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Know Your Foe: Cincinnati Bengals

There may be no more talented team in the league than the Cincinnati Bengals. Some teams have closed the talent gap, but not many in the AFC. Now, if you look at just the 2016 record and results, you'll think I'm crazy making that talent statement. Therein lies the frustrating conundrum for the Bengals and their fans.

Was 2016 an injury-filled anomaly or is the talent aging/waning in Cincinnati?

When the Texans faced the Bengals on Christmas Eve night 2016, the Bengals were a mash unit, missing key starters on both sides of the ball. With no A.J. Green or Tyler Eifert on offense to assist quarterback Andy Dalton, the offense generated only ten points, seven of which came on a 90-yard catch and run by Brandon LaFell.

Green and Eifert, Pro Bowl talents, both return to the offense, along with the addition of the fastest man to come into the league in the past decade (or longer) - receiver John Ross. When his name was announced on draft night, I thought about how scary this offense was going to be in 2017.

At the perimeter skill positions, of course. The offensive line, though? Different story.

Either way, the Bengals have lost two in a row to the Texans, scoring six and ten points, respectively in those last two meetings. On Thursday night football, back in the Queen City, the Bengals are looking for revenge, on a number of different levels. 

Let's get to know the Cincinnati Bengals, 2017 version, for that Thursday night matchup and beyond.

2016 Team Profile
Rush offense - 110.6 ypg (13th in the league)
Passing offense - 246.4 ypg (15th)
Total offense - 356.9 ypg (13th)
Scoring - 20.3 ppg (24th)
3rd Down Percentage conversion - 39.0% (15th)
Giveaways - 17 - 8 INT, 9 Fumbles (T23rd highest)

This is the starting lineup the Bengals used in week 16 against the Texans at NRG Stadium:
WR - Cody Core
LT - Cedric Ogbuehi
LG - Andrew Whitworth
C - Russell Bodine
RG - Kevin Zeitler
RT - Jake Fisher
TE - C.J. Uzomah
FB - Ryan Hewitt
WR - Brandon LaFell
RB - Jeremy Hill
QB - Andy Dalton

This is the projected starting lineup for the Bengals in week two of 2017:
LT - Cedric Ogbuehi
C - Russell Bodine
LT - Jake Fisher
H/TE - Ryan Hewitt
RB - Jeremy Hill
QB - Andy Dalton

**ALL CAPS indicate a new/different projected starter in 2017

Key Offensive non-starters
WR - Branon LaFell
RB - Joe Mixon
RB - Gio Bernard

Most significant Bengals offensive addition in the offseason: Green was shut down over the last couple of weeks of the 2016 season so as to not take any injury risks. So, as it pertains to facing the Texans, Green is the most significant addition back to the offense. Ross and Joe Mixon will make a tremendous impact for this team in due time, but by week two, it'll be the Dalton-to-Green show as per usual.

The one addition that needs to be a hit for the Bengals offense is: Andre Smith at guard. The Bengals are going to ride with Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi at tackle, which allows the Bengals to move Smith inside to guard in his second stint as a Bengal. The loss of Kevin Zeitler is massive and it'll be even more impactful if Smith doesn't succeed at guard.

What's the biggest concern for the TEXANS defense facing the CINCINNATI offense? The speed. Ross and Mixon are blazers at each one's respective position. Eifert can fly as a tight end. This is a fast offense on the perimeter. Throw Green back in the mix and it could be one of the more dangerous skill, perimeter units the Texans might face all season. If Hill and Mixon are a capable one-two punch in the run game which keeps the Texans defense from focusing solely on Green, this is going to be a tough offense to hold to six or ten points again.

What's the biggest concern for the BENGALS offense facing the HOUSTON defense? Can the front five withstand the losses of Zeitler and long-time Pro Bowler Andrew Whitworth? This group's had trouble keeping Texans out of the lap of Andy Dalton throughout his career and now the two best they had are in Cleveland and Los Angeles, respectively. In 2016, Ogbuehi struggled throughout the night against the Texans pass rush and Fisher is far from an experienced commodity on the other side. If that duo struggles, it might be the best thing for the Texans secondary because Eifert and C.J. Uzomah will have to commit time, effort and their bodies to help those tackles against the pass rush. And, as the Bengals add Green back, the Texans get J.J. Watt to return (Kevin Johnson too), so the demand for help on that offensive line to stop the Texans pass rush will pull those tight ends away from the passing game.

2016 Team Profile
Rush defense - 113.2 ypg (21st in the league)
Passing defense - 237.5 ypg (11th)
Total defense - 350.8 ypg (17th)
Scoring Allowed - 19.7 ppg (8th)
3rd Down Percentage conversion allowed - 39.6% (18th)
Takeaways - 20 - 17 INT, 3 Recoveries (T19th highest)

This is the starting defensive lineup the Bengals used in week 16 against the Texans at NRG Stadium:
DE - Carlos Dunlap
DT - Domata Peko
DT - Geno Atkins
DE - Michael Johnson
ILB - Karlos Dansby
ILB - Vincent Rey
Nickel - Josh Shaw
CB - Darqueze Dennard
S - George Iloka
S - Shawn Williams
CB - Adam Jones

This is the projected starting lineup for the Bengals in week one of 2017:
DE - Carlos Dunlap
DT - Geno Atkins
DE - Michael Johnson
S - George Iloka
S - Shawn Williams
CB - Adam Jones

**ALL CAPS indicate a new/different projected starter in 2017

Key Defensive non-starters
DE - Jordan Willis
LB - Vincent Rey
CB - Darqueze Dennard

Most significant BENGALS defensive addition in the offseason: Minter in the middle. He started the past two seasons in Arizona, racking up 175 tackles in two years for the Cardinals. Is he an upgrade over Rey Maualuga or Karlos Dansby? A minor one, but the Bengals don't make external free agent signings a habit so any outside aid will be somewhat valuable. Minter should play on first and, perhaps, second down, but Vincent Rey will come in on third down to aid in coverage, pass rush and blitz packages.

What's the biggest concern for the TEXANS offense facing the CINCINNATI defense? Geno. Atkins. Again. Atkins was a menace last season for the Texans offensive line, racking up a sack, a tackle for a loss and a quarterback hurry in last year's game in December. Even on plays that he doesn't register a stat, he impacts the blocking scheme and frees up linebackers to go make plays. With Atkins and the return of Andrew Billings, Pat Sims replacing Domata Peko, the defensive interior for the Bengals has a chance to be outstanding. Furthermore, the length and size on this Bengals defense has been evident for years. That said, they don't have a much edge speed and any guys that can really, truly turn the corner and harass the passer consistently.

What's the biggest concern for the BENGALS defense facing the HOUSTON offense? The Bengals linebacking corps could be susceptible to the speed and athleticism the Texans have in the backfield, led by Lamar Miller (who didn't play in this game last year). Furthermore, the aforementioned void of a blazer on the edge to impact the pass rush is significant for the Bengals defense. Cincinnati drafted Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson to provide the defense an alternative to the two power forwards scheduled to start at defensive end (Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson). Those two longtime Bengals are problematic on the edge because of their length, but Willis and Lawson will be in due time because of their first step and relentless pass rush nature. In week two, though? Will either rookie be ready to get 30-35 snaps in passing situations? The Bengals need them to be, in all honesty.

Check out the best gameday photos as the Texans took on the Bengals at NRG Stadium.

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