Bengals stand their ground

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Jeremy Hill is becoming the Bengals' fourth-quarter closer.

HOUSTON - A.J. Green knows exactly what a two-headed running game means.

"It helps keep me in one-on-one," said Green after Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combined to carry it 35 times for 127 yards in Sunday's 22-13 victory over the Texans. "They can run downhill and make a lot of people miss. J Hill is the biggest guy I know with the sweetest feet. They both give us the same things."

You can say all you want about the defense and Green and Andy Dalton. But in a rematch with the Texans, what the Bengals had this time and not the last three games were two dynamic running backs.

For only the third time in Marvin Lewis' 12 seasons two backs had at least 17 carries in a game with Hill going for 87 yards on 18 carries and Bernard adding 45 yards on 17 carries. The last time it happened was nearly five years to the day when Larry Johnson had 22 carries and Bernard Scott had 18 in a win over the Browns at Paul Brown Stadium. The only other time was in Lewis' second game as coach when Corey Dillon and Brandon Bennett each carried 19 times in a loss in Oakland.

Running the ball and stopping the run.

While Bernard and Hill annexed the clock for 39:10, the Bengals defense stoned the Texans on 2.9 yards per carry as Cincinnati's offensive and defensive lines stood  the metrics on their head. In three of the last four games the Texans had held the Steelers to 76 yards rushing, the Titans 36 and the Browns 38. And the Texans, coming off a 213-yard rushing game, could manage just 64 on 19 carries.

Running the ball and stopping the run.

"Linebackers were coming downhill and everyone was swarming and that usually leads to good defense,' said safety George Iloka, who also came home for a win. "The whole game we were  physical and running to the ball and that's how you stop teams like that."

With Ryan Fitzpatrick and then Ryan Mallett at quarterback, the Bengals saw the Texans were running on third down almost as much as they threw it because their third downs were either so manageable or they didn't want to risk it. Or both. So the Bengals were intent on stopping the run on the first two downs and getting Mallett in third and long in his second NFL start and they did it.

The Texans converted just four of 14 third downs and 11 were third-and-four or longer and they passed on all of them with Mallett throwing long enough to complete only three of them. For the first time since the second game of the season the Bengals had favorable down-and-distances to blitz and they went after Mallett on many of those third downs with at least five-man pressures.

The biggest incompletion came on third-and-four from the Houston 26 when Mallett went long for the first time all game. They called it a 32-yard completion to the Bengals 42 with 8:09 left in the game and the Bengals up, 19-13. But Lewis challenged and the play was reversed because cornerback Terence Newman and safety Reggie Nelson had him pinned to the sideline and one foot didn't get in bounds. 

"Our main focus was to stop the run and make him throw the ball on third down,' said middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. "We knew the tendencies, when he was in the (shot) gun.  We had a sense what they were going to do before they did it….This is what happens when you're in sync and playing together."

The second-quarter safety and Maualuga's interception on the second half's first snap were the biggest plays of the game. Even Maualuga had a hard time figuring out why Mallet threw it over the middle like that as Maualuga dropped right in front of him.

"I just did my typical hook curl and he threw it right to me," Maualuga said.

Forget that Bernard and Hill averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Look at how much time they killed. Particularly Hill, who is becoming the Aroldis Chapman of the Bengals and closing out games in the fourth quarter. He put Jacksonville away with a 60-yard touchdown in the fourth back on Nov. 2 and last week he ran out the clock in New Orleans with 35 yards on 11 carries in the fourth.

Then on Sunday he broke off a monster 30-yard run with 2:41 left to the Texans 25 that forced Houston to start taking timeouts. That came one snap after Andy Dalton found him in the flat on third-and-six for a nine-yard catch and a first down. On both plays he stayed in-bounds. 

"Anytime there's the four-minute drill, that's what I take pride in,' said the 230-pound Hill. "That's where a big back needs to step up and help his team."

The 30-yard run was a thing of blocking beauty. They ran away from J.J.Watt lined up over right tackle Marshall Newhouse and right guard Kevin Zeitler pulled to the left and wiped out blitzing free safety Kendrick Lewis. Tight end Jermaine Gresham locked up overall No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney on the left edge while left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Clint Boling collapsed their men as Hill cut behind them to the outside.

"He's a beast,' said Zeitler of Watt, his off-season work-out partner. "He played outside at (end) a lot more than he had in this game. I didn't get him much at all. We had some rushing yards, but we had to fight off every yard. Credit their whole defense. Clowney is a big guy, you got (Jared) Crick inside and the two big guys (Ryan Pickett, Jerrell Powe) in the middle."

Whitworth felt their doggedness with the run game had the Texans making some errors up front.

"JJ. Watt is a great player," Whitworth said. "The truth is, most of his plays come inside. When he's one-on-one with the guards, that's where he excels. He's not a guy that really beats tackles that often. He's more suited as a (defensive tackle).

"The thing about this defense is they take a lot of chances. A lot of the plays he makes is doing stuff you don't normally do in a situation. Jumping around a block, those kind of  things. It's kind of feast or famine. The right team has the right play caller and it's going to break out. Naturally, being the leader, some of the other guys try that stuff, too and sometimes they do it too much and you find a crease and you get some big ones running the ball. With him you have to stay diligent and be committed to it."

On another day the Bengals ran the ball and stopped the run, they won. They are now 6-0-1 when they run it at least 30 times and 5-0 when they hold teams to 107 yards or less on the ground.

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