The more things change, the more they stay the same. For all the bluster about Cam Newton and Tim Tebow, for all the attention being paid to the high flying Packers and Patriots offenses, NFL championships still come down to an age old formula: running the football and stopping the run.
When the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans square off Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, fans shouldn't expect an aerial circus. What they're more likely to see are two young and aggressive defenses getting after it and two offenses that would like to dominate on the ground.
The Houston Texans' success in 2011 has been predicated on those two mainstays. The Texans average 152 yards per contest on a league leading 432 carries. Houston boasts a tremendously affective "one-two" punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Both can punish defenders between the tackle and have the burst to take any play the distance. Houston has become even more run heavy in the past two weeks with the loss of their first and second string quarterbacks, Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. For Houston to continue to win, they know they must keep rookie QB Tyler Yates in favorable down and distance situations.
Cincinnati has had a similar, if not as successful philosophy with Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott. The Bengals haven't piled up the rushing yardage the Texans have, but they are 11th in the NFL in rush attempts. Given his choice, head coach Marvin Lewis would much rather play "smash mouth" running football than have Andy Dalton and AJ Green start an aerial war. Even with new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's West Coast approach, the Bengals top priority is still to run the football.
That will prove difficult this week as they face the Texans' defense. Despite missing star linebacker Mario Williams most of this year, the Texans boast the number two ranked defense in the NFL. They rank fourth in the league against the run. Last week against Michael Turner and the Falcons, they limited their strong running game to just 70 yards.
The Bengals rank sixth against the run, but yield a half yard less per carry than the Texans, 3.6 to 4.2. For the Bengals to emerge with a much-needed win Sunday, they will have to be stout against Foster and Tate and force Yates to make plays. The last two weeks have seen the Bengals surrender over four yards per carry to the Browns and Steelers, a trend they will have to stop to win Sunday.
This formula has worked for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens for ages. But as those teams age, it could be the youthful and emerging Bengals and Texans that carry the mantle into the next decade. Both have young, accurate quarterbacks in Andy Dalton and Matt Schaub (though Schaub is currently injured). Both possess playmakers at wide receiver in AJ Green and Andre Johnson, but it's the running game and run defense that serve as their foundations.
The Bengals just completed a four game stretch against AFC North opponents, but Sunday's game promises to be much like one of those contests. Whichever team can establish their running game against the opposing defense will most likely come out the winner.
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