3TFO: Bengals @ Texans, AFC Wild Card
The first matchup of Wildcard Weekend features a rematch from the same round last season, with the Bengals traveling to Houston to take on the Texans. Last year’s game pitted two rookie quarterbacks against each other in Andy Dalton and T.J. Yates, and we saw a more conservative game plan, at least on the part of the Texans, who won the one-sided affair 31-10. With a second year under Dalton’s belt and a healthy Matt Schaub, we can probably expect a more open game this time around.
The Bengals enter Saturday’s contest on a hot streak, having won seven of their past eight games, while the Texans have fallen off from their scorching 12-1 start to lose three of their past four and, consequently, a playoff bye. In addition to featuring teams headed in different directions, the game will showcase a pair of dominant receivers and the league’s two best defensive players.
In what should be a great and entertaining start to the playoff slate, here are some areas to keep an eye on.
AJ vs. Andre
Two players to watch are the receivers, Andre Johnson and AJ Green, and though they won’t directly matchup, the two will provide an interesting storyline. Johnson has been arguably the league’s best receiver, and was a significant part of the Texans’ 12-4 record; he finished as our highest-rated WR and notched a ridiculous 3.01 Yards per Route Run, which was No. 1 by a sizable margin in that category. And his other statistics were quite impressive as well: he caught 112 passes on the fifth-most targets in the league – not surprisingly, his 70.4% catch rate is also among the NFL’s best – and averaged 14.3 yards per catch. Given his size, he’s also deceptively effective after the catch with 5.0 yards after the catch per reception. His only fault has been not being able to get into the end zone, as he caught just four touchdowns in 16 games.
On the other side, Green finished the season as our eighth-best graded receiver, improving on his standout rookie season. Accounting for roughly 32% of Dalton’s targets, he caught 97 passes as the NFL’s sixth-most targeted receiver, for 11 touchdowns and an average of 13.9 yards. He gained slightly fewer yards after the catch (4.6 YAC per reception) but was more elusive with 14 forced missed tackles on the season.
One point of comparison is to look at how Green and Johnson are used by their respective teams. Both have been used on WR screens, with nine catches on the season for Johnson versus 10 for Green. Johnson has fared much better on those plays, though, with his QB sporting a near-perfect rating on those throws. Looking past the line of scrimmage is where the differences become evident; the Texans get the ball to Johnson much more in the short and intermediate middle of the field, with slants and in-routes accounting for 26.4% of his targets, compared to just 10.1% for his Bengal counterpart. Conversely, the Bengals target their WR deep at a much higher rate, as evidenced by his 14.41 average depth of target vs 11.79 for Johnson. Posts and ‘Go’ routes account for 38.6% of Green’s targets, a figure that is 18% higher than Johnson’s.
In terms of matchups in the secondary, Johnson lines up more often on the left side at LWR (44%) than on the outside right (33%). Therefore, he should see a lot of Leon Hall, who lines up at RCB (moving inside in their nickel) and has allowed just three TDs on the season. Of course, he’ll also have to beat Terence Newman, the Bengals’ LCB, who has two interceptions and eight pass defenses, while allowing a stellar 56.5% completion rate against him.
When Cincinnati is on offense, Green is much more limited in where he lines up, doing so at RWR 57% of the time, which is 25% more often than on the left. He will also likely have Jonathan Joseph shadowing him for much of the game. It will be interesting to see how Joseph and the rest of the Texan DBs fare in defending Green, given how the Bengals have targeted him. The Texan back seven has allowed just 31.3% of opposing Go routes to be completed (with Kareem Jackson tested most often), while Green has scored seven of his 11 touchdowns going deep.
Can the Texans Handle Geno?
We have frequently lauded the play of Bengals’ DT Geno Atkins, though it’s certainly been warranted. Possessing a rare combination of agility and power, Atkins has become the best interior lineman in football outside of his counterpart in this game, J.J. Watt, with the difference being due to Watt’s slightly superior play in run defense. Here, however, we want to focus on Atkins’ work as a pass rusher, where he’s notched a ridiculous 16 sacks in addition to 62 combined hits and hurries. As he spends almost equal time at right and left defensive tackle, the onus of blocking the Bengal and protecting Matt Schaub falls on left guard Wade Smith and the combination of Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks at right guard, along with center Chris Myers. Antoine Caldwell has also rotated at the RG position with Jones this season, but having missed the past five games, he appears unlikely to play against Cincinnati despite being cleared to return from his concussion in October.
The veteran Smith has had an average year in pass protection, and comes in ranked 38th at the position in pass blocking, having allowed 23 pressures, while the rookie Jones has graded negatively in giving up 21 pressures of his own, despite playing more than 220 fewer snaps in pass protection. Brooks, also a rookie, has been the highest-graded of the three guards in pass protection, though in a comparatively tiny sample size with just 68 passing snaps on the season.
Given that Atkins often lines up shaded to the outside of the opposing blocker, it’s reasonable that 29.5% of his pressures have come on outside rushes compared to just 16.7% to the inside. The Texans should be more concerned with his superior power and leverage, though, as he’s gotten a whopping 34.5% of his pressures when using a bull rush. That’s not an encouraging stat for Smith, who has surrendered 22% of his pressures from bull rushes, above the league average at LG of 17%. Jones has fared better against the bull, which accounts for 10% of his allowed pressure, a figure that’s below the RG league average of 16%. The most interesting matchup, though, could be when Atkins goes against Brooks, if and when he plays, as he has a distinct size advantage over Jones.
Of course, with Atkins’ play this year, it’s likely a matter of when and how often he gets pressure rather than whether he will at all. And it will be up to Schaub to stay composed when facing heat, especially when it could be coming right up the middle. For the season, he’s faced a below-average amount of pressure, seeing it on just 29.3% of drop-backs. He’s playing a defense, though, that disrupts opposing quarterbacks on 34.9% of passing plays, with that figure rising to 37.1% in their oft-used 4-2-5 nickel package. Interestingly, the Houston offense uses ‘21’ personnel on 40.5% of snaps, above the NFL average of 16.6%, as well as heavier ‘12’ and ‘22’ groups above average. Considering that trend, and the fact that they use ‘11’ (3 WR) personnel much less often than the league average, this could force the Bengals into their base 4-3 defense more often, where their pass rush has been slightly less effective.
It’s safe to say that Schaub will have to continue to withstand pressure well; he has the sixth-best Accuracy Percentage of all quarterbacks and a below average sack percentage on those plays. Even better if the Texans can avoid pressure altogether, with play action being a way to at least slow down the Bengal rush. Houston has used PA on 25.7% of passing plays — the sixth-highest rate in the league — with Schaub completing 1.4% more of his passes and a YPA increase of 1.8 on those plays. However, during their last four games — a stretch during which they’ve unquestionably played poorly — they’ve used play action on just 19.7% of plays, with that number dropping to 17.6% in the three losses. Look for that percentage to be closer to their season average in this game against the fierce Cincinnati pass rush, led by Atkins.
Watch out for Watt
While the Houston offense has its hands full with Atkins, its Cincinnati counterparts will have a similar challenge in stopping our pick for Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt (+101.7),who has had as dominant a season as we’ve ever seen. Expect to see the Bengals air it out on Sunday, as they’ve been much more successful throwing the ball this season — in part due to exceptional pass protection and poor run blocking — and the Texans have looked fairly vulnerable in their recent slide, giving up big passing days to Tom Brady and Andrew Luck. Unfortunately, this means they’ll have to find a way to block the man who has notched an unheard of 76 pressures as a 3-4 DE.
Good luck to RG Kevin Zeitler and RT Andre Smith, who will likely see the most time against Watt, who lines up on the offense’s right side on 72% of his snaps. Fortunately, the pair includes two of the best in the league at their position. Zeitler comes in as our seventh-highest graded guard in pass protection and third-ranked in Pass Blocking Efficiency, as he’s allowed just 15 pressures in more than 600 snaps in pass protection. Beside him, Smith has also been impressive, ranking fifth among RTs for his pass blocking.
Something to keep an eye on will be how Watt gets pressure when he does — and odds are good that he will, as he’s produced at least two QB disruptions in every game this season. Most often, he has gotten into the backfield with an outside rush (38% of his pressures), but has shown plenty of ability to do it with inside (26%) and bull (16%) rushes as well. For Cincinnati, Zeitler has been about equally vulnerable to inside and outside moves and hasn’t allowed any pressure against bull rushes. The same can’t be said for Smith, as 27% of his allowed pressures have come on bull rushes, well above the league average for offensive tackles.
The good news for the Bengals is that if these two can slow down Watt, the Texans don’t have another especially fearsome pass rusher; OLBs Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin are each among the lowest-ranked players at their position in our Pass Rushing Productivity rating. But the Texans will blitz, and often; on the season, they’ve sent extra rushers on 48.3% of passing plays, well above the league average. If they can’t stop Watt and the Texan rush, it will surely be a long day because, although Dalton has been pressured on only 25.7% of drop-backs this season, among qualifying QBs he has the fifth-lowest Accuracy Percentage (52.4) and third-highest Sack Percentage in such situations.
When the Bengals do keep the ball on the ground, things won’t get any easier, as Watt has been just as dominant in run defense; he’s recorded a stop on 17.1% of snaps and missed just a pair of tackles against the run this season. Getting the bulk of the work in this phase of the game for Cincinnati, though he was out in Week 17 and has been limited in practice this week, will be BenJarvus Green-Ellis (-6.3).
As his grade shows, Green-Ellis’ play has been underwhelming this season; he’s averaged just 3.9 yards per rush and has been one of the least Elusive backs in the league, having forced just 19 missed tackles on 278 attempts. Further hampering his potential output is the fact that the Bengal back has run most often (and had the most success) to the right side, and if that’s the path pursued again this week he’ll be led directly to Watt’s most frequently occupied territory.
Like with the pass, the Bengals can have success if they can control Watt; no other Houston defender has graded above +4.8 on the season in run defense.