The Bengals pass rush is getting all the ink this week up front as Cincinnati pushes into Saturday's Wild Card game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) and why not? The Texans are no doubt scheming for one of the best tackles in football in Geno Atkins and two ends, Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks) and Carlos Dunlap (6.0) that have wrecked more games than commercial breaks.
But what about a few words about a run-stopper?
After all, when defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer arrived in 2008 and changed the culture of a woe-is-me Bengals defense into a perennial top 10 unit that regularly challenged the AFC North behemoths of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, he began and ended with stopping the run. And since the Texans live off play-action and misdirection, Saturday's game begins and ends with stopping the run.
"They do a great job in the run blocking; the scheme that they run is great," Zimmer said of the Texans. "We've got to tackle. If we're undisciplined in the run game, we're going to get pounded, and then off of that comes the play-action pass. So if you can try to get this team to be one-dimensional, it helps us. But saying that, anytime you can stop the run in a seven-man front you have an advantage."
So how about a few words about Pat Sims?
At the most, he'll play about 30 percent of the snaps. Maybe about 20 to 25 plays. He didn't get off the physically unable to perform list (PUP) until halfway through the year. He missed the last six games last season. The Bengals signed him to a one-year deal when the dust cleared back in the spring. At 6-2, 330 pounds, he looks like a run stopper is supposed to look, an unmade bed amid the chiseled magazine covers of the pass rushers.
To Dunlap and tackle Domata Peko, he is "The X Factor." To defensive line coach Jay Hayes, he's the enforcer up front, giving Atkins and Domata Peko valuable time to rest inside without his vaunted seven-man rotation falling off. To Sims, he's a guy that has had an agonizing wait to make his first playoff appearance after missing his first two shots in 2009 and 2011 with injuries.
Not only is it Texans quarterback Matt Schaub's playoff debut, it is also one for Sims, and for the men who know the Bengals run defense best, that is a relief.
"Can't wait. I'm excited to play in my first playoff game," said Sims, in the shadows as usual Wednesday. "It doesn't matter how many guys have played how many games. It comes down to playing."
And it isn't lost on the Bengals that when Sims plays, they've got a better chance at stopping the run. Try by a full yard.
In the 13 games he's missed the past two years, the Bengals have allowed 4.5 yards per rush. In the 19 games Sims has played, they've allowed 3.6. In the last two playoff games without him, they've been buried by the Jets and Texans with 171 and 188 rushing yards, respectively.
"Men lie. Women lie," Dunlap said. "Numbers don't lie. He's the key to the whole thing. He makes the seven-man rotation."
When Sims hurt both his ankles last season and missed the last five games of the regular season, the Bengals went from 3.5 to 4.9 yards per rush. When he came back this season for the Giants game after his stint on the PUP and his never-ending battle with head coach Marvin Lewis to show he was in shape, the Bengals were giving up 4.3. In the last eight games it is 3.9.
"Pat Sims is the X Factor. Look, we're 7-1 since he's been back" Peko said with a smile. "But he's a big guy for us. He's really important. We haven't had him in the playoffs and it's really going to help us. He comes in for Geno and me and we just keep rolling."
There have been other reasons. This year early on, not only was Sims hurt up front, but so were Dunlap and left end Robert Geathers. And when backup right end Jamaal Anderson was lost for the year in the second game of the season, Wallace Gilberry needed time to work into the rotation. Plus, the defense didn't really get solidified until safety Chris Crocker re-signed the last week of September.
And last year, Crocker (knee) and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (ankle) were playing hurt in December. But the Bengals also didn't have Sims.
It is no coincidence for Hayes.
"There's no magic to it," Hayes said. "He's a big, physical guy. It gives Geno a break. Geno's been excellent against the run. They play differently, but the effect is the same. On first and second down, he's a force in there.
"You put him and Domata out there on the field together with Robert, Michael, Gilberry, and you've got guys that play the run and take pride in stopping the run. Our linebackers, our safeties, that's what we take pride in: stopping the run. We've been trying to get that number down and it's really helped having Pat back."
Sims's play time varies according to down, distance, situations. He's a run guy, but last week against the Ravens he took his most snaps of the season with 41 percent because the coaches wanted to rest Atkins and Peko. The week before in Pittsburgh it was 36 percent. The game before that in Philadelphia it was 30 percent.
Go back to the night of Dec. 13 in Philly and the Bengals struggling to put away the lowly Eagles in the third quarter. The Bengals had just gone up, 17-13, when Sims forced a fumble on a big hit that Gilberry returned for a 25-yard return.
"If he makes a negative play against the offense, which he is known to do—Geno makes them all the time—it always lends to getting people excited," Hayes said. "These guys play hard all the time, but something like that really gets you going and he can do those things. We saw it in Philly."
While Dunlap, Peko and Atkins locker all in a row next to the most frequently used door in the locker room, Sims is in a corner with rookie tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, as well as the line leader in Geathers, and likes the lowlight just fine. He bristles when Johnson and Geathers affectionately call him "The Dancing Bear," a nod to his big-man athleticism.
"It doesn't bother me," he said of the lack of attention. "I don't like anybody talking about me. I just go out there and do what I'm supposed to do. I do what I need to do for my teammates, just like they do for me."
Zimmer regaled the media Wednesday with how the Bengals have been able to get the most out of two players—Dunlap and Johnson—that came out of college with underachieving reps. He could have given them a book on Sims, a third-round pick out of Auburn in Zimmer's first year of 2008.
In the past Zimmer and Lewis have been on Sims about his weight and a furious Lewis wasn't happy when he pulled a hamstring during the training camp conditioning test and Sims found himself shelved for three more months.
Maybe Lewis had something there. Sims has finally been healthy for a playoff run. In 2009, he broke his forearm in the regular-season finale. Last year he had ankle issues.
"I feel great now. Don't come over here talking about that stuff," Sims said as he and other players started knocking on the wood of their lockers. "It's great to finally be able to play in the postseason, but it's all about handling our business."
The business at hand is stopping one of the best run games in the business. The Texans are ranked seventh running the ball and are led by a battering ram named Arian Foster. With his one-cut move, Foster drilled the Bengals last year in the playoffs with 153 yards on 24 carries, and Houston is a different team if it can run the ball.
"They have excellent backs and they have a good offensive line and have a great scheme. It's an excellent running game. We'll have our work cut out for us," Hayes said. "We really need to tackle these people. We can't miss tackles against these people. That is paramount against Houston."
Houston is a different team when it runs because Schaub is a different quarterback when he's able to go pay-action with run fakes, rather than standing in shotgun in an obvious passing situation.
According to Pro Football Focus, Schaub has thrown 10 TDs and just three interceptions off play-action for 8.7 yards per throw for a 108.1 passer rating. Compare that to 12 TDs, nine picks, and just 6.9 yards per throw for an 84.9 rating.
And the Texans will do it plenty, more than a quarter of the time. PFF ranks Schaub sixth in the NFL with the percentage of play-action passes the Texans use.
The key? Stop the run so the play-action isn't a factor.
Like Sims, Maualuga is another guy that has either not played in playoff game (2009 when he broke his leg in the 15th game) or not been himself (2011 playing on an ankle that needed offseason surgery). He knows the importance of Schaub's run fakes.
"They've got a lot of misdirections. At the same time, they show that misdirection, but they still hand the ball off. So we've got to be fundamentally sound in our gaps," Maualuga said. "When we see the ball out the belly, we've got to punch out and get to our progressions, get to where we need to get to, make sure to disrupt them. I think if we stop the feel of the crowd, we can be in the game. We can be in it. It's all going to come down to the running game. One of our goals is to hold them to three yards a carry. I believe if we do that, we can obviously have something going."
Which is why the Bengals are finally glad to have Sims in a playoff game.
"Oh yeah," Dunlap said. "The X Factor."