Back in the day when Vance Joseph coached for the Texans. Now as the Bengals cornerbacks coach, his insight is helping.
Never mind going back to the House of Horrors Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Bengals go to the Texans' NRG Stadium. Never mind that. The Texans have the running game from Hades. This time the Bengals may get an edge from a coach who has come over from the other side.
Throw in veterans like nose tackle Domata Peko and his film study that has encompassed the good, the bad, and the ugly of the series and the Bengals are hoping to turn the tide instead of going out with it.
"They like to make you go sideways," said Bengals safety George Iloka before Thursday's practice.
Houston's offense has solved the Green-Dalton Bengals three times with two different quarterbacks and two different running backs, but the constant has been the swift precision of its fast-flowing zone-blocking running game anchored by two-time Pro Bowl center Chris Myers that in those three outings has rolled up 4.8 yards per carry against the Bengals.
Even before running back Arian Foster rang them for nearly 300 yards in back-to-back Wild Card Games in 2011 and 2012, he and Ben Tate came into Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 11, 2011 and got rookie quarterback T.J. Yates a win in his first NFL start by splitting 108 yards on 23 carries.
"It's like Baltimore's running game," Iloka said. "But Houston has the personnel that fit it. The offensive linemen are fast, big. They're one of the best O-lines in terms of running the ball and they have a back that has run it his whole career. He does a good job of reading. That's what they're good at."
Foster was shelved last week with a groin injury and on Thursday he didn't practice after being limited Wednesday. That could turn Sunday's game into a showcase of two rookie running backs from LSU both off 150-yard games. After the Bengals' Jeremy Hill rushed for 152 in New Orleans, he texted congratulations to his Baton Rouge backup Alfred Blue fresh off his 156 yards in the Texans' victory in Cleveland.
"He's a slasher, he's got deceptive speed," said the 5-11, 230-pound Hill of the 6-2, 223-pound Blue. "He's a little taller than me and we probably have different styles. But he can find the holes."
Yet the Bengals are bracing for the 6-1, 227-pound Foster, as much the mastermind of the Wild Card heartbreak as J.J. Watt. Foster has done what only Ray Rice has done against the Bengals in the Green-Dalton era when he went over 100 yards against them in two straight games.
His 153 yards shepherded Yates through the first Wild Card win in '11 with a 42-yarder with 5:15 left serving as the obligatory exclamation point. Then his 140 yards bolstered a shaky Matt Schaub in next year's Wild Card.
The one edge the Bengals have this time is cornerbacks coach Vance Joseph. Joseph coached the Texans secondary in all three games and has an intimate knowledge of the personnel he practiced against daily for three seasons.
Though Joseph's former head coach, Gary Kubiak, is now calling plays in Baltimore, the Texans are sticking with the stretch plays and zone blocking that have served them so well. In making the transition from old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick to inexperienced Ryan Mallett, the NFL's third-ranked rush attack has saved the day with Foster chewing nearly 103 yards per game, second only to the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray.
"It's not much different than what we faced in Baltimore. It's a stretch running game and the difference is the back," Joseph said after Thursday's practice. "The back makes the running game. Arian is a great back. He's a Pro Bowl caliber player and he makes it work. It's small creases that he gets through. So patience is the key. Staying square and knocking them back is the key.
"They've drafted to that line for the last six, seven years," Joseph said. "They've drafted smaller, quicker linemen that can go sideways. Chris Myers is probably the best in the league at it. He's a lean-bodied offensive lineman. He's no offensive lineman looker, but he's a lean, athletic guy."
Peko and his buddy Rey Maualuga led the Bengals' resurgence against run in New Orleans with Peko's domination of Saints center Jonathan Goodwin at the centerpiece of the 31st-ranked run defense gumming up the league's sixth best rush offense on less than three yards per carry. But the 6-3, 318-pound Goodwin is a much different player than the 6-5, 300-pound Myers.
"Myers is really quick for a center," Peko said. They've got different styles. Goodwin is a bigger, heavier guy. Myers is a lot lighter. I just have to try and attack him and penetrate and hope to make the running back go east and west because he's really good when he goes north and south. We want to make him stretch the ball out. Get 11 guys to the ball and we should be fine."
That has been the game plan going in all three games against the Texans and yet it hasn't happened and they're not expected to have Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict. But they are bigger and more athletic at safety in Iloka and at SAM linebacker in Emmanuel Lamur. Rookie backup right end Will Clarke has a big challenge in his third NFL game because the key against the zone-blocking scheme is setting a strong presence on the edge. If the Bengals brought the wood in New Orleans, they have to bring a tree to Houston.
"New Orleans ran the stretch play, but they didn't run it like this," said Iloka, the Houston native who set the tone of last Sunday's game with his hit on tight end Jimmy Graham.
"We have to be physical and get off blocks. Beat the man across from you and try to make a tackle. If you just stay blocked, it doesn't matter if you're in your gap or not. They'll still run for a lot of yards. We just have to be physical and get off blocks."
Peko has spent this week watching the last Wild Card Game with the Texans (Foster's 140-yarder) as well as about half of Houston's game this year.
Remember what Joseph said:
Staying square and knocking them back is the key.
"He's given us some tips. He's given us some alerts. We've studied our tails off this week," Peko said. "Arian Foster is still one of the best running backs. That's the key to the game. We have to go out like we did last week against a good run team. It seems like we've got our step back. We have to keep it going. Get out there and attack downhill."