Reeling from a 20-0 blanking by Baltimore in the season opener, the Cincinnati Bengals will try to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2008 and just the third of the Marvin Lewis era when they play host to the Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football.
The Texans will be trying to avoid going 0-2 for the second time in three years, although they rallied from that slow start in 2015 to make the playoffs.
Here are six things to watch for in the game:
After giving up five sacks to Baltimore in the opener, the Bengals offensive line has to contend with a Texans defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL last year and ranked No. 2 in pass defense due to the amount of pressure it puts on the quarterback.
A Bengals offensive line already in flux lost starting right guard Trey Hopkins to a knee injury. T.J. Johnson, who began training camp as the third stringer, will get the start.
Offensive line coach Paul Alexander said the message to the group after Sunday’s disappointing debut was simple:
“It’s easy in practice,” he said. “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. Because nine out of 10 times, they did it right. But nine out of 10’s not good enough.”
All six of the linemen – Johnson played the second half – took turns getting beat against the Ravens, and all of them will have to contend with Houston Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt at some point, not to mention linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
“We have a pretty clear strategy of what we need to do against (Watt), and I don’t really want to share that,” Alexander said. “The biggest thing is don’t go for all the charades, all the antics that kind of makes him appear even greater than he is. Stick to your knitting do what you do.
“(Watt’s) the best defensive player in the league,” Alexander added. “The only defensive player who you might think is as good as him is Clowney. There you go.”
Regardless of how much blame the offensive line deserves for quarterback Andy Dalton’s poor showing against Baltimore, the poor passing numbers belong to him. Dalton tied his career high with four interceptions, and his 28.4 passer rating was the second lowest of his career.
The Bengals are hoping Dalton responds the way he did the week after his infamous 2.0 rating against Cleveland in 2014. Dalton came back the next week and completed 16 of 22 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns for a 143.9 rating in a 27-10 win at New Orleans.
In fact, Dalton has directed the team to wins the week after each of the five lowest passer ratings of his career.
“You have to move on.” Dalton said. “That’s the position of quarterback — you’ve got to worry about the next play regardless what happens. Same thing. We had a down game, I had a down game. I’ve just got to go back and play like I know I can play.”
Despite battling an ankle injury, Houston rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson is expected to make his NFL starting debut after replacing Tom Savage in the second half of the team’s 29-7 home loss to Jacksonville on Sunday.
The No. 12 overall pick in the draft, Watson was 12 of 23 for 102 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Under Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are 3-3 against quarterbacks making their NFL starting debuts. The last one to beat them was, ironically, Savage in Week 16 last year. The others were St. Louis’ Shaun Hill in 2007 and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in 2008. The Bengals beat St. Louis’ Brock Berlin in 2007, Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen in 2010 and Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel in 2014.
The Bengals are 16-11 against rookie quarterbacks under Lewis.
Eleven Texans were on the team’s initial injury list this week, including all three tight ends with concussions. Houston put starter C.J. Fiedorowicz on Injured Reserve on Tuesday and ruled out backups Stephen Anderson and Ryan Griffin on Wednesday, forcing the team to promote rookie Evan Baylis from the practice squad.
Starting linebacker Brian Cushing, the team’s career leader in tackles, also is out, along with starting right guard Jeff Allen. Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown is holding out.
Wide receivers Will Fuller and Bruce Ellington and running back Alfred Blue also are out with injuries.
If there was one silver lining coming out of the abysmal performance in the opener, it’s that none of the Bengals had to answer to questions this week about their problems in primetime.
While the team has won at least one primetime game each of the last five seasons, the overall record remains poor.
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The Bengals have lost 11 of its last 14 games under the lights and are 5-13 (.278) since the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era began in 2011.
Cincinnati is 9-22 (.290) under Lewis and 21-48 (.304) all time.
Shutouts have been a rare occurrence for the Bengals offense, especially at home. But back-to-back blankings are approaching a Haley’s Comet level of infrequency.
It’s something that has happened only once in the franchise’s previous 49 seasons. After losing the 2000 season opener 24-7 to Cleveland, the Bengals dropped a 13-0 decision at Jacksonville and got drubbed at Baltimore 37-0.
Head coach Bruce Coslet quit the next day.
Houston Texans (0-1) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (0-1)
When: 8:25 p.m. Thursday
Where: Paul Brown Stadium
TV: NFL Network, Ch. 5
Radio: 700-AM, 1530-AM, 102.7-FM, 104.7-FM