs. No doubt the fans there will be in a mild frenzy.

This marks the Bengals third playoff appearance in the last 7 years. We know a little bit about the overconfidence that can come with finally making the playoffs after years of heartache. Interestingly, in the AFC the #6 seed has beaten the #3 seed in four of the past six season, including the last three straight. The Bengals are in a better position than you may think to make that four years straight and visit of that all-too-familiar heartache on Houston fans.

When the Texans have the ball…

After beginning the season as one of the more potent offenses in the league, the Texans’ stats have fallen off as injuries have to many of their key players have taken their toll. In the six games since Matt Schuab was lost for the season, the Texans have scored more than 20 points once.

Curiously, the Texans and the Bengals have both scored 108 points over the last six games of the season. The Bengals have had the tougher road in that stretch, facing much better defenses: CLE (#10), PIT (#1), HOU (#2), STL (#22), ARI (#18) and BAL (#3). Meanwhile the Texans have faced JAC (#6), ATL (#12), CIN (#7), CAR (#28), IND (#25) and TEN (#18). And those last three were all losses.

QB T.J. Yates v. pressure. With the Texans having locked up a playoff berth nearly a month ago, and with this being the Texans first playoff game ever, there is undoubtedly a lot of expectation from the fans. As the home team and the favorite, the pressure to win this game falls squarely on Yates. Not an enviable position for a kid with 5 NFL starts.

That is why the Bengals need to bring the pressure. They notched five sacks on Yates on Dec 11, which he will remember. The D-line must force Yates to play faster than he wants to.

Yates did have his best passing game against the Bengals, throwing for an even 300 yds. But let the record show that 128 of those came in the final two scoring drives, when the Bengals chose to play prevent rather than stay aggressive. For the first 48 minutes, the defense had limited Yates to only 178 yds passing, so they must stay aggressive for the full 60 minutes this time around.

Offensive Line:

The Texans’ O-line has nice stats for run blocking. But that can be a proverbial chicken-and-egg stat. Do the Texan RBs do well because of the holes opened by the line, or does the line look good because the RBs are so good? I suspect the latter.

The Texans will want to establish the running game to take pressure off of Yates. The top priority for the defense should be to limit the dynamic duo of Foster and Tate like they did on Dec 11 (Foster had 41 yds; Tate had 67 yds) and put the pressure on Yates to make plays with his arm… and his bruised left shoulder.

LT Duane Brown v. RDEs Michael Johnson . Johnson notched one of the five sacks on Dec 11. Coming from the blind side, Johnson and Rucker must continue to get their hands on Yates (who may be prone to holding the ball a little too long at times) as often as possible.

C Chris Myers v. DT Domata Peko. The Bengals cannot allow Foster and Tate to beat them the way Ray Rice did. Peko and Atkins must clog up the middle and make running yds hard to come by. Keeping the pair at around 100 yds with no big gashes will give the Bengals a great chance at winning this game.

Running Game:

Only the Denver Tebows had a more potent running game than the Texans did this season. The Bengals did pretty well slowing down Foster and Tate on Dec 11, but 5 runs for 36 yds by Yates were costly that day. Containment, or the lack thereof, will play a major factor in the outcome of this game.

RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate v. LB Rey Maualuga. Arian Foster sat out on Sunday to give his troublesome knee a rest to be ready for Saturday, so clearly the Texans plan to use him. Foster averaged 94.2 yds/game, but the Bengals held him to 41 yds on 15 carries last time. Holding him under 60 yds rushing this time is key.

Passing Game:

The Texans have three significant receiving threats: Arian Foster, Owen Daniels and the great Andre Johnson. All three have been battling some type of knee or leg injury. Foster and Daniels both sat against Tennessee to rest up for this game, while Johnson eased his way back onto the field after missing 9 of the last 12 games of the season. Guessing how much their injuries will hamper the play of this trio is difficult, but predicting that plenty of cortisone will find its way into their bodies right before the game is not.

WRs Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter v. CBs Nate Clements and Adam Jones. Johnson was a non-factor against the Titans, making 2 catches for 21 yds. But that game was more about getting him a few reps before the playoffs, not about beating the Titans. Of all the injuries for the Texans, Johnson’s is the trickiest. They must be careful to avoid overusing him and re-aggravating his hamstring, which means limiting his snaps. When he is on the field, there will be a good shot that they want to use him. Look for Clements and Jones to try to force him to cut and dig as much as possible to stress that hamstring.

Walter did not have an eye-popping day against the Bengals — 6 catches for 76 yds — but he had that dagger-to-the-heart TD catch with 0:02 left. I wants me some payback for that.

TE Owen Daniels v. LB Thomas Howard. This is the guy I’m worried about in the passing game. He had his best game of the year against the Bengals with 7 catches for 100 yds. If he is allowed to do that again, the Bengals could find themselves on the short side again. And the best way to limit him is to force the Texans to keep him in for protection.

When the Bengals have the ball…

The Bengals’ offense has been just OK all season, hovering around #20 in the rankings. As they have improved as a unit, the defenses that they faced got much tougher in the back half of the season, which has been especially evident in the red zone. The Texans held them to 290 yds last time, 30 yds under their season average. It won’t take a huge offensive game for the Bengals to win, but they do need to get close to that 320 yd mark.

QB Andy Dalton v. poise in the noise. Reliant Stadium is going to be nuts. The fans are going to make every bit of noise they can to help their boys win this game. Having to travel to Seattle, reportedly the loudest stadium in the NFL, will have added benefits, because the game will likely be a close second.

Dalton had a solid performance in Seattle, going 18/29 for 168 yds, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. The key there is no mistakes. His numbers against the Texans were similar at 16/28 for 189 yds, 1 TD and 0 INTs.

Being a playoff game, Andy needs to do just a little better this time, more like 21/30 for 210 yds, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. A little more consistency, especially in the red zone, will pay dividends against the Texans. They need at least two TDs. A bunch of field goals won’t cut it, not because I don’t trust Nugent but because they likely won’t get in position enough times to win on one TD and a bunch of FGs.

Offensive Line:

The O-line was solid against the Texans on Dec 11, allowing only one sack to a group that has registered 44 on the season. They must be just as solid this time. And they must, must, must avoid false start penalties.

RT Andre Smith v. LDE J.J. Watt. Watt has been impressive as a rookie with 5.5 sacks. Smith held his ground against Watt four weeks ago, and he must do it again. Andy must have time to find his receivers.

Running Game:

The Texans limited opponents to 96.0 yds/game on the ground. The Bengals were just able to sneak over that mark at 101 yds on Dec 11, mostly on the strength of Benson’s best run of the season, a 42-yarder that fell 1 yd short of a TD (which was promptly turned into a FG thanks to a false start penalty).

RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB Connor Barwin. The Bengals must counter with a strong duo of their own against the Texans. Benson had a good game with 91 yds, but Scott was completely ineffective with 4 yds on 6 carries. These two must combine for 100+ yds, whether they split 80/20 or 50/50.

Passing Game:

Gruden and Dalton spread the ball between seven different receivers last time. No one person had an individually great day, with A.J. leading the way with 59 yds. But net result was right at the average allowed by the Texans. Nudging the completion percentage by just a couple of catches should net some nice results.

WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Johnathan Joseph and Ike Taylor. JJoe also did not play against the Titans on Sunday as he nurses his foot. (How often did we hear about his foot when he was hear?) The injury is reported to not be serious, but any dent in his game is positive news for A.J. Green, who will be carrying JJoe in his hip pocket all day as he deals with his own shoulder issues.

Jerome Simpson must be better than his 2 catches for 38 yds, 1 TD on Dec 11. Last week, either the Bengals tried to limit the targets of Green to spare his shoulder (a strategy that doesn’t make much sense given that they were not guaranteed a playoff spot), or more likely the Ravens schemed to take away Green and force the Bengals to use Simpson to beat them. I would expect the Texans to try the same thing, so Simpson has to haul in the ball.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB Brooks Reed. Gresham had the best game of the year against the Ravens last week, catching 5 balls for 72 yds. That is the Gresham we need to see consistently in 2012, and there is no better time to start that consistency than on Saturday.

Special teams…

P Brett Hartmann v. P Kevin Huber. Huber and Hartmann are nearly identical punters in terms of stats. Huber averaged 0.2 yds/punt less, but his long is 2 yds more. Huber (91) had a lot more punts than Hartmann (58) though. The more consistent punter will gain the edge, as each will likely have several opportuities.

PR Jacoby Jones v. PR Brandon Tate. We have another push here, with both guys averaging 10.6 yds/ret. Coverage will be key for both teams, as a big return for either will likely spell trouble for the opponent.

K Neil Rackers v. K Mike Nugent. Rackers has missed 6 of his 38 attempts. While he has made 4 of 5 at 50+ yds, he is most susceptible to miss in the 40-49 yd range, going only 4 of 8. Nugent has missed 5 of his 38 attempts, including 3 misses in the last two games. He recently attributed those miscues to simply misjudging the wind. There’s a trend I hope doesn’t follow him to Texas.

KR/PR Sherrick McManis v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. Tate holds the edge over McManis. He averaged 23.8 yds/ret, with 29 out of 42 (69.0%)  going 20+ yds. McManis averaged only 20.5 yds/ret, with only 5 of 10 attempts (50.0%) going 20+ yds.

As Number 1 Fan pointed out yesterday, Don Banks is right that the Bengals are playing with house money in this game. No one expected them to make the playoffs in the first place, and many will still view the Texans as the better team despite their losses down the stretch.

While the Texans do have a “signature” win over the Steelers (in Week 4), they lost to Indianapolis and Carolina in their 3-loss skid to close the season.

The Bengals had the Texans beat at home until they went into the prevent defense, and they can beat the Texans in Houston. Since these teams are pretty evenly matched, I’m going to boil this game down to one key thing for the Bengals: don’t do stupid things.

1) Don’t turn over the ball. Cedric has to tattoo the high-and-tight rule on his eyelids. Andy cannot telegraph passes. And receivers cannot bat the ball into the air for DBs to scoot under. Ball security is essential. Leaving the game ahead in turnover margin should earn them a ticket to Foxborough.

2) Don’t commit dumb penalties. All penalties hurt, but false starts, delay of game and illegal procedure penalties just can’t happen.

3) Don’t give up sacks. The yards will be hard enough to come by. Extending the field, either by penalties or sacks, makes the points that much harder to get.

4) Don’t give up big plays. Foster, Tate, Daniels and Johnson are a lot to cover, I know. But the Texans will stall if forced to go on long drives. They are not any more potent than the Bengals’ offense, so winning the battle of field position will go a long way toward a win.

Football genius Jerome Solomon says that the Texans are due for a big offensive game. If they are, it isn’t coming on Saturday. The team that is most consistent –avoiding mistakes on both sides of the ball, seizing on red zone opportunities and controlling the field on defense — will survive to play another week.

Final Score: Cincinnati 20. Houston 17.