It’s Saturday! Game day is finally here.
What started as a pie-in-the-sky dream in August is now a reality. The Bengals have defied the odds makers and experts to find themselves playing on Wild Card Weekend. Enjoy the moment, my fellow fans, for they don’t come along every year. Of course, the enjoyment factor is higher when the Bengals win, and that’s just what we will all be biting our nails and sweating in our palms about all afternoon.
So how do these Bengals leave Reliant Stadium in Houston with a victory and a trip to New England next weekend? Here’s one non-expert’s take, looking at all three phases of the game:
The Bengals need to take advantage of Houston’s relative porous run defense. The Texans are outstanding in pass defense, but their Achilles’ heel is in stopping the run. In their first meeting on week 14, Cedric Benson had nearly 100 yards in the first half before getting shut down in the second. Benson will need to produce positive yardage plays on first and second down (4+ yards per carry). Bernard Scott should also get carries, especially if Benson struggles. If the running game can be effective, the Bengal play action passing attack will pay dividends with one-on-one match-ups for A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson, and Jermaine Gresham. Ball security and short yardage will also be key for Benson, Scott, Brian Leonard, and the Bengal backfield.
When the Bengals do pass, they can expect Wade Phillips to cloud A.J. Green with their best corner, former Bengal Johnathan Joseph and safety help. This means that Jerome Simpson and Jermaine Gresham (who is often split out wide) will have match-up advantages that they’ll need to exploit. Of course, Andy Dalton will need time to throw and the offensive line will need to play a great game against a ferocious Houston rush. It could be argued that the last Bengals-Texans game turned from an easy Bengal win into a dogfight when LB Connor Barwin got a sack-fumble in the beginning of the second half. That turnover led to a short field and a quick TD for the Texans. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, who missed the first Texans game, will need to bring their “A” game, and Gruden should have some max protection schemes in mind to help the line hold up.
Offensive Wild Card Hero: Andrew Hawkins. Look for Gruden to have a few special plays designed to get the ball into his hands, particularly on WR screens and slants. “Baby Hawk” has the speed and the quickness to make the big play when they need it.
For Mike Zimmer’s defense, job number one must be stopping the run. The Texans tried to fool the Bengals in the last match-up by coming out of the gate throwing the football, but in the end they will want to establish the run with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The Bengals gave up one long run in the last match-up, a 44-yarder to Tate, and they also got gashed by Ray Rice last week, so I am sure proper leverage and gap responsibility has been a point of emphasis in Zimmer’s meetings.
If the front seven can stop the run, it’ll force quarterback T.J. Yates into obvious passing situations. When this happens, the Bengals must get pressure on him with just their four-man line (with maybe one blitzer). If the Bengals can pressure the rookie Yates into throwing it before he’s ready, the Bengals can take advantage. They can do it. Atkins will be a matchup problem for the interior of the Texans line, and Carlos Dunlap, another player who was out for the first match-up, will be coming off the edge.
The primary target for Yates will not be Andre Johnson as so many experts are predicting, but TE Owen Daniels. Daniels torched the Bengals defense in the last game, so stopping him this time around will be another emphasis. Zimmer will lean heavily on LB Thomas Howard and S Chris Crocker to contain Daniels. Andre Johnson is a top tier wide-out, and he will garner the attention of Nate Clements and Reggie Nelson all day, but stopping Daniels underneath is more vital to the Bengals success.
Defensive Wildcard Hero: DE Carlos Dunlap. Everyone is talking about how Andre Johnson missed the first match-up, but nobody remembers that Dunlap sat out the same game. With Yates nursing a sore shoulder, Dunlap’s ability to rush the passer off the edge should give the Bengals a little extra pressure and he could be the difference in this one.
The Bengals did a fairly good job of controlling field position in 2011, and were effective in doing so in the first game. Their coverage teams have been excellent, and while inconsistent, the return games have been solid. However, the Bengals have had some difficulty with blocked kicks and this will be something the Texans coaches will be studying carefully.
Mike Nugent has been in a bit of slump the last few weeks, but his misses have been in windy conditions and he should have ideal weather inside the dome. Brandon Tate must be extremely careful with the football.
Special Teams Wildcard Hero: Adam Jones. Something tells me the Bengals will let him have a return or two and he could make a game changing play like he did in Seattle.
For Marvin Lewis and his staff, I look for them to want to limit their penalties—something that has been an ongoing issue all year. The Bengals cannot move backward on offense or give Houston extra chances on defense due to yellow flags. They’ll also want to get an early lead to take the crowd out of the game and limit the noise factor. Lastly, they should break tendencies and have a few new looks and trick plays ready for this all-or-nothing showdown.