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Long out of mothballs?

The Bengals have a problem in Houston, Cincinnati. They're on the road against a spicy Texans offense that has won two straight at home.

But if they can buck at least some of the Oh for '08 trends—no offense in the first half, no pass protection at any time, no four yards per rush, no big defensive stands in the fourth quarter—the roundtable thinks it will be closer than the oddsmakers make it.

And The Eye, an NFL scout familiar with the AFC North, thinks the Bengals are finally looking at enough favorable matchups (a bottom half defense that doesn't blitz much with a suspect secondary) that they can get their first win of the year.

But The Guru, a former top football exec in the NFL, doesn't think the Bengals can overcome the biggest problem of all.

"I think you can throw it on Houston, but I don't think the Bengals are a threat to throw the ball long," The Guru says. "I don't think they can stretch the field without Carson Palmer."

QB Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Texans CB Dunta Robinson
! Fitzpatrick

Yes Virgina, this has all the makings of an honest-to-goodness shootout pitting scholar-athletes Matt Schaub of Virginia and Harvard's Fitzpatrick.

Robinson, Houston's No. 1 pick from '04, hadn't played for a year with a severe knee injury until last week. He came off the PUP list and played about 25 snaps in the slot and he figures to have pretty much the same role this week.

He played in the '05 game against the Rams when Fitzpatrick came off the bench in his NFL debut to rally St. Louis from a 21-point deficit to an overtime victory. Of his three touchdown passes that day, one was a 43-yarder and the other a 56-yarder, so what does Fitzpatrick have to do to convince people he can get it down the field?

There were six inches of separation on his bomb to Chad Ocho Cinco last week against Pittsburgh and given that Houston is allowing opposing passers a 103.6 rating and a gargantuan 8.52 per throw, if the Bengals can't get the long ball going this week it may never get going. Most importantly, Fitzpatrick knows he can do it because he has.

"The secondary is probably their weakest area," The Guru says. "They can't decide who their cornerbacks are and I would think Cincinnati's receivers could exploit that but if they can't get it downfield, I don't know how they can."

"I think Fitzpatrick is going to have a good matchup with T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the slot on Robinson," The Eye says. "It will be interesting to see if they put Robinson outside at all this week. The other guys, No. 32 (Fred Bennett), No. 38 (DeMarcus Faggins), it seems like they go from week to week and see who is playing the best in practice."

That's the stat matchup of the game. Fitzpatrick's 4.6 yards per pass against the Houston defense's 8.5. He has to jack it into the seven range to make true use of his receivers.

LT Levi Jones and TE Reggie Kelly vs. Texans DE Mario Williams
! Jones

No rest for the weary as the Bengals trudge into Valley Forge to face the AFC's most prolific sacker over the past two seasons after allowing 12 sacks to the Jets and Steelers the past two weeks. There is some sigh of relief that the Bengals are playing against their first 4-3 defense in a month and are finally playing a team that doesn't eat quarterbacks.

Not only have they played teams in the NFL's top six of sacks per pass the past three weeks, but five of Cincinnati's seven foes are in the top 10 this week. Jones likens Williams to Julius Peppers.

"On paper, they're the same guy - 6-7, 300 pounds," Jones says. "I don't think there's anybody in the NFL that can beat Peppers in basketball. But this guy is a beast. He'd like to be able to swim past the tackle without contact and he can do it because his arms are so long. He can bull rush you back with his arms."

The Bengals don't usually help their tackles and they were surprised how poorly the usually reliable Kelly protected against the Steelers. But as left guard Andrew Whitworth observed earlier this week, every team has offered help in some way against Kelly, and you have to believe Kelly is going to snap out of it.

And it should help that the Texans don't blitz that much compared to the blitzmanias the Bengals have faced since the season started. Williams has six of Houston's nine sacks. No one else has more than three.

"I only counted about 15 percent on blitzes," The Guru says. "Yeah, I think it's easier to block the 4-3. You don't have so many different angles and this is a pretty average line except for Williams. They're pretty much just guys. Williams is certainly a unique guy. You just don't see guys at 300 pounds being able to rush from the edge like that. That's usually what guys 260, 270 pounds do.

"We've been talking about this all season about the offensive line. These are big, athletic guys who have done it in the past, so you have to say they're underachieving."

RB Cedric Benson vs. MLB DeMeco Ryans
! Benson

Benson presumably gets another shot to start in a Texas Homecoming and the Bengals are banking on his hard running from last week's fourth quarter to carry over.

"Their two best defensive players are Williams and Ryans," The Guru says. "Ryans is a good athlete, a big guy (240 pounds) that makes plays for them. I think Benson is giving them something. He's more expolsive than Rudi Johnson."

WRs Chad Ocho Cinco and Chris Henry vs. Texans CBs Fred Bennett, Jacques Reeves, DeMarcus Faggins
! Ocho Cinco

Not exactly household names on the corner and isn't it time? The DBs have just two interceptions and The Ocho hasn't caught a ball longer than 20 yards since the opener. Henry looked to rustle last week with three catches for 44 yards on one drive.

"It's not only a good matchup on the outside with those guys," The Eye says, "but also the other guys the Bengals have like Chatman and Holt."

CB Leon Hall vs. Texans WR Andre Johnson
! Hall

In the first seven games last year, the Bengals allowed 13 TD passes longer than 11 yards. This year, it is just two, which is why Hall says, "I've forgotten completely about last year."

It's because Hall is playing so much better and feels comfortable in new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's aggressive scheme.

"From Day One," Hall says, "he came out preaching that we weren't going to give up the big pass and we were going to stay on top of our routes. We're better. We're more focused."

It has shown up in the DB's play against big-time receivers. Guys like Plaxico Burress, Terrell Owens, Laveranues Coles, Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes haven't dominated them. They've made some plays, but haven't had monster days.

T.O. hurt them on a 57-yard crossing pattern for a TD in the last quarter, but it was only his second catch of the day and it was the result of a missed tackle. On the other big throw, last week's 50-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger to Nate Washington working against backup corner Geoff Pope, Hall was off the field for that one snap getting a contact lens replaced.

"What the Bengals have to guard against is the play-action pass," The Eye says. "That's how they get their big plays. They don't drop back five, seven steps and protect with six. It's mostly play-action passes."

SS Chinedum Ndukwe vs. Texans RB Steve Slaton
! Ndukwe

Can't have any missed tackles here. Slaton, the rookie, has been a Fantasy League savior and The Eye compares him to Tennessee rookie Chris Johnson, a guy Ndukwe knows all about. Throw in veteran Ahman Green sniffing his 9,000th career rushing yard, and this is an estimable duo.

"These guys are a lot like the two guys in Tennessee," The Eye says of Johnson and LenDale White. "I was surprised how small (5-9, 203) Slaton is. He bangs it up in there and then he can outrun you and make you miss. They've got a very solid zone scheme. The DBs have to come up and make hits. Green will grind it up there and get four, five yards leaning. It's a good duo."

Bengals RE Antwan Odom vs. Texans LT Duane Brown
! Odom

A rookie making his seventh NFL start should be a good matchup for the Bengals. And with Schaub's penchant for fumbling the ball, Odom has a chance to add to his two sacks and strips of the ball.

In fact, turnovers (a brutal minus-nine ratio) have been Houston's biggest problem.

"Schaub has trouble holding on to the ball," The Eye says. "He's fumbled six times, two snaps, and the other ones were being careless in the pocket."

If the Steelers offensive line came into last week's game against the Bengals struggling, The Guru says that the Houston offensive line isn't as good as Pittsburgh's bandaged group.

"The Eye says, "They block the run well, but not the pass, and at times they've looked a lot like the Bengals and can't keep anybody away. They've given up a lot of pressure."

Sound familiar?

Last year the Texans allowed 22 sacks and were seventh in the NFL in giving up sacks per play. They've already given up 14 and are ranked 18th.

Bengals KR Glenn Holt vs. Texans KR Jacoby Jones
! Holt

Holt (ankle) returns after a one-game absence with a No. 9 NFL ranking and is back in the saddle for at least another month with Andre Caldwell's foot stress fracture.

But the Bengals may have drawn the short straw with the injury to Andre Davis because some believe his backup, Jones, is better. The 6-2, 200-pond Jones runs big, can burn it, and had a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown two weeks ago. He has yet to return a kick, but his 10.6-yard average is 12th in the league in punt returns.

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