BENGALS WR A. J. GREEN VS. TEXANS CB JOHNATHAN JOSEPH
A Pro Bowl rematch pitting two Bengals first-round picks worthy of a playoff game Saturday (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Houston.
Call the first one back on Dec. 11 a draw.
Green got Joseph on a 36-yard jump ball and a 25-yard pass interference penalty on the same third-quarter drive that only yielded a field goal. Joseph kept Green out of the end zone as the Texans held him to 59 yards on five catches and had him covered well enough on a third-and-11 early in the fourth quarter that it forced the punt with 11:50 left that was the beginning of the end of Cincinnati's 19-10 lead.
Joseph has been a major reason the Houston pass defense has gone from last in '10 to No. 1 in opponent completion percentage and No. 2 in opponent passer rating heading into the playoffs. Green is a major reason quarterback Andy Dalton has become the first rookie quarterback in history to throw 20 TD passes and start nine wins while taking his team to the playoffs.
But the pickings have been slim since Green suffered a sprained shoulder late in the first half of the Dec. 18 win in St. Louis. Showing admirable toughness, he has played all 10 quarters since but Dalton has thrown his way 20 times and only connected six times for 62 yards and no TDs.
There is Joseph's great closing speed still hazy with the smoke of his 4.3 40 and his ability to break on the ball with that great athleticism against Green's soft hands and nasty vertical leap.
One of Green's NFL-leading 11 catches of 35 yards or more came against Joseph. Joseph's four interceptions match the total of the Bengals cornerbacks.
NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock, who is working Saturday's game as NBC's analyst, has been impressed with Green and Joseph for a long time. He says Joseph is as big a reason there is why the Texans defense has gone from error-filled to elite overnight.
When he describes the challenge waiting for Joseph, Mayock also discusses the versatility of Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham because he thinks the way offensive coordinator Jay Gruden deftly moves around Green and Gresham is one of the principal features of the scheme:
"I really like the way Jay is moving around the chess pieces on offense. He's done a great job managing a young quarterback and putting him in situations where he can succeed and I think because it's such a good run game, teams have to be concerned about stopping the run.
"So what he's been able to do is use a Jumbo package with three tackles in the game and only one wide receiver and they've gotten some isolation on A.J. Green with a corner with no help, or if you put a safety over the top, you have trouble in the run game. I just think Jay has been really creative generating things that Andy (Dalton) feels comfortable with and the wide receivers don't have to think that much.
"I've loved what I've seen of play-action. All of a sudden (Green) is in the slot and they throw it back to him on a crossing route. They're taking advantage of the fact you can throw a vertical route with him like any No. 1 receiver in the league. A lot of double moves. But then you move him to the slot and all of a sudden there's the play-action game with a crossing route, and then the screen game. They get him involved in all levels.
"I think (Green) is already one of the top 10 receivers in the league and in the next year or two he'll be mentioned with Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. That's the kind of ability he has.
"Here's where I give Houston a ton of credit. People wanted them to sign Nnamdi Asomugha. But for the price of Asomugha they sign Joseph and Danieal Manning and that allows them to move Glover Quin (to safety). So effectively they've got three brand new starters in the secondary. That defense has struggled over the years, especially in the back end, and now they're solid.
"The other thing the Bengals have is Gresham. Very quietly he's become one of the premier tight ends in the league and I think they've done a great job moving him. Talk about moving A.J. around. They move Gresham all over the place as well. They put him out on the boundary by himself as a wideout and they throw it to him. They want to say to a defensive coordinator, 'If we split him out, are you going to put a safety, a corner, a linebacker out there? What are you going to do with him?' And he's an athletic mismatch out there. I thought he was a pretty good blocker coming out (of Oklahoma), but he's really elevated it. Coach (Jon) Hayes has done a great job with him."