Tag:Andy Dalton
Posted on: March 6, 2012 8:20 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2012 11:20 pm
 

Peyton Manning's release: Winners/Losers

Manning

By Josh Katzowitz

With the news that the Colts and Peyton Manning will part ways Wednesday, there will, of course, be bystanders who are positively and negatively affected by the news. Here’s our list of winners and losers.

Winners

Andrew Luck: In his first year in a Colts uniform, Luck will get to experience the highs and lows of playing as a rookie quarterback. Sometimes this goes well (see Cam Newton and Andy Dalton). Sometimes this goes poorly (see, um, Peyton Manning). And while we could make the argument that Luck would do well apprenticing under a veteran for a season -- he wouldn’t have to deal with the top pick pressure for an extra year and he could learn the new offense without the media spotlight trained on his every move -- Luck will learn much more if he’s actually playing. Plus, he won’t have the Peyton Manning shadow hanging over his rookie season.

Jim Irsay: Already, Irsay has begun to renovate his team, firing Bill Polian and former coach Jim Caldwell, following the 2-14 season. Irsay has done a wonderful job turning the Colts franchise into a perennial Super Bowl contender (2011, of course, being the exception), and now, he gets to be involved in another massive rebuilding project. Manning, of course, has done perhaps more than anybody to get Super Bowl XLVI to Indianapolis and to get Lucas Oil Stadium built, but Irsay now can remake the team as he sees fit. Plus, like Luck, his team won’t have the Peyton Manning shadow hanging over the franchise in 2012.

ManningAFC South: We’ve seen what happens when Manning isn’t playing for the Colts: the rest of the division gets better! Well, except for the Jaguars, of course. But without their franchise quarterback in the lineup, the Colts went from being the scariest team in the AFC South to being the most toothless. That probably won’t change in 2012, in which the Texans -- who never could get over the Manning hump and who couldn’t make the playoffs until he wasn’t playing -- will be one of the favorites in the AFC. Without Manning, Houston might have the chance to become the new Indianapolis.

Colts fans: In some sense, the city has been held hostage by the Manning-Irsay impasse, and it actually overshadowed the early part of Super Bowl week. But without Manning around, the salary cap won’t be as rigid, and with Luck coming into town (we assume), he’ll bring a new sense of excitement to the organization and to the city in general. Yes, Indianapolis will miss a community leader in Manning, but who’s to say Luck couldn’t fill that role anyway.

Losers

Matt Flynn: In our free agent quarterback rankings, we listed Drew Brees as No. 1, Manning as No. 2, and Flynn as No. 3. Brees has been franchise-tagged by the Saints, and it’s clear that the possibility of landing Manning will overshadow whatever Flynn will be trying to do. Flynn to Miami? Well, let’s see if the Dolphins can land Manning first. Flynn to (fill in the blank)? Well, let’s see if (fill in the blank) can land Manning first. Flynn likely won’t be anybody’s first choice, and you have to wonder how that will affect his bottom line. Would you rather have Manning, even if he’s not completely healthy, or Flynn? The answer is obvious.

Robert Griffin III: While the Manning release is good news for Andrew Luck, it might mean something different for RG3. Like Flynn (though probably not as much as Flynn), other quarterback-needy teams will look at Manning first before (possibly) trying to trade up with the Rams in order to draft Griffin after Luck. Like Flynn, this might limit Griffin’s options, and it might actually mean Griffin isn’t taken with the No. 2 pick. That probably won’t happen, but if one of the teams (say, ahem, Washington) looking at Griffin ultimately goes with Manning and the rest of league believe St. Louis’ price is too high, you have to wonder if Griffin will fall to the fourth pick.

Manning’s bank account: Not that he needs financial assistance, but cashing in on a $28 million bonus would have been pretty sweet.

Rob Lowe: I guess we can forget about Lowe’s budding journalism career. While he was right in believing that Manning was done in Indianapolis, Lowe also reported that Manning would retire. That’s not going to happen, and unfortunately for Lowe, reporters don’t credit for being half-right.

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Posted on: January 26, 2012 1:41 pm
Edited on: January 26, 2012 1:54 pm
 

Coaching carousel winners and losers

Flynn is one of the big winners from the coaching carousel. (US Presswire)
By Will Brinson

The NFL coaching carousel has come to a close with the Buccaneers and Colts the final two teams across the finish line, hiring coaches on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Let's take a look at some of the winners and losers from a hectic offseason. Because if we're not firing out knee-jerk reactions, what's the point?

Winners

Matt Flynn: Flynn was already going to get real paid this offseason. But new Fins coach Joe Philbin was his freaking quarterbacks coach. Yeah, the rumor is the Dolphins like Peyton Manning better than Flynn. (Also a rumor: I like steak better than tofu.) But Flynn knows Philbin's system and he certainly has to be more inclined to sign his ridiculously overpriced free-agent contract with a team employing his old coach and his old system right? Even if he's not, he could end up in a bidding war between Stephen Ross and Dan Snyder. That's like a sandwich made of $100 Bills.

Ryan Grigson
: The new Colts general manager still has a long road ahead, and needs to draft well to really get Indy's latest rebuild rolling. But he's got an owner who's setting him up well: his first two decisions (firing Jim Caldwell, hiring Chuck Pagano) mean that the Colts simply need to hire a competent offensive coordinator to groom their No. 1 overall pick and let their defensive-minded coach get to work on installing his scheme. Sound familiar? It should.

Norv Turner: Turner was certainly on the old hot seat when the season ended and somehow he still has a job. It might be loyalty. It might be Philip Rivers' influence. Or it might just be a miracle. Whatever, Turner was a lock to get fired and somehow stuck around San Diego for at least another year.

Steve Spagnuolo: Spags got canned from the Rams job but landed squarely on his feet when he got the Saints defensive coordinator job. They'll contend for Super Bowls over the next few years and as Wilson pointed out, Drew Brees is secretly his best weapon. It's an ideal spot to reload and wait for another head-coaching gig.

Jeff Fisher: Fisher got the quarterback he wants, the personnel power he wants and a big old pile of money when he chose the Rams over the Dolphins.

Jay Cutler: Mike Martz retired and took his seven-step drops behind a shoddy offensive line and no pretense of having a running game with him.

Atlanta Falcons: No offense to Mike Mularkey and Brian VanGorder (as well as his superb mustache) but the ATL just got a major assistant upgrade. Ryan maxed out under Mularkey, and Dirk Koetter loves to go vertical -- having Julio Jones and Roddy White make that an easier task than whoever was catching balls with the Jaguars. And Mike Nolan, quite simply, has a fantastic defensive track record.

Cam Newton/Andy Dalton: The two biggest rookie surprises lucked out big time this offseason as their respective offensive coordinators, Rob Chudzinski and Jay Gruden, didn't move on to theoretically greener pastures. Now Newton and Dalton will each get a full offseason to prepare and should look even better in their second year.

Losers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Even if Greg Schiano is "the guy," and there's a significant number of people who think he is not, they bungled this search. (For the record, I kind of like the Schiano hire, but it's risky.) They fired Raheem Morris quickly but were the last team to get a new coach in place. They whiffed -- publicly -- on Chip Kelly. They interviewed a bunch of old dudes -- Brad Childress, Mike Sherman, Marty Schottenheimer -- who now probably feel used. An unimpressive effort all around and indicative of how attractive this job is.

Rob Ryan: Think of all the people who got interviews this offseason. Everyone got an interview. Except Rex's twin brother. Think running his mouth and losing twice to the Giants because his secondary couldn't defend anyone ended up hurting his chances to get a head coaching job? It absolutely did.

Mike Zimmer: Also a dude who can't catch a break. Or interview well? Whatever, Zimmer finally got some heat for coaching jobs (it's been long enough) and couldn't seal the deal on anything. Hopefully he'll get more looks but this has a "flyover" feel to it in terms of how much interest other teams will have in Zimmer going forward.

Brian Schottenheimer: Schottey Jr. might have landed with the Rams, but he'll likely be under heavy scrutiny from fans and could see a short leash, depending on how Fisher's feeling. The worst part is a year ago, he was a hot name for a head-coaching job and instead the Jets ran him off while managing to air out some of their respective greivances with the rest of the dirty laundry.

Mike Sherman: Sherman was the leader in the clubhouse for the Bucs job ... or so we thought. Now he's reportedly headed to run Miami's offense. That could vault him back up to a head-coaching gig, but considering he found out about his firing from Texas A&M at a recruit's house (!), landing an NFL job just a few months later would've been a major coup.

Peyton Manning: Bill Polian's out, Jim Caldwell's out and the Colts seem hell bent on cleaning house. The logical next move appears to be shipping Manning out of town as well.

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Posted on: January 23, 2012 2:04 pm
Edited on: January 23, 2012 3:38 pm
 

Cam Newton and other Pro Bowl roster additions

NewtonBy Josh Katzowitz

Now that the Patriots and Giants officially are heading to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, that means nobody from New England and New York will be flying to Honolulu this week for the Pro Bowl.

Which means we get tons of additions and deletions to the roster!

Here’s the list so far.

-Panthers standout rookie quarterback Cam Newton will replace Eli Manning on the NFC roster. As you well know, Newton threw for 4,051 yards passing, the most ever by a rookie quarterback in NFL history while recording 21 touchdowns and posting an 84.5 quarterback rating. Newton also rushed for 14 scores, the most ever by an NFL quarterback.

-Bears defensive end Julius Peppers will take over for New York’s Jason Pierre-Paul. This is Peppers’ seventh Pro Bowl appearance, and it’s the first time since Richard Dent in the mid-1980s that a Chicago defensive end has made the roster in back-to-back seasons.

-Jets guard Brandon Moore will replace New England’s Brian Waters on the AFC roster. This is Moore’s first Pro Bowl selection. Ravens guard Ben Grubbs will take over for Logan Mankins.

-Bad news for Tim Tebow. According to Pro Football Talk, Ben Roethlisberger “definitely” is attending the Pro Bowl festivities, meaning Tebow, the second alternate, will be staying home this week (and maybe going on tour with Brad Paisley instead).

-As the Cincinnati Enquirer reports, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton replaces Tom Brady, tight end Jermaine Gresham replaces Rob Gronkowski and defensive tackle Geno Atkins replaces Vince Wilfork.

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Posted on: January 10, 2012 6:56 pm
 

Jay Gruden not interviewing, staying with Bengals

Dalton and Green should be pleased Gruden's staying in Cincy. (Getty Images)
By Will Brinson

Jay Gruden, thanks to the work he did with Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, was a hot name in coaching circles for open positions with a number of teams. But he's not going anywhere in 2012.

Latest Coaching Rumors, News

Gruden's decided to stay with the Bengals and continue working with Dalton and the young Cincinnati offense in 2012.

"I’m happy here," Gruden said, per Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "I like working for Marvin (Lewis) and with the team. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface on offense, but we have a lot of good, young players and have the potential to do even better next season."

Gruden was believed to be a possibility for the Jaguars opening, and the Rams called the Bengals seeking permission to speak with Gruden, but he declined any opportunities to interview for anything other than his current job.

This is curious for a couple of reasons. One, Gruden wasn't taking a job -- he was just interviewing, and there's nothing illegal, immoral or otherwise about that. Two, though the Bengals made the playoffs and Dalton had a great season, Cincy got lucky with their schedule.

In 2011, they played the AFC South and NFC West, two of the weaker divisions in football. In 2012 they'll play the NFC East and AFC West, which is substantially tougher. (Although, hey, bonus: Carson Palmer plays the Bengals!)

That being said, Dalton and A.J. Green, along with the two first-round picks Cincy has in 2012 (thanks Carson!), it's possible that the Bengals could continue developing into a potent offense.

If that happens, Gruden's name will continue to be mentioned in the coaching rumor mill, and it's possible he'll have more opportunities for a coaching gig than he had this offseason.

As we've said on the podcast time and time again, just because there are only 32 NFL coaching jobs doesn't mean you have to take one when it's open.

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Posted on: January 10, 2012 11:02 am
 

Coach Killers, Week 18: Taylor needs time machine

Coach Killers is your postseason look around the league at those performances, decisions and "Wait, what did he just do?!" moments that ends Super Bowl aspirations and begins "So, where should we vacation?" discussions.

By Ryan Wilson

Ike Taylor, Mike Wallace - Steelers

It's not a stretch to say that cornerback Ike Taylor had his worst game as a professional at the worst possible time. In fact, he said as much after he spent Sunday afternoon helplessly chasing on-target Tim Tebow passes to Demaryius Thomas. By the time it was over, Thomas had 204 receiving yards, including the game-winning touchdown grab on the first play in overtime. (Incidentally, overtime took less time than explaining the new overtime rules.)

Understandably, Taylor, who a lot of people (us included) thought had a Pro Bowl-caliber season right up until the moment of the Steelers-Broncos kickoff, was upset and saddened by his performance. According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, after the game Taylor "sat in front of a ripped-up locker, staring blankly down at the floor."


Hey, at least the locker didn't outrun him to the end zone.

A day after choosing to not talk to the media (and we don't blame him), Taylor took to Twitter to take responsibility for what transpired in Denver.

"I apologize for playing the worst game at the wrong time apologize to my teammates steelernation and family. Luv y'all to def."

There is no doubt that Taylor's performance had everything to do with the outcome, but wide receiver Mike Wallace deserves some mention here, too.

The former third-round pick out of Ole Miss spent much of his first three seasons running go-routes past defenders who couldn't believe just how fast he was. At the beginning of the 2011 season, after Wallace had 16 touchdowns in 20 starts, the joke was that Ben Roethlisberger couldn't overthrow him deep. And for the first eight games or so that proved to be true.

But a confluence of events changed that over the final two months: the emergence of Antonio Brown, new defensive strategies to slow Wallace, and Ben Roethlisberger's ankle injury, which hampered his ability to throw accurately down the field, all affected Wallace's productivity. But the biggest problem was that Wallace just wasn't playing well.

A microcosm of his inconsistency was on display against the Broncos. With the Broncos leading 7-6, Roethlisberger completed what looked like a 52-yard pass to Wallace that was eminently catchable except for that Wallace didn't actually catch it. Denver challenged the ruling on the field, won, and Pittsburgh punted a play later.

But that wasn't the worst of it. With the Steelers trailing 17-6 in the third quarter, Wallace dropped a Roethlisberger lateral that was recovered by the Broncos on the Pittsburgh 18-yard line. Because the officials had blown the play dead it couldn't be reviewed which effectively means that horrible officiating had saved Wallace, who had dropped another throw (even if it would appear in the box score as only an incompletion).  If the play is called properly on the field, it's game over. Denver was already in field goal range and Pittsburgh seemed incapable of moving the ball on offense.

Yes, Taylor had his troubles Sunday, but Wallace wasn't far behind.

Atlanta Falcons offense

We could jus stay "everybody in the Falcons organization is responsible for the debacle in the Meadowlands" and just get on with our day. And in fact, the defense is a close 1a) for coach-killing honors this week because their third-ranked rush defense allowed the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to go to town on the ground (Football Outsiders ranked New York's run game 20th.) 

But it's Altanta's offense that never gave this team a chance. Atlanta scored two (TWO!) points, and technically, that was thanks to Eli Manning throwing the ball to no one out of his own end zone. Matt Ryan, meanwhile, was 24 of 41 for a measly 199 yards. His leading receiver on the day was rookie first-rounder Julio Jones (seven catches, 64 yards).

While there's no disputing that Jones had a great rookie season (54 receptions, 959 yards, 8 TDs), he wasn't worth what the Falcons gave up to get him on draft day 2011.

Quick refresher: Back in April, Cleveland traded the sixth-overall pick to the Atlanta in exchange for the Falcons' 2011 first, second and fourth-round picks, as well as a first and fourth-rounder in 2012.

Wild Card Recap
Atlanta promptly selected Julio Jones, who along with A.J. Green were considered can't-miss prospects. (And at the end of the season we can agree that they were just that.)

It's hard to fault the Browns for making that deal with the Falcons. After all, on draft day, New England coach Bill Belichick told Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff, "Thomas, I'm just telling you as a friend. I wouldn't do it."

Belichick added that he thought Jonathan Baldwin was "just as good if not better" than Jones. Which leads us to this: the Browns weren't wrong to trade out of the No. 6 pick, but they really could've used a playmaker. And the Falcons could've settled for Baldwin, kept their draft picks, and been just as well off. (This has nothing to do with Jones' performance against the Giants, more a commentary on how the Falcons went all in and lost.) 

You could argue that the Jones deal wasn't a one-year, all-or-nothing proposition. Except that it sorta is. Yes, Jones will be in Atlanta for years but the trade was made because Dimitroff thought it gave the Falcons the best chance to win now. Why else would you give up a '12 first-rounder, too? 

Put differently: could Atlanta have made it to the playoffs with Baldwin, who went late in Round 1, instead of Jones (and they would've still had their 2011 second-rounder)? If you're willing to accept that as a possibility, then this season was a failure from the perspective of the Jones trade.

Another way to think about it: let's say there's a three-year horizon on the deal. Are the Falcons, as currently constituted, favorites to win the Super Bowl next season? Of course not. They'll be in the conversation as one of the NFC's playoff-caliber teams but not much else. Again, would that conversation be any different if they had Baldwin -- and a full complement of draft picks -- over Jones? Not likely.

And that's the point. This isn't an indictment on Jones' ability. Clearly, he's a special player. But the Falcons' front office took a gamble, it failed, and now, like 24 other teams, they're sitting on their couch wondering what happened.

Detroit Lions defense

It's hard to fault anybody faced with the task of slowing Drew Brees and the Saints offense, but as Lions head coach Jim Schwartz mentioned several times during his post-game comments Saturday: missed tackles, the inability to get off the field on third down and dropped interceptions (not to mention the happy whistle that negated a possible Lions defensive touchdown) conspired against a Detroit team that otherwise exorcised any remnants of Matt Millen's presence in the organization.

"Well, there is no question that they are a good team," Schwartz said. "They're 13-3, scoring 44 points a game (on average the last four weeks) and undefeated at home. There is no question that they are a good team. But when you face a team like that, you can't give them second opportunities."

And that's it right there. The difference between advancing in the playoffs and packing your bags one last time until minicamps usually comes down to a play, maybe two. There's no guarantee that the outcome would've been different if the Lions had twice picked off Brees, or had been allowed to return the Saints fumble for what looked like a touchdown, but it wouldn't have hurt.

“Should have been a touchdown because every other time in this league they let that play go and they don’t blow the whistle,” Schwartz said. “We were a victim of that last week (when officials ruled Titus Young didn't have two feet down on a touchdown catch and the Lions didn't have a challenge left to dispute the call) and for some reason in this game they decided to blow the whistle when that would have been seven points in this.”

Brees' numbers were, well, Brees-ian -- 33 of 43 for 466 yards and three touchdowns. But it will be the two interceptions that got away that will haunt Schwartz for some time.

"We were able to score on offense, missed a couple opportunities there but it was really more about missed opportunities on defense," he said during his Monday end-of-season press conference.

"With a team like the Saints, they are going to get some yards, but you got to find a way to stop drives and that is going to come from third downs that is going to come from turnovers. We stopped some drives in the first half with turnovers and had some other plays that we didn't make. We didn't do a very good job on third down. Even when we stopped them on third down, we allowed the conversion on fourth down and they were able to keep drives alive and then big plays, particularly in coverages that we shouldn't give up big plays. It just made it that we couldn't score enough with them because of those things."

Andy Dalton - Bengals

We could just as easily give this to Pacman Jones for getting toasted by Andre Johnson for a touchdown, or Chris Crocker for getting trucked on the way to the end zone by Arian Foster, but it was Andy Dalton, a rookie in name only, who played one of his worst games of the season.

A long day for Dalton. (Getty Images)
When it was over, he was 27 of 42 for 257 yards with three interceptions, although one -- the "wait, what just happened?!" pick-six from rookie defensive lineman J.J. Watt -- doesn't count. Dalton will throw thousands of NFL passes and he'll never ever see anything like that again.

Watts' acrobatics aside, Dalton was off and it played no small role in the outcome. To be fair, he was in the hospital three days before the game because of the flu, but this is the time of year when no one's healthy. Just ask the Texans' quarterbacks.

The Bengals remain winless in the playoffs under Marvin Lewis (the sad truth: Cincy hasn't won a postseason game since 1990 -- Dalton was three), but unlike previous teams, this one is young, full of promise and without egos. Which means no offseason reality shows or MLS tryouts or bull-riding stunts. Just a focus on getting better.

“I don’t want to end in the first round of the playoffs anymore,” Dalton said Monday, as he talked about becoming more of a leader next year. “You get to come back and critique all of the little things that you did in the season,” Dalton said. “You get to work with the guys and not just come into training camp where you have two weeks before your first preseason game. It will be nice to come in and watch stuff, try to get better and do a few things with everybody and make sure everybody is on the same page.”

“I’ll fly wherever he needs me,” Green said of Dalton and their offseason workout plans.

That used to be Carlson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. Now it's Dalton and Green, who after just one season have the potential to be much better than their predecessors.

“[The past 12 months have] been a freaking whirlwind,” Dalton admitted. “Starting with the Rose Bowl, getting ready for the combine, Senior Bowl, pro day, getting drafted, getting married, a couple of weeks later moving up here. It’s been a crazy year. It seems stuff like that happened a long time ago, but its crazy it’s already over. It’s already 2012.”

And training camps are just seven months away.

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Posted on: January 10, 2012 10:03 am
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Posted on: January 7, 2012 7:54 pm
 

Yates, not Dalton, plays like a veteran QB

T. Yates was more than steady in Houston's win (AP).

By Josh Katzowitz

Andy Dalton entered Saturday’s wild card game as the sure-handed quarterback. The one who (maybe) could compete with Cam Newton to win offensive rookie of the year. The one who had led the Bengals -- a Cincinnati team that hardly anybody expected to win six games, much less earn a playoff berth -- to the postseason. The one who had succeeded in Jay Gruden’s offensive scheme and threw for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and a passer rating of 80.4.

Six weeks ago, T.J. Yates was an afterthought.

But on Saturday, Yates, formerly the third-string quarterback, out-gunned Dalton, and the Texans continued their outstanding season while the Bengals absolutely melted down in the 31-10 Houston win.

While we could rip Marvin Lewis’ coaching performance -- we sorta did that after the first half – or we could describe how Dalton played like a clueless rookie, let’s throw a spotlight on how resilient the Texans offense has been this season with Yates in charge.

When Matt Schaub was knocked out for the season in Week 10, the Texans were left for dead. The next game, that thought was confirmed when Matt Leinart suffered a season-ending injury (after all, if you’re counting on Leinart to be your savior, you know your team is screwed).

But then Yates happened. And the fifth-round draft pick didn’t seem nervous while maintaining the team lead in the Week 12 win against the Jaguars. And he didn’t seem frazzled when he beat the Falcons the next week at home. And he didn’t seem worried when he notched his first comeback victory in Week 14 at Cincinnati.

He seemed … well, ready.

Yes, the Texans were coming off a three-game losing streak entering today's game, including a dreadful defeat to the Colts. But Yates (along with Arian Foster, who gained 153 yards and two touchdowns, and a swarming Houston defense that forced three turnovers and scored a defensive touchdown) passed another test by beating a Bengals defense that’s pretty damn strong. 

“We did a good job of moving the ball up and down the field the entire game,” Yates said on NBC after the game. “The way we ran the ball today, it’ll be hard to stop us in the playoffs.”

While Yates’ stat line wasn’t outstanding (11 of 20 for 159 yards and a touchdown), the Texans don’t necessarily need him to be outstanding. They need him to be steady. Which is what he’s been.

Will he replace Schaub as the Texans starting quarterback next year? Of course not. But Yates has accomplished something Schaub never has. He’s won a playoff game.

And who knows where he -- and the Texans -- can go from here.

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Posted on: January 4, 2012 11:21 am
Edited on: January 4, 2012 11:46 am
 

Film Room: Texans vs. Bengals wild-card preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit


The Bengals managed to back-in to the playoffs despite going 1-6 against teams with a winning record. They may not seem like a dangerous playoff opponent, but if you’re the Texans – a team that’s 0-0 all-time in postseason play – every playoff opponent is dangerous. Here’s a breakdown of the Saturday afternoon wild card matchup.


1. Bengals run game vs. Texans front seven
Cincinnati’s methodical, power-based rushing attack (ranked 19th) struggles against fast defensive front sevens. Cedric Benson has more lateral agility than you’d guess, but he lacks the elite initial quickness to make dramatic cutbacks early in the run.

This lends a certain predictability to Cincinnati’s ground game. Less concerned about getting burned in their own over-pursuit, front seven defenders take a faster, more attack-oriented approach.

The Bengals counter this by overloading with six-man offensive lines and multiple lead-and motion-blockers. A speedy defense might trip them up early in the game, but the belief is Benson and his blockers can wear it down late.

That wasn’t the case when these teams met in Week 14. The Bengals tried to go to the ground to protect a late lead, but Benson totaled minus-five yards on five carries in the fourth quarter. Not only are the Texans’ linebackers collectively faster than any in the NFL, but defensive ends – J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and Tim Jamison are elite penetrating run-stoppers.

If the Bengals want to sustain offense against Wade Phillips’ crew, they’ll have to go to the air.

2. Dalton and the passing attack
The second-rounder from TCU has been one of the steadiest, most cerebral game-managers in all of football this season. What Dalton lacks in arm strength he makes up for in timing, poise and confidence.

First-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has built a system ideally suited for Dalton, featuring play-action and rollouts, moving pockets and quick-strike reads to the slot and flats (hence the expanded joker role for tight end Jermaine Gresham). Dalton has the pocket toughness and moxie to make it work.

But that speedy front seven from Houston can jeopardize all this. It’s not just that the Texans sack quarterbacks (they ranked sixth in that department this season), it’s that they make them play fast. Connor Barwin’s and Brooks Reed’s relentless off the edge rattles pockets; J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith are two of the few 3-4 ends who can beat a pass-blocker with a quick first step; and perhaps most significant, inside linebacker

Brian Cushing blitzes with impeccable speed and timing. Cushing’s effectiveness in this sense is a big reason why Houston has frequently had success blitzing with just five rushers. Able to keep defenders back, the Texans have racked up gobs of coverage sacks.

Dalton is willing to hang in there against the blitz (worth noting is that last time these teams met, Phillips was more aggressive than usual, occasionally playing Cover 0 and bringing the entire gauntlet of defenders). He’s been just a tad inconsistent in his precision accuracy the last few games, and he quietly struggled throughout the year on deep balls. These issues, however, have not derived from hasty or flawed mechanics and aren’t prominent enough for a defense to intentionally exploit.

Green and Joseph will square off again in the playoffs. (Getty Images)

3. Johnathan Joseph on A.J. Green
The Bengals passing attack centers around the downfield acrobatics of A.J. Green. They take several deep shots a game with the rookie Pro Bowler – often off play-action from run formations – and have him clear out coverage for the underneath receivers in the flats.

Interestingly, Green will be guarded by Johnathan Joseph, the sensational ex-Bengals corner who’s now the fulcrum of Houston’s coverage schemes. Joseph is arguably the premier deep ball defender in the NFL. That’s a big reason why he’s in the select group of corners who truly shadow the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver week in and week out.

Joseph’s unique talent lends multiplicity and versatility to the rest of Houston’s secondary. That’s something Dalton and his ancillary targets must adjust to (one-on-one coverage for Jerome Simpson is not guaranteed this Saturday). The Joseph-Green matchup could very well decide the outcome. The last bout was a draw; Green finished with just 59 yards receiving but did have a tremendous 36-yard touchdown.

4. Bengals D vs. T.J. Yates
Even though it was Yates’ first start on the road, Gary Kubiak did not keep tight reigns on his fifth-round rookie quarterback at Cincinnati. He ran Houston’s regular passing attack, which is built around play-action off the stretch handoff (see: below), screens and downfield crossing patterns that attack man-to-man or Cover 3 (a zone the Bengals commonly play against base offensive personnel).

If you could characterize Gary Kubiak’s offense in one snapshot, this would be it. This is the stretch handoff, the most potent play in Houston’s zone run game. We froze the shot here because it’s indeterminable whether it’s a run or a play-action pass. Look at the Bengals back level defenders. The linebackers (53 Thomas Howard and 58 Rey Maualuga) have no choice but to flow right; the defensive backs are playing back and not attacking the run or their receiver.

The stretch handoff forces an entire defense to pause before committing to an attack. It presents a more dynamic play-action element because when it’s finally revealed whether the quarterback handed the ball off or kept it himself, the play has been unfolding for nearly two seconds (much longer than a traditional play-action). By this point, if it’s a handoff, the offensive linemen are further down their run-blocking paths; if it’s a pass, the receivers are further into their routes. Thus, any defenders who misdiagnoses the play is caught even further out of position than usual.

This is the case if the stretch play is executed well. As an offense, the risk is that when your stretch play is executed poorly, the drawn-out time elements work just as potently against you, as defenders that easily sniff out what you’re doing now have more time to react.

Kubiak trusted Yates to make plays; aside from a few short-armed throws, Yates responded extremely well. He exhibited his quick release, poise in the pocket and patience in progressions, completing 26 of 44 for 300 yards and engineering a brilliant 13-play, 80-yard game-winning touchdown drive.

Since then, Yates’ confidence has led to a few bad decisions. He had two atrocious interceptions in the loss to Carolina and did not push the ball downfield the next week when Indianapolis’ defense took away the crossing routes and rollout passes. There’s no telling how Yates might respond to unfamiliar looks in a playoff game.

A deep, lively defensive line has allowed Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to drift away from some of the high-risk pressure concepts that have long defined his system, but don’t be surprised if Zimmer throws a few safety/corner blitzes at the rookie on Saturday.

5. Texans zone run game
Even if they’re confident in Yates and finally have Andre Johnson at full force, the Texans will center their offensive attack around the ground game. Their front five is by far the best zone-blocking unit in the league – LT Duane Brown, C Chris Myers and RT Eric Winston have all had Pro Bowl caliber seasons – and they have the AFC’s best all-around runner in Arian Foster.

Compact 220-pound backup Ben Tate can also move the chains. The Bengals have a staunch run defense, thanks to meaty nose tackle Domata Peko and the great one-on-one play of his sidekick Geno Atkins. They also benefit from the athleticism at linebackers and the superb outside tackling of cornerback Nate Clements.

However, this defense did give up a big run to Ben Tate in Week 14 and got burned on huge runs by Ray Rice (who plays in a zone scheme similar to Houston’s) in both losses to Baltimore.

So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Wild Card games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
 
 
 
 
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