8:30 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Bengals -5.5, Over/Under: 38
A pair of teams looking to rebound from miserable performances in their respective Openers clash tonight on a short week at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the Bengals host the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football. If there has been one problem that has persistently afflicted the Texans (0-1, 4th in AFC South) throughout the Bill O’Brien Era, it’s the Quarterback position, which in some cases has handcuffed this team from achieving greater goals. Despite going a modest 27-22 since arriving in Southern Texas back in 2014 with a pair of Playoff appearances to his credit, O’Brien has fielded the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, Bran Hoyer, TJ Yates, Brandon Weeden, and Brock Osweiler under Center, perhaps making that resume’ all the more impressive when taken in the proper context. As a result, Houston traded up to select National Champion Deshaun Watson with the Twelfth Overall Pick in the Draft, hoping to end their long search for a quality Signal-Caller that they could build around for the future. Needless to say, after Sunday’s miserable 29-7 thumping at the hands of the Jaguars (the Jaguars?!?!?!), the future is indeed now. After a lengthy Preseason battle, O’Brien and Co. ultimately decided to go with the steadier hand of the aforementioned Savage, who had just a pair of starts to his name in two years as a professional, in hopes that the 27-year old would be able to keep the Offense afloat while Watson continued to learn the ropes. Well, all it took was one really bad half of football for O’Brien to ditch his plans (as he’s been prone to do with his Quarterbacks), and throw the Rookie to the wolves; Savage certainly didn’t warrant a second look given his dreadful 7-of-13 passing for sixty-two yards, while taking six Sacks and fumbling once, whereas Watson moderately energized the Offense, leading them to the home side’s lone Touchdown Drive of the day, completing 12-of-23 throws for 102 Yards, a Touchdown and an Interception. However, in all likelihood the determining factor between the two is the latter’s mobility, which immediately added another dimension to Houston’s attack; while Watson was sacked four times, his ability to escape the Pocket allowed him to keep several plays alive which is paramount considering how beleaguered the Offensive Line appeared to be. Granted, the Jaguars have greatly improved their Defense, but ten Sacks, three Fumble Recoveries, and a Defensive Touchdown is a little outrageous, folks. Tackles Derek Newton (Injured Reserve/PUP List) and Duane Brown (Contract Holdout) were both missing in action Sunday, Guard Jeff Allen (Sprained Ankle) left the contest, and is Questionable to play Thursday Night. Things aren’t going to get any easier in Cincinnati, who field one of the better Defensive Lines in the league, registering thirty-three Sacks in 2016, led by Pro Bowler Geno Atkins (9.0 Sacks). So once again, it looks as if the Defense is going to have to keep team above water; Houston ranked No. One in the NFL in Total Defense in 2016, and that was largely without the services of two-time Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, who left Sunday’s tilt after dislocating his finger. With that said, they didn’t exactly neutralize the Jags’ problematic Offense, which trampled them for 155 Rushing Yards on thirty-nine Carries, and surprisingly failed to register a single Sack or Turnover. Veteran Linebacker Brian Cushing also exited Week One prematurely with a Concussion, with his availability currently unknown.
Meanwhile, as bad as it seemed for the Texans on Sunday, the Bengals (0-1, 4th in AFC North) hard arguably the worst performance of Opening Weekend, as they looked absolutely lifeless in a 20-0 shutout loss at home to the Baltimore Ravens. Nothing went right for Marvin Lewis and his charges, who are left searching for answers on a short week, where the prospects of falling into an 0-2 hole could be damning for a team that missed the Playoffs for the first time in five years in 2016. The numbers were truly ugly for Cincinnati, who were relegated to just fourteen First Downs, 221 Total Yards, and 4-of-13 on Third Down, while committing a whopping five turnovers in defeat. Of all their number, there is no doubt that Quarterback Andy Dalton got the worst of the loss, completing a scant 16-of-31 Passes for 170 Yards, while tossing four Interceptions, and suffering five Sacks, even losing a Fumble. Granted, Baltimore’s Defense has made a lot of Quarterbacks look bad over the years, but Dalton posted a 0.6 Total QBR, folks, which speaks for itself. Needless to say, this is NOT what Lewis expected from a team that was looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled campaign. Pro Bowl Pass-Catchers AJ Green (964 YDS, 4 TD in 2016) and Tyler Eifert (394 YDS 5 TD in 2016) are both healthy after each playmaker missed roughly half of 2016, while the Backfield is flush with weapons consisting of Jeremy Hill (839 YDS 9 TD in 2016), Giovani Bernard (673 Total YDS 3 TD in 2016), and promising Rookie Joe Mixon. However, it comes down to Dalton to pull the trigger, and after last year’s disappointing slump the early prognosis in 2017 isn’t trending upward. After a career campaign in 2015 in which the 29-year old set career-bests in a slew of categories including Completion Percentage (66.1%), Touchdown Percentage (6.5%), Interceptions (7), Yards per Attempt (8.4), and Total QBR (75.3), 2016 was a different story as each of those statistics took a nose dive. Unsurprisingly, the issue has been Protection, or the lack thereof, for Dalton has struggled mightily throughout his career when he has sensed danger. So is it any surprise that in 2015 he was dropped a career-low twenty times, completing a three-year trend in which his Sack Total decreased with each passing season? However, in 2016 he was sacked a staggering forty-one times, which promptly dropped his Net Yards per Attempt from a stellar 7.71 to a middling 6.53. Losing Guard Kevin Zeitler in Free Agency has weakened the Offensive Line, while losing his replacement Trey Hopkins (Knee) midway through the Opener certainly didn’t help matters. It would be unwise to expect him to suddenly right the ship against the Texans’ Defense, for Dalton has NOT enjoyed a whole lot of success against Watt and Co.; in six career meetings (including a pair of postseason battles), he is 1-5 completing 61.2% of his Attempts for an average of 211.8 Yards per Game, with three Touchdowns and Seven Interceptions, while taking fourteen Sacks.