Thursday Matchup Edge: CIN vs. HOU

Cincinnati (0-1) vs. Houston (0-1)

Open: O/U 38, CIN -3
Press time: O/U 38, CIN -6

Andy Dalton’s struggles were among the top stories from Week 1, as he headed into Sunday a home favorite but was shut out with a 170-yard, four-interception line on 31 attempts. The offensive line certainly didn’t help, however, giving up five sacks while allowing plenty of disruption on the other plays, too. There’s a decent amount of pedigree on this line, so perhaps its struggles can largely be explained by the strength of the Baltimore front seven. As intimidating as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus might be, the Texans allowed 155 yards on the ground last week and might be a tad less imposing than last year without Vince Wilfork. This game should be a fairer test for the Cincinnati line.

A.J. Green looked great in the opener, catching five passes for 74 yards on 10 targets. That’s with Dalton missing on a play where Baltimore called an all-out blitz that left Green wide open for what should have been a 59-yard touchdown. Green’s strong showing against a tough defense bodes well going forward, though Dalton might always hold him back to some extent. Tyler Boyd is a sound prospect who should emerge as a good slot wideout sooner rather than later, but Brandon LaFell, who saw two red-zone targets against Baltimore, safely appears the second-best bet among Cincinnati wideouts. While he’ll presumably be eased in and largely see use as a decoy when he is on the field, the debut of rookie ninth overall pick John Ross (knee) will be interesting to monitor. When the fastest player since maybe Bob Hayes steps onto the field, the nature of the play changes.

There’s reason to consider Tyler Eifert one of the best pass-catching tight ends of recent memory, so it’s inexcusable that he saw just one target against the Ravens. The effectiveness he’s demonstrated in his career merits something closer to eight targets per game. I’m trying to be optimistic and think Cincinnati is smart enough to get him going in this one.

The Cincinnati backfield presents a lot of potential outcomes against Houston, most of them discouraging. Marvin Lewis seemed to dictate a mostly even split between Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard, and Joe Mixon in Week 1, but a result of 77 rushing yards might be a reason to reconsider the approach.

Bernard posted the best numbers in Week 1, looking fully recovered from his ACL tear. While he’s short on power and has only decent long speed, Bernard runs with a good motor and misses tacklers by changing speed and direction effectively. His pass-catching abilities are also well-documented. That Bernard is tangibly good at something might make Hill the most vulnerable to Mixon, who offers similar power to Hill but much better athleticism and pass-catching skills.

Deshaun Watson was named starter for today’s game, but as much as I’m an advocate of Watson’s, I’d have to concede that it’s more accurate to say Tom Savage lost the job than to say Watson truly won it. The offensive line made it tough on both last week, but Savage has been an abject disaster for nearly every play of his career. Watson represented an upgrade in that he at least has a feel for the pulse of the game, but both his reads and accuracy suffered as he dealt with consistent pressure.

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On the one hand, the Cincinnati defense was very tame against the Ravens in Week 1, showing a bend-but-don’t-break approach and only occasionally showing aggression. On the other, Geno Atkins was consistently disruptive, and that they’re facing a rookie first-time starter on a short week might embolden the Bengals’ willingness to blitz.

If Watson can withstand the Cincinnati defense in this road start, it could set things up surprisingly well for Lamar Miller, who looked fresh in Week 1 and seemed to have more success after Watson replaced Savage. It would make sense if the two things were related – quarterbacks who run as well as Watson often force the defense to widen and be more mindful of its containment, theoretically leaving bigger gaps between contain. With that said, it would make sense if Houston tried to get some additional work for D’Onta Foreman in this one, and Foreman presents some long-term concern to Miller’s workload, particularly in short-yardage situations.

Watson’s test won’t be made any easier by the absence of Houston’s top three tight ends, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Ryan Griffin, and Stephen Anderson, all of whom suffered concussions. Practice squad promotion and former undrafted Oregon product Evan Baylis is the only reinforcement, and there’s basically nothing encouraging in his prospect profile.

As rough as his debut otherwise was, Watson was smart to look DeAndre Hopkins’ way about as often as possible. Whatever level Hopkins’ stock is at these days, I’d consider it significantly higher than where it was with Savage.

(Line data from covers.com)