The Cincinnati Bengals travel to Reliant Stadium to take on the Houston Texans in the first Wild Card matchup of the 2012 NFL playoffs, and the Bengals have a weapon that could single-handedly win the game for Cincinnati—an elite defensive line.
While the game is a rematch of last year's Wild Card Round in which the Bengals were defeated, both teams are drastically different this year.
The Texans are slumping as they were last year heading into the matchup with Cincinnati. That said, this year Houston has starting quarterback Matt Schaub back in the fold.
Cincinnati on the other hand is more experienced and once again touts the one of the top defensive lines in the league. The Bengals have won seven of their last eight contests, with the last two victories coming over AFC North rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
The key element for Cincinnati avenging the playoff loss from a year ago is simple—shut down the run completely to prevent the play-action from becoming an effective option.
This means the Bengals defensive unit, which surrenders 107 rushing yards per game, must contain Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The latter is one of the best backups in the entire NFL, but it's the former the Bengals need to truly fear.
Foster has rushed for over 1,400 yards this season and has scored 15 touchdowns. Houston is undefeated when Foster rushed for 100 or more yards.
Cincinnati has to look no further than last year's playoff game to realize Foster is the critical element for Houston. He torched the Bengals defensive unit for 153 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
For Cincinnati, the key is the defensive line.
The catalyst for the line is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is arguably the best 4-3 tackle in the NFL. Atkins notched 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in the regular season.
Atkins' unorthodox pressure from the middle essentially flushes quarterbacks into the arms of defensive ends such as Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. While quarterbacks can step up into the pocket to avoid pressure from defensive ends, pressure from the interior of the line leaves quarterbacks with no place to go.
Both Johnson and Dunlap flourished this year as a result. Dunlap was effective as a rotational pass rusher, recording six sacks. Johnson was able to compile 11.5.
Atkins also has the ability to change the course of a running play quickly as well. His partner in crime on the interior of the line is Domata Peko, a man in his seventh season with the team and shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to stuffing the run.
The starting four are spectacular, but as usual, it is the key depth that allows Cincinnati to have one of the best defenses in the NFL. Veteran Robert Geathers is as stout as ever, and Wallace Gilberry, an undrafted rookie in 2008 has contributed with 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
Perhaps the most important man on the defensive line not named Geno Atkins is one who never receives much attention. That would be defensive tackle Pat Sims, now in his fifth year with Cincinnati.
Sims is a pure run-stuffer and comes in during crucial times to give either Atkins or Peko a rest. He was absent from the team's playoff loss a year ago courtesy of an ankle injury, and missed the first eight games this year while on the PUP list.
Since his return, the Bengals are 7-1.
While Sims' impact may have been a secret to the public for quite some time, his contributions are well known throughout the locker room. As Peko recently put it, Sims is the most important player on the line (h/t Bengals.com):
"Pat Sims is the X Factor. Look, we're 7-1 since he's been back" Peko said with a smile. "But he's a big guy for us. He's really important. We haven't had him in the playoffs and it's really going to help us. He comes in for Geno and me and we just keep rolling."
Sims is a weapon the Bengals did not have a year ago when attempting to shut down Foster. Now that the line is at full strength, the end result of the playoff matchup could be drastically different from last year's letdown.
The Bengals are giving up less than four yards per carry with Sims back in the lineup, a number that was previously above four over the course of the first eight contests.
If the line can hold Foster in check to around four yards per carry or less, the unit should have no issues with the play-action fake, something it is notorious for struggling with over the past few seasons.
The Bengals have a large task ahead against the Texans. Cincinnati is trending up while Houston is trending down, but that does not matter when the postseason begins.
If the line continues to play the way it has all season long, the Bengals will have a serious shot at winning and advancing in the playoffs.
Follow me on Twitter for more Bengals and NFL news.