*T.J. Johnson, who started last season's finale, gets his second NFL start. *
Bengals RG T.J. Johnson vs. Texans DL J.J. Watt
Another representative matchup with this one pitting the Bengals' beleaguered offensive line against the Texans' star-studded front seven of the NFL's defending top-ranked defense that has to be fuming about going sack-less in an ugly home loss to Jacksonville on Sunday.
Johnson's second NFL start comes Thursday night against the Texans (8:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5 and NFL Network) in a firestorm stemming from a five-sack opener in the Ravens' Opening Day shutout. Watt saunters into Paul Brown Stadium mad and healthy and leading a Texans defense that has had the Bengals' number ever since wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton came into the league in 2011.
"We've watched a lot of the things he's done," Johnson says of Watt. "I feel like we have a pretty decent game plan just sticking to our techniques and do what we're supposed to do….He played a lot inside last week. They do a little bit of everything in that defense … We watched the film. We made our corrections, but the whole thing is we just have to set our jaw and look for Thursday night."
It's just not just Johnson, though. Watt is in constant motion along the front.
"He's an explosive player," says left guard Clint Boling. "He's got a good mixture of speed, power and technique. He's good at a number of things. Plays the run well. Chases things down from the back side well. He'll line up across the line and it kind of makes it hard sometimes trying to make some adjustments. He plays hard, has a lot of effort and there a number of things that make him good.
"I would imagine at some point almost everybody would probably get their opportunity (to block him)."
T.J. on J.J.: "I think he's just got a lot of football instinct. I think he has a knack for knowing when guys are leaning one way. But at the same time, I think he knows where the ball is, where the quarterback is and he has a way of getting off and making guys look bad."
In those six games against the Texans in the past six seasons that include two Wild Card matchups, the Bengals are 1-5 and are averaging just 13 points per game while Dalton has three touchdown passes and Green no catches.
Do you think this series has been defined by the Texans defense? Those five Houston wins have come from quarterbacks named T.J. Yates (two of his five wins have come against the Bengals), Matt Schaub (his one post-season win came against the Bengals), Brian Hoyer (with a save from Yates), and Tom Savage's only win came against the Bengals last Christmas Eve. With Deshaun Watson expected to make his first NFL start Thursday, the Bengals are buckling up for another grind.
Left guard Clint Boling also has to defend J.J. Watt: 'At some point almost everybody would probably get their opportunity."
We all know about Watt. He's a three-time Defensive Player of the Year looking for his first sack of the year after being sidelined virtually all last season. From 2012-2015 he became the only player in NFL history with two 20-sack seasons ('12 and '14) and in those four seasons led the league in hitting quarterbacks. After getting the ball batted three times Sunday, two for picks, Dalton faces Watt's 45 career passes defensed, the most by a down lineman in the last six years.
Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals game - 9/10/2017 *Photos taken by Steve France
But what about pass-rushing outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus? Clowney, a former overall No. 1 pick, is coming off a Pro Bowl season he had six sacks and 17 quarterback hits. Mercilus has the most sacks in the NFL during the last 25 regular-seasons except for Khalil Mack and Von Miller.
"(Watt) is the best defensive player in the league," says Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. "The only defensive player you might think is as good as him is Clowney. There you go."
Now here comes Johnson, a calm, reliable, and smart veteran of four seasons and 33 games who just may be what the doctor ordered in replacing star-crossed Trey Hopkins (knee) fighting injury again when he went down defending the infield-fly-rule interception at the end of the half.
"Every time he comes in he's played well," says center Russell Bodine. "He's exactly what you're looking for in that role. That's why he's here. He may have graded the highest of all of us the last game. You know you're going to get a good performance out of him and I have no reason to think he'll be any different."
The offensive line needs more high grades as the young tackles continue to come under glaring scrutiny, particularly left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi after he allowed two sacks and two pressures. Following Tuesday's practice Alexander summed up the challenges facing Ogbuehi and right tackle Jake Fisher.
"He and Fisher have so much athletic talent, it's ridiculous," Alexander says. "Sometimes players who have great athletic ability rely on their athletic ability over technique and that's kind of where we are."
The Christmas Eve game in Houston marked the first time Ogbuehi and Fisher lined up as the left and right tackles and profootballfocus.com was rough on them giving both below average grades for run and pass blocking in a game the Bengals lost, 12-10. The web site had Ogbuehi for two sacks and one hurry and Fisher for one sack and four hurries in pass protection with Ogbuehi giving up a sack each to Clowney and Mercilus.
Paul Alexander's message to Cedric Ogbuehi and his line: "To do it out there on the stage requires experience and it requires having backbone."
Ogbuehi, who partially tore his rotator cuff that night, committed to a big offseason and looked to be getting his feet under him in the preseason. Alexander doesn't view Sunday as taking a step back and delivered a simple message to him and the rest of the unit.
"It's easy in practice. You go out there, there's no stress, there's no nerves going on, but to do it out there on the stage requires experience and it requires having backbone ,where you do it, and you trust and you do it," Alexander said. "Because nine out of 10 times, they did it right. But nine out of 10 isn't good enough."
So Alexander is keeping it simple for the club's No. 1 pick in 2015.
"You've got to go out there and you've got to have your mental focus and you've got to do it right every time," Alexander said. "And I've really taken it no further than that because I think that's the simple answer. The last thing I want to do is go in there and give him a 100 things and then you're like the golf coach who has a guy who can't hit a golf ball, do you know what I mean? I try to give them simple direction and it has to be with mental focus and concentration."
Asked if there are going to be more blockers moved to help Ogbuehi than there were on Sunday, Alexander said, "He got a lot (of help) … He got lots of it."
Houston's proud defense is no doubt looking to rebound in a big way. A major reason it was No. 1 in 2016 is because in the second half of the season they allowed 71.9 yards rushing per game, but on Sunday Jags rookie running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 100 yards in his debut to lead a stunning 155-yard attack against the Texans.
So this is a game between two units with a chip on their shoulders.
"We have to put last week completely behind us. We've got to get started and this is the first game to start the roll," says Johnson, not rattled and planning to rely on what got him here. "I've been very fortunate in the fact that I've been here, I know what we're doing. I've just got to relax and stick to our technique."
Cincinnati Bengals host Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 1 of the regular season 9/10/2017