On Monday night the Bengals faced the older version of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and beat him.
But on Sunday in Houston (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19), they face a younger, better version of Big Ben when it comes to turning well-defended snaps into smashed hopes as Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson meets the team he beat on a broken play in his first NFL start.
On third-and-15 in the last minute of a 3-3 first half, Watson, in his second NFL game on a Thursday night, Sept. 14, 2017, at Paul Brown Stadium, dropped back, found nothing and took off on a 49-yard touchdown run through multiple missed tackles. It was the killing play, the only touchdown of the game and launched a Pro Bowl career now at its apex.
They traded away his top receiver, Will Fuller is suspended, slot receiver Randall Cobb is on IR, the Texans are last in the league running the ball. Yet Watson still leads the NFL in yards per attempt, is second only to Aaron Rodgers in passer rating and is a disputed play away from going nine straight games without throwing an interception.
Watson just refuses to hit the deck. He's like the old Ben. Just when you think you have him, you don't. But unlike the old Ben, Watson can run away while throwing a dagger.
"He's kind of like a magician back there. Escaping to throw and extend plays," said Bengals left end Sam Hubbard. "Obviously, we have to contain him. But once we get to him, you've got to wrap him up around the waist and really hold on to him because he's so strong at getting out of the pocket."
Hubbard is like all of his fellow starters on Sunday. They didn't start that game three years ago against Houston. In fact, the only guys that played against Watson that night were safety Shawn Williams, who started, and right end Carl Lawson, who played 17 snaps off the bench as a rookie. Lawson starts Sunday as does cornerback William Jackson III. Jackson played that night, but only on special teams.
They'll be looking at a much different quarterback than this past Monday night. The only thing the 38-year-old Roethlisberger got out quick was the ball. Watson is doing the opposite trying to extend the play with that howitzer up his sleeve.
"It's definitely just a different mindset," Hubbard said. "The thing that jumps off tape with Deshaun Watson is how strong he is. He gets hit hard, wrapped up and he just escapes it."
The Bengals defense is trying to remain on its five-game roll. In four of the games it hasn't allowed 21 points. In the other game the Cowboys scored 30 points, but 13 of them came on drives that started from the Bengals 43, 32 and 16.
"After the bye week we came back," said Hubbard, who missed the last three games before the bye with an elbow injury. "We really just kind of focused in on our jobs and had trust that the guys next to us were going to do theirs. When adversity strikes or big plays happen just rally together."
Since quarterback Joe Burrow got hurt early in the third quarter in Washington on Nov. 22, the defense has allowed seven touchdowns in the last 18 quarters.
"We knew that when Joe went down there was going to be a bigger emphasis on the defensive side of the ball," Hubbard said. "We rose to the occasion and just have a lot of competitive good dudes that have no intentions of throwing in the towel ever.
INJURY UPDATE: After Thursday's practice, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said quarterback Brandon Allen (knee) is "on track to play if we need him," but he wouldn't reveal Watson's opposite number. But Allen went full Thursday and could be back.
Slot receiver Tyler Boyd (concussion) didn't practice again Thursday, but it sounds like it's going to be a game-time decision because Taylor said he'd give Boyd as long as possible to recover. He also said cornerback Darius Phillips is going to play after they rested his knee Wednesday and Thursday, but he ruled out rookie linebacker Logan Wilson (ankle) for the second straight game. Linebacker Jordan Evans (hamstring) hasn't worked this week and Taylor called him questionable.
XMAS 2020: The Bengals still have a work day Friday, but Taylor is making sure the players have a nice Christmas morning with their kids. He's pushed back the Zoom meetings as well as practice, which is set for early afternoon.
But he thinks there are going to be some early wake-up calls. The players still have to get tested for COVID before 8 a.m. So with the tests starting at 5 a.m., Taylor thinks there'll be an early crowd so they can get back to the tree.