BENGALS LG CLINT BOLING AND RG KEVIN ZEITLER VS. TEXANS DE J.J. WATT
You have to go to the state of the Alamo to find the Battle of the Bridge between the small Greater Milwaukee communities of Zeitler's Waukesha and Watt's Pewaukee.
It is also a matchup that captures most of the elements that led to Houston's 31-10 win a year ago in this Wild Card game and provides a road map for a Bengals victory in Saturday's rematch (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Houston. In order for the Bengals receivers to take advantage of a banged-up Houston secondary that allowed five touchdown passes of at least 34 yards in December for a defense that gave up first downs on 55 percent of its third downs in the last two games, the Bengals O-line must give quarterback Andy Dalton the time against Watt's relentless front four.
"For a team that's been excellent on third downs throughout this season, this past month has been tough on us," says Texans coach Gary Kubiak. "The best thing we can do to help those guys is get to the quarterback. That's the best thing for the back end."
Houston's ear-splitting homefield noise fit the intensity and passion its front unleashed on the star-struck Bengals offense in a game won on three big plays that began with Watt's inhuman 29-yard interception return with 52 seconds left in the first half that looked more like a magic trick than a football play when he plucked it out of the air just barely over the line of scrimmage and out of the right hand of Dalton.
Watt may have also pulled a rabbit out of his hat, too, as the crowd and Texans combined to mesmerize a young team the Bengals think has grown up with another year and a rough-and-ready 7-1 finish this season to make the playoffs.
"They all play hard, they rush hard, they wear you out. You watch one game on tape and you're worn out. They just play so hard. Great effort all the time," says Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden of the Texans, heaping praise on his opposite number in Houston. "Wade Phillips does an excellent job over there. So we know the environment, we've got firsthand experience. We know what type of team they have; we played them twice last year. Now we play them again, so it's up to us to match their intensity offensively.
"We played them nip-and-tuck in our home game, lost on the last play of the game (20-19 on Dec. 11). Then we went down there and we were right there with them, and then the J.J. Watt thing at the end of the half and a couple of other things piled on to one another and they got the win, deserved win. But the environment was brutal. It was very loud, and it's something we're going to have to deal with and hopefully going in we'll be a little better prepared but it's hard to prepare for that type of noise. So we've just go to prepare for that type of noise and the energy level they play with."
Boling and Zeitler come off their first seasons as NFL starters with rave reviews from universes as diverse as Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, himself a 10-year guard with Cincinnati, and Pro Football Focus.
And in their first postseason game the Bengals run smack into the leading contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Not only are the 6-5, 295-pound Watt's 20.5 sacks the sixth-most all-time, but he's the first in NFL history to collect more than 15 sacks and 15 passes deflected in the same season.
How good is Watt? Lapham saw a young Howie Long and covered Justin Smith. Start there with a Hall of Famer and a Pro Bowler.
"He's a combination of Justin Smith because he can play a 3-4 D-end and then go inside as a rusher, and he's like Howie Long, with that kind of versatility. Defensive end to defensive tackle. Play anywhere effectively. Inside, outside. Watt maybe is not as sudden and explosive as Howie Long and maybe not as strong as Justin Smith, but he's a great combination."
Watt is basically a big Troy Polamalu. An unscripted playmaker who plays as if he has a green light to do what he feels because he has such a great feel. Two weeks ago the Bengals saw Polamalu pretty much do whatever he wanted to do for the Steelers with no scheme or reason and that included once vaulting over center Kyle Cook as he snapped the ball. According to John McClain of The Houston Chronicle, Watt has an astounding 95 plays for zero or negative yardage and he's not just a pass rusher with 39 coming on running plays.
"The biggest thing about him is that you don't know where he's going to be," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who says everybody is going to get Watt at one time or another. "He takes all different gaps. He doesn't necessarily play fundamental football. You have to be ready. He's a playmaker. That's what he considers himself. You really have to play him one-on-one. Stop him from getting to where he wants go. It's like playing (outside backers Terrell and James) Suggs and Harrison. They're powerful, athletic guys that you have to stop from going where they want to go. The interior guys don't get many of those guys and he's definitely one of them."
Although they're young, Lapham thinks Zeitler and Boling are more athletic and aggressive than the guards that played Watt last season, Nate Livings on the left and Mike McGylnn on the right.
"He's a unique pass rusher in the sense when he's making his move to rush the quarterback, a lot of guys rip and swim and do all that stuff and take their eyes off the quarterback instead of just focusing on beating the lineman in front of him," Lapham says. "Watt is making his move while he's looking at the quarterback. If he knows he not getting the quarterback sack, that's when he tries his next thing, which is getting in the passing lane. He gets his hand up and knocks the ball down.
"I haven't seen too many in their first step in his pass rush fix their eyes on the quarterback and not a target on an offensive lineman. He's really unique that way … he's as talented as anyone I've ever seen timed up with the quarterback."
Of course, Zeitler saw it all before when he and Watt played together at the University of Wisconsin. He also remembers where he was when he saw Watt's pick against the Bengals: In Arizona as he prepped for the NFL scouting combine.
"Just strong and his athleticism, even at Wisconsin he was able to do it all. Just make plays somehow to affect the team. He did it again," Zeitler says. "He did that a lot. Go back to his last year there he did it all the time batting them down and such.
"I'd say he's the best at judging the quarterback, jumping at the right time and having an effect."
It was at Wisconsin where Watt started harassing quarterbacks. And he's kept it up in Houston, where he's coached on the line by a Bengals No. 1 pick in 1974's Bill Kollar.
"I've been working on it since college. It's something that my college defensive line coach started working with me on, and now we work on it a lot here with the Texans," Watt says. "It's a lot of practice, timing, getting a quarterback's rhythm down throughout the course of the game, understanding the passing lanes and things like that and just trying to affect the game in as many ways as possible. You're not going to get a sack every play, so you have to do whatever you can to try and affect the play."
Watt left Wisconsin via the first round in 2011 and Zeitler followed the next season, although Watt says they didn't bang heads a lot in practice because Watt played the edge.
"Sometimes he moved down. I remember when I was younger he was in the 3-technique more. We had occasional run-ins," Zeitler says. "He's a very good player. I was rough back in the day. He was good; we exchanged blows here and there. It will be a tough battle no matter. It's different from then."
Although no one says McGlynn did anything wrong last year when Watt pulled his Houdini, the idea is to be more aggressive. If Watt doesn't get the sack, keep on his body until the throw gets off.
"The big thing because he jumps and swats so many balls down, you have to get on him and hold him down," Zeitler says. "You can't let him jump. That's what I think they are trying to get at there."
Lapham says the Bengals should be looking at the tape of New England's 42-14 victory over Houston on Dec. 10 and how the Patriots offensive line crowded Watt.
"What you can't do is give him space," Lapham says. "Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots offensive line coach, had his guys get up in Watt's grill. You can't give him separation. He thrives on separation. You have to invade his space, and always bothering him. When he picks his hands up you're in position to either cut him or hit him in the chest and get his hands lowered. You better not be too far away.
"Honestly, McGlynn pass protected him, stuffed him (on last year's touchdown play). He just gave him too much space. As an offensive lineman, you think you've done your job. But with J.J. Watt you're never done."
But as Gruden says, if the lineman tries to jump Watt too fast, he'll use his speed to blast into the pocket.
"You try to get on him quick, try to keep his hands down. But if you jump him quick and then he does that jump speed move on you, they'll be calling Mrs. Dalton," Gruden says. "We have a plan for him. Nobody has had a foolproof plan against him. New England did some good things against him. They had five or six three and outs also, and he did still make his presence known in that game like he does in every game."
When the Bengals won four straight from Nov. 11-Dec. 2, they allowed a total of five sacks. Since then they've allowed five in one game and six in two others and the running game has clogged in the last two games on 2.2 yards per 37 carries.
"We've had our ups and downs. We've made some mistakes in different games," Whitworth says of the line play recently. "It's kind of been we need one of those games where everything goes right. We've had a game where we ran the ball really well (157 yards in Philadelphia earlier this month) and they got us in some pass things. But I think those things are they took shots (against us) and got them. It's more of a scheme thing.
"(The line) is a young group that plays well, and then you have to realize they're going to scheme and find ways not to make you play well. We're in that transition of (other) teams that are kind of adjusting, finding things they want to try and do (against us) and we've got go out and execute."
Gruden is encouraged by his team's pass pro despite the recent numbers.
"We expect to be great and we haven't reached that," Gruden says. "The offensive line has done some good things in pass pro even though we've given up a lot of sacks. A Iot of them are coverage sacks. Andy trying to scramble for a yard. They've picked up a lot of blitzes and stunts. We just have to do a better job of the man-on-man blocking in the run game and trying to get a little movement for our backs. Overall I'm not down on any group or any player. We have to all work to get there."
And while Lapham thinks Watt is the biggest test of the year for the young Bengals guards, he also says their aggressiveness and athleticism make them up for the challenge. Pro Football Focus has Zeitler rated 12th and Boling 22nd overall in their guard rankings, seventh and 19th, respectively, protecting the passer.
"They both have bright futures," Lapham says. "They've been more than solid inside all year and I think the fact they've worked with three centers now and how they've adjusted to all of them says a lot about a rookie and guy with limited NFL starts. Every center handles double teams differently depending on what type of body you have. Everybody approaches things differently and they did a great job adjusting to the rotation because that can be a tough transition for a young NFL guard.
"Zeitler is an ox. He's built like a rhino. He's strong as hell. Boling has done a great job getting more flexible and stronger and just has to keep it going with lowering the pads. Both have good balance and that's going to be a big thing for them in the coming years."