Behind Enemy (Side)lines: Cincinnati Bengals

Behind Enemy (Side)lines is an ongoing series with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, Geoff Hobson, editor and writer for Bengals.com, gives insight on the Texan upcoming opponent.
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*The AFC North is the most tightly contested division race right now with each team within half a game of each other. Is it tough to get too excited with Cincinnati now at the top?

"I think they've reconciled themselves to the fact that that's just the way it is in the league this year, certainly in their own division. The mood is pretty upbeat, as you can imagine. The pundits had these guys (as) dead men walking after getting blown out by Cleveland in their own building. Suddenly, they go down and hand New Orleans their fewest points in eight years, in their own building.

"I think they're riding the wave right now. They've been in the playoffs three-straight times and they know what the ebb and flow of this league is and they know it comes down to November and December."

Andy Dalton was under a lot criticism but responded with a big win against New Orleans on the road. What was the difference for Dalton and the Bengals last week?

"I think he got off to a fast start. I think when he doesn't get off the mark, he struggles a little bit. And, they ran the ball – I think that's the key for Andy because it opens up everything that he does. He's very good at play action. His record when the Bengals run it at least 30 times is 26-3-1.

"Jeremy Hill has become a huge weapon for him in the last month. With Giovani Bernard out of the lineup, they've gone with the rookie from LSU. He's been as advertised: a big, physical back, 230 pounds, in the Corey Dillon/Icky Woods line of tradition that the Bengals have here of big backs. The more they run the ball, the more they keep their battered defense off the field and the more they open it up for their playmaker on the outside, A.J. Green."

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What's the status of running back Giovani Bernard? He's missed some games but could he return against Houston?*

"He could return but I think it's dicey. It's an hour-to-hour deal, literally. They are going to see how he responds in practice and make the call from there. He came back and worked on the rehab field last week and I think there's some optimism that he'll be back. It all depends on how he feels and with the way Jeremy is playing, they are not going to rush him."

A.J. Green has had a slow start this year but seemed to break out last week against New Orleans. Is he back to 100 percent following his injury?

"The first half was a little slow going for him in New Orleans. He said it had nothing to do with the toe, but since he had been back from the toe, he had only had six catches for about 67 yards, very unlike A.J.

"Basically, he was challenged. He talked after the game about how offensive coordinator Hue Jackson challenged him and said, 'You got to go back to being A.J. Green. A.J Green is not a mediocre receiver, he's a great receiver.' Green took it to heart and in the last quarter there, on three plays totalling eighty yards, he blew the game open."

How different does the Bengals offense look under Hue Jackson? He seems pretty innovative as Andy Dalton had his first receiving touchdown against Tennessee earlier in the season.

"Hue likes to unbutton his shirt a little bit. He'll go with those heavy formations where they'll line up with three tackles to one side, sometimes. Sometimes, he'll even split out his tackles. He uses Mo (Mohamed) Sanu in a variety of situations. Sanu, as you mentioned, threw a touchdown pass to Andy Dalton. He can also run it. He lines up in the slot. He can run reverses. He's a threat at throwing a reverse. He's a threat at playing the wildcat. Hue will throw everything at you.

"The big difference between Hue and Jay Gruden is (that) Hue is more committed to the run. Also, he's not asking Andy to carry the team as much. I think he's trying to get him to make not shorter, but easier throws. Right now, his yards per attempt are headed to a career high. Hue is using him in a different way from Gruden and he's getting a little better results."

What's been the strength of the Bengals defense this year?

"It hadn't been much up until New Orleans. They had struggled because they had really been hurt at linebacker. They haven't had their Pro Bowl WLL linebacker Vontaze Burfict for most of the season and they haven't had their middle linebacker Rey Maualuga for the last four games until he came back against New Orleans. His return really gave the run defense a shot in the arm.

"In the last six seasons, they've been top ten in defense in the last four years. The signature of their defense has been the four-man rush with not letting people run on them. They were ranked 31st against the rush going into New Orleans and they turned their season around with a goal-line stand. They held the Saints to 2.9 yards per rush against a rushing offense that was ranked sixth.

"So, they got their sea legs back under them a little bit with the return of Maualuga. They can really use Burfict back this week - I don't think that's going to happen. They know this Houston offense well. It has literally run them out of the playoffs two of the last three years with Foster getting nearly 300 yards against them in two Wild Card games. They are going to have to play the run even better than they did in New Orleans."

Is this a bit of a grudge match for the Bengals?

"You know how it is with NFL teams – there's so much turnover. You've got to go back and see how many guys were on the roster back in that playoff game in 2012. There's enough of them that feel it. I think it's more of the division battles and the teams you face every year that stick with you.

"Dalton, obviously, grew up there. He's played well in that building except for the last two times. He's thinking about it. A.J.'s thinking about it because he didn't have his greatest days down there. That was the thing about the New Orleans game was those two guys stepped up and won a game that they absolutely had to win, which they didn't do down there in 2011 and 2012. That's a big thing for these guys and I think it's going to be hanging in their minds."

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