Bengals at Texans: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game

Cincinnati is winless in its last 20 road games

The Cincinnati Bengals look to build off the momentum gained Monday when they upset the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

Now they face the Houston Texans (4-10), who are riding a three-game losing streak and struggling in the basement of the AFC South, but Cincinnati (3-10-1) hasn’t won a road game in coach Zac Taylor’s two seasons.

The teams meet 1 p.m. Sunday at Houston’s NRG Stadium, before the Bengals finish the season at home Jan. 3 against Baltimore. Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:

1. Seeking first road win

Last season in Week 16, the Bengals came up short in overtime at Miami to miss out on what would have been the team’s first road win under Taylor. Now a full year later they are still trying to accomplish that feat. Cincinnati tied the Eagles in Philadelphia and lost two road games by five points or less, including a 31-27 defeat at Indianapolis when the Bengals jumped out to a 21-0 lead.

The Bengals are 0-19-1 in their last 20 road games. Their last win came on Sept. 30, 2018, at Atlanta.

Both wide receiver Tee Higgins and defensive end Sam Hubbard spoke this week about how winning on the road has been a focus and noted the importance of knocking out another “first” for Taylor.

“We made an emphasis, the next thing we want to do is get that road game win,” Hubbard said. “We need that as a team and as a program. That’s what our sights are set on, to beat Houston on the road.”

Houston, playing under interim coach Romeo Crennel, is 2-4 at home this season, and Cincinnati is 0-6-1. The Texans are reportedly interviewing former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis for the 2021 head coaching job.

2. Who starts at quarterback?

After a knee injury sidelined him against Pittsburgh, quarterback Brandon Allen returned to practice Wednesday and is expected to be available Sunday. Taylor wouldn’t name a starter, however, as Ryan Finley may have earned some consideration for another start after earning the win against Pittsburgh.

Finley still needs to show he can do more in the passing game when needed, though. Against the Steelers, he executed a run-oriented attack that featured 41 team carries. Finley scored on a 23-yard touchdown run as part of his 47 yards rushing.

“The more experience you get on the field, the better you’re going to be and you can learn from all those experiences,” Taylor said. “You have to. If you don’t, then that’s on you and so again, I just thought he played a very great game the other night and gave us a great chance to win.”

Allen seemed to be getting into a rhythm with the receivers when he suffered the knee injury two weeks ago against Dallas, but the offense struggled with turnovers on the first three drives of that game and there was little Allen could do to overcome the deficit that created.

3. Attacking Houston

Whoever plays quarterback will be facing the challenge of another Watt brother rushing the passer. J.J. Watt leads the team with five sacks.

“I’m tired of seeing that name on the back the jersey every week we play,” Taylor said of facing two Watt brothers in six days, after T.J. Watt brought trouble Monday. “He’s a tremendous football player. The first time I faced him was my first game in the NFL coaching for the (Miami) Dolphins we opened at Houston and I think he deflected five passes, three of them got picked off. That was my first, ‘Welcome to the NFL’ coaching moment. He’s a tremendous player and you have to be aware of him at all times.”

The Texans average 2.3 sacks per game. Their secondary could be missing starting cornerback Phillip Gaines, who is questionable with a knee injury after being limited all week in practice.

This week might be another opportunity to keep the running game going, though. Houston ranks 31st in net defense, allowing 402.6 yards per game, and 31st against the run as well, as opponents average 150.6 rushing yards per game.

4. Missing weapons

The Bengals will be without top receiver Tyler Boyd, which is another blow to the offense that has been missing Joe Burrow for four full games and Joe Mixon since suffering a foot injury in Week 6.

Boyd remains in concussion protocol after banging the back of his head on the turf Monday while trying to make a play for an underthrown deep pass in double coverage. He was declared out Friday, and the wide receiver room already has been shorthanded with John Ross and Auden Tate on injured reserve.

Alex Erickson and Mike Thomas should see more snaps in Boyd’s absence, getting targets behind Higgins and A.J. Green. Tight end Drew Sample is another option in the passing game.

One positive for the offense is Taylor will have the option of starting the same offensive line for the first time in a while. He seemed to find a good combination Monday with Quinton Spain starting at left guard and Xavier Su’a-Filo at right guard, and the line didn’t see any substitutions Monday. Fred Johnson started at left tackle, and Bobby Hart and Trey Hopkins filled their usual roles. The line allowed just two sacks against a strong Pittsburgh pass rush.

5. Stopping the Texans

Houston brings the league’s worst running game, averaging just 86.0 rushing yards per game, and the Texans will be without their No. 2 running back Duke Johnson, who is out because of a neck injury.

Defending the passing game will be the focus, as the Bengals will be facing a more mobile quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Watson is having his best season, ranking as the league’s second-best passer with 4,134 yards and 27 touchdowns with just six interceptions.

“It’s definitely just a different mindset,” Hubbard said when asked about the difference in playing Watson compared to Ben Roethlisberger. “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. He’s kind of like a magician back there — escaping to throw and extend plays. Obviously, we have to contain him. But once we get to him, you gotta wrap him up around the waist and really hold on to him because he’s so strong at getting out of the pocket.”

The Bengals have been doing a better job getting some pressure on the quarterback, especially with Carl Lawson sacking Roethlisberger once and hitting him six times Monday. Jessie Bates, who leads the team with three interceptions, continues to play at a high level despite his Pro Bowl snub.


Bengals at Texans, 1 p.m., Fox, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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