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Texans-Bengals Preview: Five Things To Watch

Here’s five things to watch for when the Texans play the Bengals on Thursday Night Football.

Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Texans and Bengals. A rivalry unlike any other. Greater than Ash and Gary, Michael and Toby, or Jason Compson and Mrs. Quintin, the Texans-Bengals rivalry supersedes all others. So many classic clashes of helmets and carapaces. Battles that will forever be known to all men, passed around and discussed among strangers even outside the esoteric territories where they reside. Tomorrow night is why football is played. It’s the only reason why it exists.

Who am I kidding? Everyone hates these games except for us.

Let’s get on with it.

1.) OFFENSIVE Line Play

I like great offensive line play. I don’t like bad offensive line play. I watch football to see two become one as they press their hips together and plow defenders off the line of scrimmage into their second level counterparts. Beautiful it is to see a guard turn the shoulders of a defensive tackle, get to the second level, and watch the center overtake the block with the help of that first turn of shoulders. Crashing defensive ends passed inside while the offensive tackle waits for the looper...MWAH..perfect. Punches that grab the chest and suffocate the block. That’s what I like. What I don’t like is going to be regurgitated all over the field and broadcast into our pixels tomorrow night.

Houston gave up ten sacks to Jacksonvillelast week. Together Kendall Lamm, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Nick Martin, Jeff Allen, Greg Mancz, Breno Giacomini, and Chris Clark combined to set offensive line play back to the days of leather helmets and forearm shoving. Malik Jackson and Calias Campbell stomped all over the interior. Yannick Ngakoue slithered around the edge and strip-sacked the quarterback. It was a disaster.

The Texans still haven’t brought back Duane Brown, so the offensive line is still going to be bad. With him gone, they lost their strength—running the ball to the left side—and are going to play two abysmal tackles. With one atrocity on the edge, a team can survive. The quarterback can expect pressure from that area and adjust accordingly. The coach can scheme to keep a running back on that side, slide the protection, or chip with running backs and receivers to help out. Aside from installing max protection, you can’t do that when it’s pouring out of both ends.

The Texans’ offensive line will face a pretty good pass rush. Geno Atkins is still a premier interior rusher. You got Carlos Dunlap, who is an underrated edge rusher, and Michael Johnson, who can also rack up pressures on the outside. This won’t be as fearsome as a Florida jungle cat, but these kitties can still scratch.

On the other sideline, Cincinnati has offensive line troubles of their own. This past offseason, they didn’t resign their two best linemen. They lost Andrew Whitworth to St. Louis and Kevin Zeitler to Cleveland. Their best remaining lineman is center Russell Bodine, and Clint Boling can mash in the run game some. The rest are gruesome. Tre Hopkins is still unknown, and the Bengals’ tackles would fit right in playing for Houston. Andy Dalton was terrorized by Terrell Suggs last week and his cause for heartache was left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, who is one of the worst left tackles in the league. Right tackle Jake Fisher isn’t that much better.

It’s going to be gross. You could find better offensive line play at the middle school where teenagers do up-downs in sticker fields as they learn what it is to be a man in sweltering Texas Chainsaw Massacre heat.

2.) Under Pressure

For the Texans, this is the key to their game. As J.J. Watt once said, they need make the Red Rifle look like a Red Ryder BB gun. So lame. Andy Dalton has trouble against pressure. For example, last season he was sacked 41 times and pressured on 22.5% of his dropbacks. He finished with a DVOA of 54.8% without pressure and a DVOA of -77.7% with pressure. That’s a difference of -132.6%, which was the 28th worst mark in the NFL.

Against Jacksonville, Houston wasn’t able to get to Blake Bortles much. They were occupied by a power run scheme led by Leonard Fournette and company. When it came time to bring it on third down, it was all comfy and cozy for Blake Bortles. That can’t happen this week. Houston needs to terrorize Dalton like they did in 2015 and 2016.

This is how the Ravens blanked the Bengals in Week One. Well, that and red zone turnovers. What Baltimore did was get pressure every time Dalton dropped back for longer than three steps. On earlier downs and shorter distances, the Ravens dropped edge rushers and linebackers into coverage to sit and get in the way of quick passing routes, routes like slants, drags, and curls. Unable to deal with that, Dalton was left festering and covered in fleas.

Look for Houston to try and put some of the same principles in place tomorrow night. Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus may drop back in coverage, and Houston should run more zone coverage than usual. More than anything, they have to treat the line of scrimmage and the Bengals’ offensive line like an obstacle and not an impassable barrier.

3.) Skill Players

The reason why the Bengals’ offensive line is barren and has gone from one of the strengths of this team to a sad example of the passage of time and the forced distribution of resources is that Cincinnati doubled down on skill players. They let their offensive linemen walk and drafted John Ross and Joe Mixon instead.

John Ross is the fastest man alive. Joe Mixon is another example of the pain of being a football fan, but he is extraordinarily talented. Combined with A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard, and Jeremy Hill, the Bengals’ offense is a glowing Diablo style treasure chest laying at the end of some fetid cave filled with skeletons, goat demons, imps, and temptresses.

Last week, this strategy didn’t work, but it wasn’t because Cincy couldn’t move the ball. They could a bit. What killed them was the three red zone turnovers they had and the pressure as mentioned before. If Dalton has any amount of time to sling it, the Bengals can put up some points. Again, Ross, Mixon, LaFell, Eifert, Bernard, and Hill is an obscene crew of talent and skill. If the Texans don’t get pressure on Dalton, I can close my eyes and see Green and Ross pointing and laughing at a crying and trailing Corey Moore.

4.) Deshaun Watson, Starting Quarterback

This isn’t going to end. We are going to be playing musical chairs with Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson for awhile. It’s 2015 all over again, baby.

But for this week, for this game, Deshaun Watson is going to be the starter. First off, Watson gives Houston the best chance to win this game. With this offensive line, composed of shreds and shambles, Houston needs a quarterback who can maneuver around the pocket, break tackles, escape when needed to, and scamper for yards. Watson can do this. Savage can’t. Savage is the exact opposite of all these things. He is bowel-ridden cheese.

Watson wasn’t very good against Jacksonville last week, though. He probably won’t be this week either. He doesn’t have a great arm, so some throws won’t be available to him, especially lasers to the sideline. He still has to work at reading NFL defenses after playing in a half-field offense in Clemson, and Cincy is great and maneuvering before the snap and disguising coverage. For Watson, this game is going to be like jumping from The Silver Chair to Absalom, Absalom. No matter how quick you move, playing with Geno Atkins in your face is calamitous.

As big of a week it is for Watson, it’s an even bigger one for Bill O’Brien. The head coach and offensive coordinator needs to quickly design an offense to make things simpler for his rookie quarterback and play to Watson’s strengths. Look for Houston to run some run-pass options, play-action bootlegs, isolated DeAndre Hopkins fade routes (a route Watson was so good at throwing in college), screens, and read options. If O’Brien can manufacture an offense around Watkins, and not vice versa, he can sway the mean things everyone said about him this week.

Also, this is the biggest game of Lamar Miller’s Houston career. He looked bright and sharp in last week’s sad loss. Houston needs more of that. They are going to need Miller to create runs out of nothing. He has to be able to break tackles and zip through the hole whenever blocks are made for him. The blocking isn’t going to be good. He’s going to need rise above the malodorous. O’Brien giving D’Onta Foreman more than a single carry to keep Miller fresh will help, too.

5.) History and Importance

I feel bad for the rest of the country that has been subjugated to so many of these Bengals-Texans matchups that only we love. All of those past slogging wild card round playoff matchups, those low scoring nationally televised games...each one we have loved, cherished, and looked back upon with a smile while the rest who aren’t connected to these parts are stained with disdain. LOL. Who am I kidding? Screw ‘em.

Tomorrow night, football fans are going to get another instant classic. Before we look ahead to the future, let’s think about the past. Since their inception in 2002, the Texans are 7-4 against the Bengals. They have won seven of the last eight of these matchups. Their only loss came in 2014, when Romeo Crennel played Johnathan Joseph eight yards off A.J. Green and Andy Dalton pricked and poked them to death. The rest makes the heart swell.

Remember when the Texans clinched their first division title with two seconds remaining with a T.J. Yates to Kevin Walter end zone connection? Remember the 2011 playoff game when Watt pick-sixed Dalton right before the half and Andre Johnson caught a sideline touchdown pass? Remember the 2013 playoff win where nothing memorable happened except for that pick-six that Matt Schaub almost threw? Remember the 2015 Monday Night game where DeAndre Hopkins went over Pacman Jones on a fade route that destroyed the Bengals’ undefeated 8-0 rrecord? Remember last year’s Clinchmas Eve, when Randy Bullock missed a game-winning field goal, allowing the Texans to clinch the AFC South title and ruining a Week 17 AFC South Championship game for me?

Never forget.

Tomorrow night is going to be close. It’s going to be dirty. The rest of the country will have green faces. This is a game only for us to love.