Against the Ravens on Sunday, the Bengals were held to 221 yards of total offense – a remarkably low number for 2017. Of the 30 teams that played in week 1 (with the Buccaneers @ Dolphins game being moved), only three teams finished with lower offensive outputs. San Francisco finished with 217, while the New York Jets finished with 214.
The Houston Texans finished dead last with 203 yards of offense. With a dismal 2.9 yards per play, they were the only team to score lower than the Bengals’ 3.8, and they were only team to match the Bengals’ -4 turnover differential. Now, with a short week and a new (rookie) starting quarterback, the Texans are preparing to travel to Cincinnati.
Across the entire NFL, this is perhaps the best rebound matchup the Bengals could’ve asked for.
Seven players are listed on the Bengals’ injury report as of this posting: Trey Hopkins (knee), Michael Johnson (concussion) , Dre Kirkpatrick (foot), John Ross (knee), Josh Shaw (ankle), Shawn Williams (ankle), and C.J. Uzomah (elbow). Hopkins and Johnson are both ruled out. Of the other five, Kirkpatrick sat out practice on Monday while Shaw was limited, but every other practice between them was full participation.
On the Texans’ side, seven players alone have already been ruled out: guard Jeff Allen (ankle), tight ends Stephen Anderson (concussion) and Ryan Griffen (concussion), halfback Alfred Blue (ankle), linebacker Brian Cushing (concussion), and receivers Bruce Ellington (concussion) and Will Fuller (shoulder).
Past that, Houston has 13 other players listed on Wednesday’s injury report, including linebacker Benardrick McKinney (knee) and cornerback Kevin Johnson (knee) as limited participants. Left tackle Duane Brown continues to hold out on the team.
After a dismal performance in the trenches against the Ravens, the Bengals to deal with yet another elite defensive front in the Texans’ unit. After disappearing in their last game at home against Jacksonville, recording only one tackle each, edge players Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt will have to put on a stronger showing in Cincinnati to give their team a chance to win. Both were listed on the injury report, but were full participants by Wednesday.
That may not be enough, however – Jacksonville employed a simple, run-heavy, defense-reliant game plan against the Texans, and the Bengals are capable of executing the same strategy. Additionally, the Bengals can exploit a new crease in the Houston defense: inside linebacker. Brian Cushing, ruled out for the game, was slapped with a 10-game suspension by the league on Wednesday and would’ve been out regardless. Benardrick McKinney, nursing a knee injury, already lacked the ability to cover backs and tight ends in space.
This makes the ideal strategy for the Bengals relatively clear: run the ball as much as possible, set up easy completions for Andy Dalton, especially over the middle. This strategy should put whatever halfback is on the field in the spotlight, as well as perhaps John Ross. More importantly, it shifts responsibility for the offense succeeding away from the offensive line and towards dependable players.
With Jeff Allen out for Thursday’s game, Houston’s paper offensive line is another margin thinner. Even if Michael Johnson were healthy, it’s likely we’d see a steady rotation of speed rushers along the edges during this game. It’s simply difficult to imagine Houston moving the ball on offense with any shred of consistency.
To recap skill position availability: Houston is set to start Deshaun Watson at quarterback, but both he (ankle) and week 1 starter Tom Savage (finger) have been nursing injuries this week. Elsewhere, the Texans have Lamar Miller at running back, as well as Tyler Ervin, D’Onta Foreman and Jordan Todman, as well as Jay Prosch at fullback. At receiver, the absence of Ellington and Fuller leaves DeAndre Hopkins, Braxton Miller, and Jaelen Strong. At tight end, there’s only Evan Baylis – brought up from the practice squad Wednesday.
Watson, starting his first NFL game at quarterback with this scrap heap around him, should be completely at the mercy of the Bengals’ defense if the unit has even an average day. Between the complete lack of versatility provided by the offensive personnel, the holes in the line in front of him, and potentially a bum ankle, this battle should be completely dictated by the defense. They can put this game away quickly with a few decisive stops.
Bengals 20, Texans 10
It seems wholly unlikely that the Bengals lose both games in a two-game home stand to open the season, especially with road trips to ever-dominant Green Bay and rival Cleveland on the horizon. It also seems unlikely that they surge back offensively in this game, with Dalton throwing all over the yard despite issues with protection. Somewhere between 20 and 29 points sounds right, depending on the amount of drives the offense gets and their starting field position.
Houston might be due six or seven points simply for rolling with a rookie quarterback in his debut, but the team around him lacks the upside for much more. The Texans’ offensive output could realistically be anywhere from 13 to a repeat of their 7-point showing last week, down to the 3-point showing of the New York Giants or even the 0-point showing of Cincinnati themselves. Regardless, it’s difficult to imagine them scoring enough points on offense to approach winning the game.
– Andrew Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32