Keys to Cincinnati Bengals' 1st Round Matchup with Houston Texans
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Heading into Week 17, the Houston Texans were in the driver’s seat, needing either a win or a loss by the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos to clinch a bye in the first round. As it turned out, the Patriots won, the Broncos won and the Texans lose their third game in four weeks.
The Bengals, on the other hand, come into the Wild Card matchup red hot. Cincinnati has won seven of their last eight games—its only loss coming against the Dallas Cowboys, 20-19. The Bengals have momentum on their side to say the least.
Taking down Houston won’t be an easy task, though. Matt Schaub and Arian Foster are two of the top duos in the NFL, and oh yeah, the Texans defense speaks for itself.
Even with the odds against Cincinnati, the Bengals can pull off a victory to advance to the divisional round. Here are five ways that they can do that.
Pressuring Matt Schaub
Bringing pressure to Matt Schaub can cause erratic throws.
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Matt Schaub is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, surpassing 4,000 yards for the third time in four seasons and averaging 22.5 touchdowns per year over that span.
But the Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots have been able to solve Schaub’s puzzle the past four weeks. In those four games, Schaub has thrown just one touchdown while being picked off three times. He’s also been sacked 12 times.
When Schaub’s protection collapses, so does he. Pressure is what Cincinnati needs to bring against the Houston offensive line and Schaub. Getting to him quickly can change the entire game, and the Bengals have the personnel to do that.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins finished the regular season with a team-high 12.5 sacks, which was tied for the sixth-best in football (via ESPN). Defensive end Michael Johnson wasn’t far behind with 11.5 of his own. And then there’s the other defensive end, Carlos Dunlap, who added six to his resume for the year.
As a team, the Bengals had the third-most sacks in the NFL during the regular season (via ESPN), clearly showing that they’re a force to be reckoned with. Houston has had a solid offensive line—allowing 28 sacks on the year—but the advantage goes to Cincinnati.
If the Bengals can get through, look for Schaub to crumble.
Winning the Turnover Battle
Reggie Nelson is tied for the team lead in interceptions with three.
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Cincinnati has to be smart with the ball against the dangerous defense of the Texans. The Bengals have to be smart on the other side of the ball as well, but also need to be aggressive.
As I just mentioned, bringing pressure against Matt Schaub should help Cincinnati’s chances of winning. And luckily for the Bengals, their secondary has been good at picking off errant passes this season.
Safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson each have three interceptions this year, while cornerbacks Leon Hall and Terence Newman each have a pair of their own. Much of the focus on Saturday has to be put on wide receiver Andre Johnson, as he’s Schaub’s biggest downfield threat—catching 112 passes for nearly 1,600 yards this year.
Those not keeping an eye on Johnson should also put a lot of focus on tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Kevin Walter, who are Houston’s No. 2 and No. 3 most-targeted options.
Now offensively, Cincinnati needs to make sure BenJarvus Green-Ellis can secure the ball the entire time. He didn’t have a fumble in his career until this season when he coughed up the ball three times. Houston is relatively good at ripping the ball out of players’ hands so hanging on for dear life is something the Law Firm needs to do.
Containing Arian Foster
Arian Foster ran for just over 1,400 yards this season.
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Arian Foster is just half of Houston’s offensive game, but keeping him under control means everything. Foster led the league in touchdowns with 15 while rushing for the sixth-most yards in the NFL this season.
By looking at how Houston has played this season you’ll notice a tendency in the difference between its wins and losses. That difference is Foster.
In the four games that Houston has dropped this season, Foster failed to hit the century mark in all of them. In three of those games, he didn’t even reach the half-century mark. Another thing to take into consideration is that Foster didn’t touch the ball as often as in other games as well. In Houston’s four losses, Foster never ran the ball more than 17 times.
Now, how many times Houston gives the ball to Foster is out of the Bengals' hands, but they can control how many yards he gains or losses each time.
I’ve also discussed how good the defensive line of the Bengals is, but their linebackers are also quite good. Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga each ranked in the top 20 in tackles this season with over 120 apiece (via ESPN).
The Texans are 7-0 when Foster surpasses 100 yards or more on the ground. The Bengals have to make it their mission to prevent that from happening come Saturday.
Stopping J.J. Watt
If J.J. Watt breaks through protection, the Bengals are doomed.
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J.J. Watt is arguably the top defensive player in football. He led the league in sacks this year with 20.5 to go along with 16 pass deflections and four forced fumbles. He is absolutely a point of focus for the Cincinnati offensive line—if not the biggest focus.
Andre Smith, Kevin Zeitler, Trevor Robinson, Clint Boling and Andrew Whitworth have a duty on Saturday, and that’s to make sure that they protect Andy Dalton from Watt.
It’s sad to say that the offensive line hasn’t helped Dalton out much at all this season. Dalton has been sacked 46 times in 2012, the third-most of any quarterback (via ESPN). Dalton has also thrown 16 picks and lost the ball four times.
Dalton needs time in the pocket, and the offensive line needs to find a way to do that. He cannot afford to be taking four sacks per game like he’s done six times this season. The Bengals can’t and won’t win that way.
And it all starts with Watt. Whether it means sliding protection one way or keeping BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield to help out, Watt must be stopped.
The last thing the Bengals need is to lose because Dalton got sacked a handful of times and coughed up the ball.
Throwing to A.J. Green
A.J. Green could be the X-factor for Cincinatti.
A.J. Green is Andy Dalton’s top receiving option and the most versatile player on the field when Cincinnati has the ball. Green had the 10th-most receiving yards this season with 1,350 (via ESPN) while also scoring the fourth-most times of any receiver or tight end (via ESPN).
Dalton targets Green more often than any other receiver on the Bengals, leading the team by 70 targets, and despite Houston knowing that he’s the favorite to get the ball thrown his way, Dalton needs to continue throwing it to him. It’s not time to get smart and avoid him.
An interesting statistic that I came across should show Dalton why he needs to throw the ball to Green—whether he catches it or not. When Green is targeted at least 10 times over the course of a game, the Bengals are 7-3. When Green is targeted nine times or fewer, Cincinnati is 3-3.
I don’t need to spell it out, but I will anyway: There’s a better chance of the Bengals winning if Green is targeted at least 10 times.
Green will likely be going up against one of the top cornerbacks in the league in Johnathan Joseph, a former Bengal himself. Even though it’s a tough matchup, Dalton needs to trust his arm and trust that Green will be able to make the play.