The playoffs return to Houston, Texas tomorrow. Pre-Game Recon returns to Battle Red Blog today, thanks to the efforts of three stalwart heroes from SB Nation's site for all things Cincinnatus and Bengali, the aptly named Cincy Jungle. Anthony Cosenza, Mojokong, and Josh Kirkendall all contributed toward the herculean effort of answering the questions below, so be sure to express your appreciation for them in the Comments. Our own TexansDC answered their queries, so make sure to head over to Cincy Jungle to see what he had to say and to add your two cents.
On to the Q&A!
1. Andy Dalton: Regressing or not? Or are we simply too quick to jump on a guy who started as a rookie and is still growing into the job?
CJ: Not regressing. It's a misconception that Dalton has taken a step back in his second year when there are so many other big steps that he's taken.
Yes, he's turned the ball over more than he did as a rookie, but he's also scored ten more touchdowns in his sophomore year (seven passing, three rushing). He carried this team in their first winning streak with monster games against the Redskins, Browns and Jaguars, and did so again in the second winning streak (where they finished the season 7-1). Dalton was very efficient against the Giants and the teams of the AFC West during the latter part of the year, and he also had a huge road victory in Pittsburgh where the Bengals had 14 rushing yards. It was ugly, but he got it done.
The knock on him and the team last year was that he and his team couldn't beat a quality opponent, as the victory over the non-playoff, 9-7 Titans was the biggest win of 2011. This year they beat the Redskins and Steelers on the road, and the Ravens and Giants at home.
In short, we are getting to know who Dalton is: he's streaky (both positively and negatively) and he's a gritty winner who doesn't play "pretty football". He's not a huge guy and he doesn't throw the deep ball all that well, but his 27 TD passes had him up there with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady this year. Additionally, his 47 touchdown passes in his first two pro seasons are the third-most ever by an NFL quarterback.
Though he has an all-world receiver in A.J. Green and an amazing defense to lean on, he hasn't had a solid running game or an established, consistent No.2 wide receiver since coming here. He has his shortcomings, but he also has the Bengals in back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in three decades.
The only question is how high his ceiling is. He could be plateauing with what we've seen this year, or he could be headed for a career like Brees', if the Bengals continue to surround him with quality talent.
2. Geno Atkins has been phenomenal this year, even if he hasn't gotten the publicity that J.J. Watt has. If you could, please enlighten Texans fans on what makes Geno so special. Additionally, how would you describe the Cincinnati pass rush this season?
CJ: The Bengals' pass rush is the team's greatest strength. Not only did they set the single-season franchise record with 51 sacks, their constant disruption of the pocket has more of an effect on them winning games than the stats can convey. They are relentless and deep and each member along the defensive line brings a unique skill set to the group as a whole. The opposition must pass-protect to the best of their ability or they will see their quarterback face down on the turf and in pain.
The crown jewel of this unit is undoubtedly Geno Atkins. Big Geno is a force, tenacious and unsatisfied, and his effort alone sets him apart from his linemates. He isn't the tallest or fattest of defensive tackles but his combination of speed and strength can overpower just about any interior offensive lineman in the NFL. He not only chases quarterbacks on the regular, he also is stout against the run. He has a low center of gravity and uses his leverage better than anyone I've seen in a long time. He reminds me a lot of John Randle and may be the most premier defensive lineman in the history of the team. He may be flying under the national radar for now, but if he keeps it up, he won't be for long.
3. Imagine you've just been hired by the Texans specifically because of your freakish knowledge about the Bengals. Gary Kubiak calls you into his office, congratulates you on the gig, and gets down to business. "Josh, I know you know the Bengals inside and out. Tell me the three things we need to attack on Saturday to win this game." The Texans are paying you a ton of money, and you want to do right by your new employer. Put your fandom aside and answer Kubes' question honestly.
CJ: Pass rush is first and foremost on defense. Get to Andy Dalton. You don't have to sack him, or even hit him. Once you're within Dalton's peripheral vision, he panics. First he'll bring the football down and his eyes transfer from his receiver's routes to lanes that he can exploit with his legs. He's hardly fast, and the philosophy tends to fail. So he'll then bend around the edges, typically rolling out to the right but he's an equal opportunist to the left. Inside pressure is the best; it forces him to roll out and an outside defender with a wide-9 angle (or linebacker in a 3-4) will end the play. Note the one thing that he doesn't do? He doesn't keep his eyes downfield under any pressure, whether it's actually there or just playing out in his mind, but he will throw it if finds someone by chance.
Cover A.J. Green deep first, then worry underneath, primarily intermediate and short. Once Green's special ability to catch the football is neutralized, there is no deep game -- not much of a threat, nor is there the accuracy deep to supplement it. Pack more defenders in the box, cover short, pay special attention to Green and attack the short passing game and rushing offense. It's worked for a lot of defenses this year.
Finally, you have to block the Bengals' defensive pass rush. Have to. Pressure from the front four is often sufficient, limiting the necessity to blitz and allowing seven guys to drop into coverage. When the Bengals do blitz, you have to take advantage of that. Keep extra blockers in, double Geno Atkins as much as possible. If you run the football, pay special attention to Vontaze Burfict, who finished the season with 174 tackles (coach's count) but stretch it to the outside. Never try to run between the guards. Expose the aggressive perimeter and turn the turner, not unlike Arian Foster's 42-yard touchdown run last year.
4. Same hypothetical as above, but you can't be bought. You're a Bengals fan, and you'll gladly suffer the slings and arrows of legal action. So you decide to answer Kubes' question, but you're going to give him three things that, if the Texans attack, will play right into the Bengals' hands. You devious son of a ... What's you're answer now?
CJ: A.J. Green is overrated, don't worry about the Bengals' pass rush and whatever you do, don't rush Andy Dalton because he'll tear the Texans apart--cool, calm, and collected. Also attack Leon Hall. His game-changing interceptions and pick-six was an aberration and his nickname as the Technician isn't related to football.
5. PUT YOUR NAME ON IT: The final score of Saturday's playoff game will be Bengals ____, Texans ____.
CJ: It'll be a close defensive slug-fest and I'm willing to bet something will happen that we could categorize as luck either way. Bengals 23-20 on a field goal as regulation expires.
Thanks again to the right honorable gentlemen for answering my questions. Make sure to hit Cincy Jungle to see what Bengals fans are saying about the Wild Card rematch.