It’s a pretty interesting slate of Wild Card games this weekend, and the Texans-Bengals matchup holds a lot of intrigue even if it’s not likely to be a high-scoring affair. I meant to do more watching and write-ups on the Texans this year but my schedule didn’t really allow it. With the 2011 Cowboys having already paid off Charon to ferry them across the Styx, however, I’ve got some more focustude to aim Houston’s way through their playoff run. While an absolute fuckstorm of injuries will probably make that run shorter than Texans fans would prefer, I think they have enough to get past the Bengals at home as Houston hosts its first playoff game since Montana and the Chiefs squared off with Moon and the Oilers in ’94.
Let’s check the matchups on both sides of the ball.
When the Texans Run
Earlier in the season I dubbed the Texans’ OL as the league’s best, and they haven’t done anything since to change my mind. With G Mike Brisiel returning from injury they have plus players at four of the five spots (only fellow G Wade Smith has struggled this year) and C Chris Myers was the league’s best pivot man this year. The staple of the Texans’ prodigious ground success this year has been the outside zone run, which Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com does a great job of breaking down here. The Texans have a great crew to make this play work – mobile, athletic linemen with a terrific C in Myers to handle the all-important playside DT combo block and one-cut bangers in Arian Foster and Ben Tate who understand their reads, don’t dither in the backfield and can bust the arm tackles from late-chasing backside defenders and playside guys having to reverse course after a cutback.
The Texans have killed on the ground for most of the season but found the sledding to be tougher than usual against the Bengals in their first matchup. Their biggest challenge was getting their guards and tight ends out to the second level to block Cincy’s LBs as MLB Rey Maualuga and SLB Manny Lawson both had big days slamming headlong into Foster (although Tate managed to burst through for a few nice gains). The Texans will have to do a better job of quickly controlling the Bengals’ DL in order to get out to the second level on time. Cincy’s best guys up front are DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap, although both are better against the pass than the run. Their other two rotation ends in Frostee Rucker and Robert Geathers are average players who shouldn’t pose huge problems for Duane Brown and Eric Winston. I actually like the Texans to have a decent bit of success on the ground today if they can keep Atkins, Dunlap and Maualuga from knifing into gaps. The prospect of eight in the box could slow things down, but with a plausibly healthy Andre Johnson outside and the Bengals minus their best cover man in Leon Hall it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bengals keep the safeties back a bit more today and hope for Texans fuckups on 12-play drives rather than crashing the LOS and giving up a game-changing deep shot.
When the Texans Throw
The pressure is on rookie QB T.J. Yates – he’ll be the difference between the Texans’ first-ever playoff victory and continued disappointment in H-Town. Fortunately Yates is aided and abetted by a strong run game and stout defense in a game that’s unlikely to resemble a wild west shootout, so a Ralph Kramden ‘drive the bus’ kind of day should suffice. With that said, he’ll need to hit the plays that are available, threaten at least 2-3 times in the game with big shots to Johnson downfield and avoid any critical INTs or fumbles. The pre-game "Let’s have every drive end in a kick of some kind" speech that Brian Harsin gave to Ash before the Holiday Bowl would stand Gary Kubiak in good stead here. Of course, his line will need to protect him – in particular from the depredations of Atkins and Dunlap – but with their strength across the board on the OL I don’t see the Texans getting overly victimized by the pass rush here.
The return of a healthy Andre Johnson could be another big key to the day, as the Bengals don’t have anyone in their secondary who can match up with him if he’s at close to his full powers. CBs Nate Clements and Pac Man Jones have been average, while Kelly Jennings has been easier to pick on this season. It’s not clear how much Kubiak will trust Yates to air it out this game, but I think it’s vital to take at least one early deep shot to Johnson to keep him at the forefront of the defense’s concerns. A healthy Johnson can absolutely take over the game, but he may have as much value as a decoy/clear-out guy in this one.
The rest of the Texans’ receivers are capable of making an impact, but again it will be subject to Kubiak’s trust in Yates and Yates’ performance. I actually like Kevin Walter’s chances of making something happen against single coverage at some point in this game, and if Jacoby Jones could EVER be trusted I’d like his chances against a weaker slot corner as well.
Owen Daniels was the Texans’ best weapon in their last matchup with 7 catches for 100 yards, and he’ll be looking to serve as Yates’ security blanket in this one as well. SLB Lawson is very good in coverage, but he was going hard after the run in their first matchup and bit on some play fakes – a well-called game by Kubiak should keep him in a similar quandary. If Johnson is able to scare the Bengals over the top, I like Daniels’ odds of coming out as the Texans’ leading receiver once again.
Reggie Nelson is the Bengals’ best safety, and a guy that Yates will absolutely have to keep track of as he’s the only Bengals’ safety with an INT on the season. SS Chris Crocker is nothing special, and Daniels should be able to work open against him if Nelson is primarily deployed on Andre Johnson duty.
All in all I think the Texans can have a bit better offensive day than many are expecting so long as the Bengals have to honor the deep ball to some degree and Yates doesn’t swallow his tongue in his first bowl game.
When the Bengals Run
This is probably the best matchup across the board for the Texans as it matches a very plodding Bengals’ run game (26th in the league according to FootballOutsiders.com) against a Texans’ D that FO ranks 10th against the run. I predicted a lot of struggles for the Texans’ run D going into the season as I didn’t see much in the way of ideal 3-4 personnel on the roster, but give full marks to Wade Phillips for piecing together a very effective unit. The stars from a run defense standpoint have been rookie 3-4 end J.J. Watt and ILBs DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen from Watt as a rookie playing a physical and demanding position as he’s been able to stand strong against playside double teams and frequently knife into the backfield. Ryans has been his normal stellar self against the run while Cushing’s all around level of play has even exceeded the stout showing he put on in his rookie season – if you ask me, PED stands for Pretty Effective Defender!
They face a Bengals OL that’s much better pass blocking than they are firing out in the run game. Only one of today’s starters, C Kyle Cook, grades out positively in run blocking on profootballfocus.com, and the Bengals will be starting the overmatched Clint Boling at RG with starter Bobbie Williams lost for the season. I expect Watt and the Texans’ ILBs to be able to wreak some havoc in this area.
Ced Benson is the definition of a plodder at this point in his career – he’ll run tough and typically get you what’s blocked but he’s never been much for wiggle and his burst has gone the way of the dodo. Backup Bernard Scott would be my bigger worry as far as popping a run over 15 yards at some point, but he’s unlikely to see more than 6 or 7 touches if the Bengals’ game plan holds to form.
All in all, I don’t see rookie QB Dalton being able to lean on a punishing run game in this one.
When the Bengals Throw
Relatively unheralded soulless ginger TCU product Andy Dalton has been one of the league’s biggest surprises this year and was particularly hot out of the gate in leading Cincy to a 6-2 start. Dalton has cooled of late as defenses have gotten a better look at him – he hasn’t cracked 235 yards passing down the stretch as the Bengals went 2-3 in their last five games to stumble into the playoffs. He has shown impressive accuracy and poise for a rookie, but the Bengals’ pass game has largely been of the short and mid-range variety this year outside of semi-regular deep shots to AJ Green.
Green has been the straw stirring Cincinatti’s drink this season (which I assume to be a Boilermaker or something similarly vile – Midwesterners, help me out here). Breaking 1,000 yards and hauling in 7 TDs as a rookie WR with a fellow rookie tossing you the ball is pretty damned impressive, and Green’s combo of size, speed and Larry Fitzgerald-lite hops and body control has proved lethal at times. He has been slowed by a banged-up shoulder late in the season and faces off against a CB in the Texans’ Jonathan Joseph who has played at an elite level this year.
Joseph and safety Danieal Manning have been absolute free-agent home runs for the Texans and have played a tremendous role in turning one of the worst pass defenses in recent memory into FootballOutsiders’ seventh best unit in 2011. Joseph figures to follow Green wherever he goes, and I’ll be interested to see if Manning sticks to more of a centerfield role or gets deployed against the Bengals’ second-scariest weapon in TE Jermaine Gresham. Gresham has been quite a chain-mover for Cincy this year, and if he’s limited it could be a tough day for Dalton.
Second WR Jerome Simpson was a YouTube darling for his wild-as front flip into the end zone against the Cardinals but has been inconsistent most of the year. He will likely be facing the Texans’ weakest defender in 2nd year CB Kareem Jackson so he may get the chance for more highlights, but depending on how much Houston trusts Joseph to lock down Green I imagine they’ll send a decent amount of help Jackson’s way if needed.
Of course, all these secondary matchups will be of secondary concern if the Texans are able to put sufficient heat on Dalton who, for all his poise, is in fact a rookie QB starting his first road playoff game. The Bengals have done a pretty good job in pass protection this year so I don’t expect an all-out assault on the Ginger Avenger. With that said, the right side of the Bengals’ OL looks somewhat suspect with a replacement in Boling at guard and the physically gifted but inconsistent and none-too-bright Andre Smith at RT. I think Wade Phillips should be able to do some interesting things with a blitzing Cushing, a strong outside rusher in OLB Connor Barwin and J.J. Watt on that side to get after Dalton.
I don’t see either team getting much of a consistent advantage in special teams, although the Texans’ kick return game should get a boost from a healthy Danieal Manning taking over return duties now that we’ve reached do-or-die time in the playoffs.
The Bottom Line
I’m calling this one for the Texans, 20-13, as Houston celebrates playoff success for the first time in a long time and the G-strings at Treasure’s overflow with celebratory 20’s.
Let's also use this one as the Texans' game thread.