8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cincinnati -10.5, Over/Under: 46
As one team strives for perfection, another clings to contention, as the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals host the Houston Texans tonight on Monday Night Football. Clinging to contention may sound a bit far-fetched when describing the Texans (3-5, 2nd in AFC South), but it’s accurate, for they trail the division-leading Colts by just one game in the standings. With Indianapolis Quarterback Andrew Luck expected to miss approximately a month with an assortment of ailments, the window of opportunity is very much open, not just for Houston, but fellow AFC South denizens Jacksonville and Tennessee as well. Then again, that’s just how bad the division has been this season. Long been one of the weaker regions of teams, the AFC South definitely has the look of last year’s NFC South, which saw Carolina secure a Division Title on the strength of a 7-8-1 record. Don’t fool yourselves, folks, for that is precisely where these four teams are headed. And if you’re a member of the Texans, then why not us? Well, simply put, they haven’t been very good this season. In fact, they’ve been pretty dreadful at times. A year removed from looking like the most improved team in the league, Head Coach Bill O’Brien has seen his charges regress considerably on both sides of the ball; injuries have ravaged the Offensive Line and Backfield, leaving them without any semblance of a rushing attack, while the beleaguered defense has been pummeled relentlessly in the trenches. A Training Camp under the unwanted specter of HBO’s Hard Knocks series shined a light on some of their underlying issues that only proceeded to build steam as the season approached. Most notably was the prolonged Quarterback competition between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, both of which were tutored by O’Brien in New England. However, after Hoyer emerged the victor, his reign wouldn’t last for long; O’Brien quickly yanked him in favor of Mallett after a terrible first half in the opener against the Chiefs, leading to a maddening game of musical chairs over the following five weeks. The latter’s demotion early on in a nationally televised loss to the Colts proved to be the final straw, as Mallett was benched for good, and released altogether after failing to make the team flight to Miami the following week. The old adage says if you have two Quarterbacks, then you don’t have one, and in reality that’s true, even if Hoyer’s performance far outweighed Mallett’s in most regards; the former completed 60.0% of his passes for 1,581 yards (7.4 y/a), thirteen touchdowns and just three interceptions, with a Total QBR of 69.39, while the latter could complete a mere 53.1% of his attempts for 770 yards (5.2 y/a), three scores and four interceptions, with a very average rating of 51.50. Anyone with a pulse could tell you that Hoyer is clearly a better fit for the offense, but even with that said, this team’s issues run far deeper than the man under Center.
The only real way that the Texans were going to successfully build on last year’s pleasantly surprising 9-7 campaign was if they played complementary football, no matter who emerged from the Quarterback challenge. Neither Hoyer or Mallett were going to carry this team, but the hope was that one of them could indeed manage it with the support of a solid ground game and a rugged defense. Unfortunately, O’Brien and his Staff have stood helpless as those aforementioned strengths have inexplicably become weaknesses. Last season, Houston ran the ball more frequently than any team in the NFL (34.4 attempts/game) en route to churning out a healthy 135.1 yards per game (5th Overall) despite averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (23rd Overall). This allowed them to control Time of Possession, making life easier for then-starting Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Defense. However, 2015 has been a very different story, as an injury-riddled Offensive Line has been unable to open holes with any regularity. Tackles Jeff Adams (Knee) and David Quessenberry (Illness), along with Center Greg Mancz (Knee) have all landed on Injured Reserve, while former Pro Bowl Tackle Duane Brown has missed time with a concussion. Compounding matters, fellow Tackle Derek Newton has been playing through a lingering toe issue, leaving the Line extremely thin on the edges. Of course, we’d be remiss if we failed to mention the loss of the man who has so often in the past exploited their blocking prowess to great effect, Arian Foster, whose season ended with a ruptured Achilles on a non-contact play in a 44-26 debacle at Miami. Foster, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, missed the first three weeks of the season with an ailing ankle, and struggled to produce when on the field, averaging a mere 2.6 yards per attempt, but was still a force in the passing game where he managed to haul in 5.5 receptions per game for 56.8 yards per contest. Predictably, O’Brien has struggled to find a suitable replacement, as Alfred Blue (3.7 yards/carry) and Chris Polk (3.3 yards/carry) are hardly the answer, and the rushing game as a whole now in dire straights; Houston has mustered just 87.9 yards per game (28th Overall) on a league-low 3.3 yards per carry (32nd Overall). With all that said, even when the offense stalled last season, the Defense was more than capable of handling their own, allowing 19.2 points (7th Overall) on 348.2 total yards (16th Overall), including a solid 105.1 on the ground (10th Overall) on 4.0 yards per carry (10th Overall). Despite their opponents’ predilection to pass against them, they still managed to make doing so difficult, permitting a scant 5.9 net yards per pass (7th Overall). A respectable thirty-eight sacks fueled their success, but it was turnovers though, that proved to be the key; the Texans led the league with a sizeable thirty-four takeaways (1st Overall), including twenty interceptions (3rd Overall), which went a long way towards compensating for the twenty-eight passing touchdowns they yielded (22nd Overall). Fast-forward to the present day, and they have found that the turnover well has indeed run dry; Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel has seen his charges force just nine turnovers thus far (27th Overall), while again yielding a plethora of passing touchdowns (sixteen, 28th Overall). As has been the case along the Offensive Line, the Linebacker Corps has been decimated, with the likes of Carlos Thompson (Wrist) and Reshard Cliett (Knee) failing to provide valuable depth on Injured Reserve, while Jadaveon Cowney (Back), Akeem Dent (Hamstring), and rookie Bernardrick McKinney (Concussion) are each likely to miss tonight’s contest. So is it any wonder that the run defense has done a complete about-face, for after all, what is a 3-4 Defense without Linebackers? Houston has been gashed for 123.5 yards (27th Overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (24th Overall), allowing seven rushing touchdowns (21st Overall), which is already more than they relinquished during all of last season alone (six). However, don’t blame Defensive End J.J. Watt for their shortcomings, for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has still been dominant, accumulating forty tackles, 8.5 sacks, five pass breakups, and a forced fumble.
Meanwhile, all the Cincinnati Bengals (8-0, 1st in AFC North) have done is put together the finest start in franchise history. Growth and maturity have often been the key words when discussing the Bengals, who despite four consecutive trips to the Playoffs while playing in one of the league’s most competitive divisions, have managed to whiff on all four opportunities. In fact, the first two of those four attempts came against the Texans, but not these Texans (seriously, they used to be good), back in 2011 and 2012. Expectations are high in Cincinnati these days, as not just the Queen City, but the country as a whole, awaits to see what this team does in the postseason. Well if the sterling performance they’ve put together through the first half of the campaign is any indication, then big things are on the horizon for Marvin Lewis and his charges. Every way you could think of winning football games, these guys have done it; from obliterating weaker opponents (33-13 at Oakland, 36-21 v. Kansas City), to coming from behind to defeat division rivals on the road (28-24 at Baltimore, 16-10 at Pittsburgh), to even outlasting the two-time NFC Champions in Overtime (27-24 v. Seattle), these Bengals having seemingly passed test after test. Hell, even the primetime bugaboo that has plagued them in recent years has been put to rest for the moment; at home against in-state rivals Cleveland last Thursday Night, the hosts exhibited their dominance, methodically picking the Browns apart in a 31-10 victory where they relegated the visitors to just 213 total yards of offense. In this run, Cincinnati has also placed a deadlock on the division, owning the tiebreaker with the Steelers, who with a win tonight will essentially trail them by four games. So with all that said, let’s take a moment to analyze how these guys got to this point, and see if there is any reason to believe that they won’t exercise a demon or two come January.
The second-longest tenured Head Coach in the NFL, it’s safe to say that this current Bengals team is by far and away the best in Lewis’ thirteen years on the sidelines of Paul Brown Stadium. Lewis and his Staff have done a remarkable job of building on both sides of the ball, with a ridiculous wealth of depth at a number of positions. One of the luxuries of being in one place for so long is having the time to develop talent, and Lewis has done precisely that; all but ten of the members of their current roster were drafted and developed by he and his staff (second-most in the NFL), with the average age of the roster residing at 26.9 years of age, meaning that many of those selections are at the point where they are truly coming of age. Offensively, Coordinator Hue Jackson has helped Andy Dalton and Co. evolve into a juggernaut. Balance has been the key offensively in Cincinnati, averaging 28.6 points (3rd Overall) on 398.7 total yards (6th Overall), including 278.3 through the air (8th Overall) on 8.1 net yards per attempt (2nd Overall), along with another 120.4 on the ground (9th Overall) on 4.0 yards per carry (21st Overall). They’ve shown great faith in the running game, ranking third in attempts (30.4 per game), which has made their preference to attack downfield all the more potent, and all in all, more difficult to defend. And that may be the biggest difference between past incarnations of Andy Dalton and the current issue. One of the many knocks on this kid coming out of TCU was his arm strength, and for the most part he struggled pushing the ball downfield with accuracy through the early stages of his career; in his first four years in the league, No. 14 never posted a Yards per Attempt higher than 7.3 or a Net Yards per Attempt (which accounts for yards lost on sacks) greater than 6.68, but has now seen those numbers inflate to 8.6 and 8.05 respectively. The improvement is reflected across the board, as he is enjoying career-bests in completion percentage (67.4%), passing yards (278.3 per game), touchdown percentage (7.0%), interception percentage (1.6%), sack percentage (4.1%), and Total QBR (77.65) among others. A.J. Green continues to be his primary target downfield, as the Receiver has hauled in fifty passes on seventy-two targets for 702 yards (14.0 y/r), and four touchdowns, while Tyler Eifert has become a revelation at Tight End, with thirty-four receptions for 434 yards and an NFL-high nine receiving scores. On the opposite side of the ball, it’s a similar story as Lewis has spent years cultivating arguably the deepest, most complete unit in the league. Defensive Linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap have been terrors in the trenches, accounting for 14.5 of the team’s twenty-three sacks, while unheralded Linebacker Vincent Rey has stepped in admirably in the place of the injured Vontaze Burfict (Knee) and Rey Maualuga (Calf), to lead the defense in tackles (seventy). Defensive Backs Adam Jones, Reggie Nelson, and Dre Kirkpatrick are just a few members of a Secondary that has been greater than the sum of their parts, relegating opposing Quarterbacks to just 5.9 net passing yards per attempt (6th Overall). The only real weakness to be found has been their rush defense, which despite yielding a respectable 105.0 yards per game (14th Overall), has been gashed for a staggering 4.9 yards per carry, which is the third-highest such figure in the league. Fortunately, no team has seen their opponents run the ball against them fewer than the Bengals have (21.4), which has a lot to do with their offense establishing big leads, and their pass-rush dictating longer Down and Distance. However, if they were to meet a foe that would be willing to stick with the running game, than those cracks in the armor could be exploited. As detailed at length earlier in this column, even money says that that team will not be these Texans, who have only been able to muster 71.6 rushing yards over their last five games, and crossed the 100-yard threshold once this term.