Bengals looking to carry over momentum into matchup with Texans

The Cincinnati Bengals gave themselves a chance to finish the season strong with a confidence-boosting win Monday over Pittsburgh.

Now they hope to ride that momentum into Sunday’s game at Houston (4-10), which enters on a three-game losing streak and struggling in a season marked by the firing of Bill O’Brien on Oct. 5 after clashes with some of the team’s top players.

A week ago, Cincinnati’s season appeared shot with two of the last three games coming against AFC North teams still in the playoff hunt and battling for the division title: Pittsburgh and Baltimore next week in the finale. Upsetting the Steelers – an early Christmas present to the fans who endured 11 straight losses to the rival -- changes the tone going into Houston.

“The feeling was that was a big win for us but we’re on to the next mission,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “Kind of a shorter week with the extra day, so we’re focusing on Houston. I think we really just want to carry what we did on Monday night for these last two weeks so that we have something to build on going into the offseason.”

Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel is expecting a “fired up” Bengals team. In a conference call with local media Wednesday, he described how aggressive Cincinnati looked on defense Monday and how well the offense executed the gameplan.

Crennel is familiar with the physicality of the AFC North clashes from his time with the Browns, first as defensive coordinator in 2000 and then head coach from 2005-08, so he wasn’t surprised by the way the Bengals played.

“The biggest challenge initially is that the energy and the way they played against the Steelers,” they were extremely fired up for the game Monday night and they played really good,” Crennel said. “They played good defense. Offensively, they moved the ball. They were able to run it. They were able to throw it. The quarterback was able to make plays with his feet as well as with his arm. They’ve got a couple receivers with speed and size. Offensive line held them out a little bit. The defense was aggressive. They had a good game plan.”

The play of the defense was the highlight for Cincinnati, which got three takeaways in the first half. One of those was Vonn Bell’s crushing hit on JuJu Smith-Schuster to force a fumble and apparently causing the Steelers “TikTok star” to rethink his routine of dancing on the opponents’ logo before games.

Carl Lawson had one of his best games, finishing with a sack and six quarterback hits and getting credit for the forced fumble by Ben Roethlisberger. Josh Bynes recovered that fumble and had a game-high eight tackles. Bynes and Bell were newcomers to the team this year, and the Bengals have been seeing the impact they’ve made on the team in recent games as the defense has picked up the second half of the season.

“Those guys on defense, especially the chemistry that they’ve developed over the course of the season, it’s been a more consistent group really posed by who is healthy and who is available,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “The first half of the season it was more injuries were occurring weekly and we were losing guys. I think these guys are getting comfortable with the scheme and comfortable with each other. The leadership those two guys provide is tremendous. That’s been great to see.”

Hubbard said the defense has felt a greater sense of responsibility since Joe Burrow’s injury dramatically changed what the offense was able to do. Brandon Allen was starting to get comfortable in his third start two weeks ago against Dallas, but the team struggled with turnovers on the first three drives and Cincinnati wasn’t able to overcome those setbacks.

Then, he suffered a knee injury and the game plan changed to a more run-oriented attack for Pittsburgh with third-stringer quarterback Ryan Finley getting his first start of the season. All the while, the defense has been making more plays, especially in the red zone, and it all came together Monday.

“We really just kind of focused in on our jobs and had trust that the guys next to us were gonna do theirs,” Hubbard said. “When adversity strikes or big plays happen just rally together. We knew that when Joe (Burrow) went down there was gonna be a bigger emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. We rose to the occasion and just have a lot of competitive good dudes that have no intentions of throwing in the towel ever.”

Now the defense has to shift toward stopping a different type of quarterback Sunday in Deshaun Watson, who is a more mobile quarterback like Lamar Jackson coming up in the finale.

Hubbard said the team’s previous experience against Jackson – who Cincinnati held to 3 rushing yards in a 27-3 loss on Oct. 11 -- helps in the preparation for Watson, as the defense continues to try to set the tone.

“Watching some of the highlight reels of this guy he’s unbelievable,” Hubbard said. “He’s one of the best players in the league, no question about. Every play is alive until you see someone get him on the ground or the ball hits the turf, because he just extends a lot of plays you don’t think can be extended and really the other person that you see do that is Lamar Jackson. It’s all hands on deck for this guy. He’s a tremendous playmaker. We have a ton of respect for him and it will be a great challenge for our defense.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

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

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