As O.C.C. recently posted (love the win-loss flow chart, Cool!), the Cowboys head into Sunday's match-up with the Cincinnati needing a win to maintain any legitimate playoff hopes. If the season ended today, Dallas would watch the playoffs from home. Due to losses to Chicago and Seattle, their main competitors for the NFC's wild-card spots, the Cowboys find themselves needing to win the NFC East. Sunday's opponent is in a similar, but inverse, situation; at 7-5, the Bengals are currently on the outside looking in and are unlikely to catch 9-3 Baltimore, thus securing a division title. Their best hope, therefore is to overtake either Pittsburgh or Indianapolis (or both) to gain a wild-card berth. In short, this is a must-win for both teams, and a playoff-type game in that losing is likely to signal the end of the 2012 campaign.
The similarities end there. The Bengals are one of the NFL's hottest teams of late, winning four consecutive games by an average score of 28-10. The Cowboys have one two-game winning streak to their credit. The Bengals have been jumping out to early leads in these games; the average score at halftime in these four contests has been 18-7. In addition, the Bengals defense is on the come; Mike Zimmer's unit has allowed only one passing TD during their four-game winning streak, and they've held QBs to a 65.2 passer rating. The Cowboys defense hasn't consistently put pressure on rival signal callers all season and, now ravaged by injuries, has been largely dominated at the line of scrimmage.
This leads to the greatest difference between the two teams. Dallas, as many pundits have observed, appears to be built from the "outside in," meaning that, on both sides of the ball, they have prioritized the skill positions at the expense of the big uglies up front, particularly in the middle. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has spent a lot of premium draft picks bolstering their lines. Check out their O-line, from left to right, with round number and year in parentheses:
LT: Andrew Whitworth (2/ 2006)
LG: Clint Boling (2/ 2011)
OC: Trevor Robinson (UDFA/ 2012)
RG: Kevin Zeitler (1/ 2012)
RT: Andre Smith (1/ 2009)
In addition, the Bengals just released Jeff Faine, who was a Browns first rounder back in 2003.
On the defensive line, Cincinnati has invested second round picks in Carlos Dunlap (2010) and Devon Still (2012). third rounders in Pat Sims (2008), Michael Johnson (2009) and Brandon Thompson (2012) and fourth rounders in Robert Geathers (2004), Domata Peko (2006) and Geno Atkins (2010). As a result, they boast a deep corps of talented players (the vast majority of whom come from southern schools in the SEC and ACC, which seems like a good drafting strategy).
Obviously, there is no absolute correlation between draft position and on-the-field success. Nevertheless, its no accident that the Bengals are winning largely because of their respective lines.
And this is where Sunday's crucial match-ups will take place. Indeed, we at BTB have already covered this ground; in a recent post, Dave, The Master of All Things BTB, noted that one of the "Three Keys" to beating the Bengals will be to slow down their pass rush. As he notes,"This battle between the KD's tete-a-tete with Joe Goodberry, contributor to SB Nation's blog, Cincy Jungle. In reference to the Bengals' top defensive lineman, Goodberry says:pass protection and the Bengals pass rush is likely to be the determinate factor in the game. On the surface, the Cowboys are at a decided disadvantage. Dallas has struggled with protection while the Bengals lead the league in sacks [with 39]." To add a touch of specificity to this, lets turn to
Geno Atkins is everything you've heard and more. He's explosive, quick, very strong and his biggest asset is his leverage. At about 6'1", he's usually the lowest man, but when he plays with precise leverage on every snap, nobody can block him. He'll literally put an offensive lineman on skates and walk him back into the QB; doesn't matter how much bigger the blocker is. When I do my weekly reviews, I can get caught just drooling over Atkins and how his interior pressure drives this entire defense.
Yikes. Nate livings, who missed practice this week due to a gimpy knee, has the assignment of stopping Atkins. If he can't go, then its up to journeyman Derrick Dockery to keep Romo upright. Give me a minute to let my stomach settle...
And its not just on the defensive lines that Dallas must win the battle if they are to win the war. They can't let the Bengals offense take over the game. This is no easy task; according to Pro Football Focus, the Bengals have the fourth-best offensive line in the league, trailing only the 49ers, Patriots and Saints. And at least one internet scribe thinks the Bengals have the league's best line, and offers some compelling evidence to support his claim:
Over the past three games, on 69 snaps...running-back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has accumulated 348 rushing yards. Green-Ellis set a new personal record twice during that span for his Bengals’ career, yet during that time he has only broken three total tackles. In fact, on the day when he had his most yards rushing all season, running for 129 yards against the Oakland Raiders, he didn’t break a single tackle. Furthermore, Green-Ellis had his two longest runs of the season in that game when he ran for 48 yards off right tackle and 39 yards over left guard.
Jimmy K. of Blogging the BEast has a nice piece on success Zeitler and Smith have been having on the right side of the Bengals' offensive front - so much so that Green-Ellis, no speed merchant, has enjoyed come career-long gainers.
Like most football games, this one will be decided in the trenches, where the big men create (or destroy) opportunities for all the pretty, fast guys to do their thing. I think this will be the best, and most physical, combination of offensive and defensive linemen that the Cowboys have faced all season, and I fear that Dallas' deficiencies along both lines will be exposed. The Cowboys' O-line had had particular trouble this season against quick 4-3 fronts (Tampa Bay and Seattle in particular), which is precisely the kind of front the Bengals have.
As noted above, Cincinnati has been jumping out to early leads and then coasting the rest of the way,. As we are all-too familiar, the Cowboys have been falling behind every week. If this trend continues, I think Dallas will be sunk. Why? Because the Bengals aren't the kind of team that are easy to come back against. Not only does going to an all-pass offense play into their hands, but their offensive line is built to play keep-away.
Ever since Trevor Robinson settled Cincy's uncertainty at center, the Bengal's offensive line has been mauling opponents and taking over the second halves of games. With the Dallas defensive line depleted, and Josh Brent's future clouded thanks to his arrest for intoxication manslaughter, they will be all the more susceptible to a big, physical line. Given the kind of holes the moribund Eagles O-line opened up for journeyman Bryce Brown last week, I'd expect "The Law Firm" to continue to enjoy some wide running lanes, and for him to have a particularly productive second half.
To my mind, this is a terrible match-up for the Cowboys. Unless they play out of their minds or get a few bounces, I can see this one getting away from them...and their not being able to mount their typical second-half come back. I'm not happy about this prediction, but I see a nasty Sunday on the horizon.