You won’t need to tell the Houston Texans that after a victory in their playoff debut sent a rocking Reliant Stadium home happy. After a season that has seen them lose their star pass rusher and starting and backup quarterbacks, they overcame a Bengals team that had its chances. That they did owes a lot to a rushing attack that gave Arian Foster just enough space to make some big runs, and a defense that got to grips with Andy Dalton, eventually making him look every bit the rookie he is.
The Cincinnati Bengals will no doubt be disappointed this was the case after an efficient start that saw them have success moving the ball downfield. But after missing an opportunity to put up points, and then being held to just a field goal, they failed to deliver the kind of blow that could have rattled a Texans team that had lost three on the bounce. Still, there’s plenty of young talent on that roster (check out what Neil Hornsby had to say about the excellent Geno Atkins) and they took a huge step forward in what was meant to be a transitional year.
You could say the same about Houston but their journey isn’t finished yet, and with an offense that can run the ball and limit mistakes, coupled with a defense high on playmakers and production, whose to say that it will end in Baltimore? Let’s examine some of the Texans key performers who will have a say in that, and more, in our performances of note.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
Mike turned off
It hasn’t always been easy for Rey Maualuga (-4.2) as he made the move to every down MLB. He spoke earlier in the year of his difficulties adjusting and has only sporadically hit the heights of years gone by (most noticeably, ironically, against the Texans in Week 14). A team like Houston can be tricky to play against and requires an ability to get off blocks while moving laterally, and patience. Unfortunately for the Bengals this was not something their mike linebacker was able to get a handle on, struggling as Texans linemen would get to the second level and seal him off from the runner. Chris Myers had particular joy against him; winning five of their battles at the second level as Maualuga registered just the one solo tackle (unblocked) in the entire game.
Going into this game a lot was made of the threat of Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin, and how the Bengals tackle would cope with them. Well, as it turns out, they did a rather good job, with both Andrew Whitworth (+2.1) and Andre Smith (-1.9 overall, +1.8 Pass protection) slowing down the Texans edge pass rush. Between them they gave up just three hurries, and while Smith had an awful day with his run blocking, you can’t blame the struggles of Andy Dalton on either man.
Not quite there
It’s been a good year for Andy Dalton (-3.7) who has taken over the reigns as Bengals QB and been a part of the formula that has taken them to the playoffs. But as I’ve said before he’s just a part of the process, and his performances in the second half of the season have been nowhere near the level some pundits would have you believe. This game was a microcosm of his year, where, after a hot start, Dalton just couldn’t get anything done against a good Texans defense. It wasn’t that he made many bad throws (the two worst being plays that led to an interception by Danieal Manning with 7:09 to go in the game, and when Brice McCain almost picked him off with 7:57 to go in the first half), he just didn’t make many positive plays. Sure his completions to A.J. Green (Q2 15:00) and Donald Lee (Q2 9:20) were good throws, but where were the rest? In fact in his second half he earned just the one positive grade as he wasn’t up to the task of bringing the Bengals back into contention. He’ll learn from his first playoff experience and be a better player for it (you’d imagine), but he’s not the finished article certain members of the media claim.
Houston – Three Performances of Note
Foster-ing a winning culture
After the Texans first two drives of the game where he bobbled one ball and fumbled another, you wondered what kind of day Arian Foster (+2.6) may be in for. Well after those blips he seemed to settle down and run like the back we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the past 18 months. Decisively and emphatically he took advantage of any indiscipline in the Bengals defense to make the most of some inconsistent blocking. Sure he only forced four missed tackles, but that owes more to his cuts rendering Cincinanti defenders in no position to even attempt a tackle as he constantly turned what looked like a little into a lot. His game clinching touchdown run will rightly get a lot of attention, but runs such as the one that saw Adam Jones miss a tackle at 11:55 in the third were what launched Houston to victory.
As the Texans defense has received credit (rightfully) for it’s incredible turnaround people have talked about the acquisitions (Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning), the rookies (J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed) or Brian Cushing. Those are the guys that have got this defense playing to the level it’s at right? Well it’s not wrong to say that, but it’s missing out an important component in the shape of a man who always seems to be in someone’s shadow; Antonio Smith (+5.1). The man who finished the year second of all 3-4 defensive ends in our pass rushing productivity signature stat managed to extract a degree of revenge against a Bengals team who had effectively shut him out in Week 14. Unlike what you normally see from Smith (who can sometimes overlook his run defense in favor of getting to the QB) he was a force all over the field, picking up a sack and five hurries, as well as adding four defensive stops in the running game. Nothing quite summed up his dominance like the way he exploded past Andre Smith (at 14:15 in Q3) and wouldn’t let FB, Chris Pressley engage him as he wrapped up Cedric Benson for a two yard loss.
Area for improvement
If there continues to be a weak link on the Texans offensive line, it’s Wade Smith (-3.5) who is suffering something of a down year. Matching him up against Geno Atkins was never going to go well, and as we explained in this piece, so it proved. Smith gave up a QB hit and three pressures, and it could have been more but for T.J. Yates getting rid of the ball in a timely manner. He was able to have some success in the run game as he used Atkins’ desire to get up field against him, but for every good play there was two bad ones, such as with 13:18 to go in Q4 where Atkins beat him to make a tackle for a short gain.
- The Bengals used a dime package of six defensive backs on just one play. The Texans didn’t use a solitary nickel defense and in passing packages used exclusively dime.
- On the eight plays he was pressured T.J. Yates took two sacks and completed only two passes. Think Baltimore noticed?
- Jonathan Fanene led the Bengals with five defensive stops.
It came down to two, but ultimately the game sealing touchdown run ensured we give this game ball to Arian Foster over Antonio Smith.