Where: Reliant Stadium, Houston
When: Saturday, January 7, 4:30 p.m. ET
As much as the headline of this game may be that it's the first time two rookie quarterbacks (Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Houston's T.J. Yates) have faced off in a playoff game, the result of the contest will be more about number-one receivers, tight ends, and the lines on all sides.
There's been a lot of talk about Houston's defensive line throughout the season, and that's entirely warranted — Wade Phillips has done a marvelous job installing his four- and five-man fronts without the injured Mario Williams, and with two standout rookies in linebacker Brooks Reed and lineman J.J. Watt (each has performed, it must be said, far better than I expected in their inaugural NFL seasons). That said, the Bengals' front seven is just all sorts of underrated, and that starts with defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who may be the most disruptive three-tech tackle in the NFL today. It all starts with defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who deserves some head coaching interviews when the offseason comes.
"We look at weird stats," Zimmer told the team's official website in October. "First-down defense, yards per play overall," Zimmer said. "Obviously playing good in the red zone, third downs. It's nice to get three-and-outs but if it's four [downs], it's OK to me. We had two series where we had three-and-outs where they were backed up and had to punt from their own goal line. Those are things we look at more than total stats. Keeping them backed up and punt[ing] out of their own end zone."
The Bengals had mixed results in the stats Zimmer reviewed — they finished the season 17th in Defensive DVOA on third and fourth down, and they didn't always stop teams on third-and-long situations. But according to Football Outsiders' drive stats, the Bengals' defense and special teams were very adept at pinning opposing offenses back and keeping there — Cincinnati opponents had the sixth-worst starting drive position (their own 26-yard line on average), and teams only gained 25.5 yards per drive against that defense — only the Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets and … well, the Houston Texans were better.
So, about that Texans defense -- it is more multiple and formidable from a pure pass-rush perspective than people might imagine... As one NFL personnel man told ESPN's Paul Kuharsky, it's all about moving personnel after the snap and making things more difficult for blockers in man and zone situations. That's part of Wade Phillips' extreme defensive genius — he makes standard 5-2 sets into confusing blitzkriegs and uses 4-front over personnel in packages that look much more like other types of fronts.
"They run their stunt game better than anybody," Kuharsky was told. "They rush to the point where the offensive line cannot pass off, they are so deep into their sets, deep into their rush, that you can't pass it off. If you pass it off, another guy is going to come free. They do a real good job making it so those offensive linemen cannot come off of you to take the looping rusher … The Texans are just too deep into their rush, you can't do it. There is not enough time."
And if that's the case, deep passes are out, for the most part — Dalton will have to get the ball out in a hurry. In that first game against Houston, Cincinnati accumulated 78 of its 189 passing yards after the catch, with tight end Jermaine Gresham as the main YAC guy.
Now, on to the primary receivers, and their main adversaries. In that Week 14 matchup, Dalton threw six passes to the nearly uncoverable A.J. Green with Johnathan Joseph covering Green, and the results were pretty decent for Green — 14.5 yards per catch, 2.8 YAC per catch, and a 50 percent Success Rate. For the season, Green averaged 13.8 yards per catch, 3.9 YAC, and a 49 percent Success Rate.
Houston's Andre Johnson missed that game with a hamstring injury, and in T.J. Yates' second NFL start, he found that tight end Owen Daniels was an appealing target on slants and seam routes as Daniels moved out from the formation. On the game-winning fourth-quarter drive engineered by Yates, he threw four passes to Daniels, completing three for 26 yards. If Johnson plays in the rematch (and he is expected to), that gives Yates one enormous advantage.
That's a problem, because the Bengals defend the pass to either side very well. Cincinnati ranks 13th in yards per attempt (5.91) and 11th in completion percentage (63.0 percent) to the short left side. They rank eighth in YPA to the short right (5.22) and 13th in completion percentage (63.7 percent). Going deep is something teams rarely do in this defense — just 25 plays to the deep left, 36 plays to the deep right, and 29 to the deep middle. However, this is where Yates make gains — the Bengals average 13.79 YPA on passes to the deep middle, and a completion rate of 55 percent. Of course, Yates' passer rating plummets when he's throwing the ball longer than 10 yards (from 99.3 to 52.5), so that's something to work on this week.
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