Two 0-1 teams, in desperate need of a pick-me-up after embarrassing Week 1 home losses, met in Cincinnati on Thursday night. They were supposed to play a game of professional football, but instead, participated in something that loosely resembled a professional football game, but wasn't quite a professional football game.
The Texans and Bengals weren't so bad that they set football back a century -- that honor still belongs to last year's Rams and 49ers -- but they came awfully close. In the end, it was Houston who emerged with an ugly, yet important win, topping the Bengals 13-9.
In Week 1, the Bengals got blanked 20-0 by the Ravens when Andy Dalton averaged 5.5 yards per pass, tossed four picks, and accumulated a 28.4 passer rating. The Texans didn't fare much better in their season opener, losing at home to the Jaguars, giving up 10 sacks and 29 points, and benching Tom Savage midway through the game for rookie Deshaun Watson. It was a disaster. So both teams were certainly in need of a rebound to avoid dropping to 0-2.
Though the Texans left with the win, neither of the two teams should feel happy about their season-long outlook. The quality of football was ugly. It was boring. It was filled with halfback dives up the middle on third-and-shorts, missed open receivers, and offensive lines looking like dog doors. It was a punt fest.
The Texans averaged 4.3 yards per play. The Bengals averaged 4.8 yards per play. The two combined for 774 punting yards. One could argue that the game was an old-school, gritty, defensive battle. I would argue it was a game that featured two terrible offenses. Maybe the defenses are good, but this game shouldn't be used as evidence to support that claim.
The game opened with a punt/kick fest, with both teams only managing field goals until the final two minutes of the half. That's when all havoc broke out. And by all, I really do mean all. This was the only moment of the game that mattered.
Here's what decided the game: Watson, in his first ever start (on his birthday, too) somehow managed to break free for a 49-yard touchdown.
The Bengals managed to salvage the half with a field goal and entered the break trailing 10-6. They began the third quarter with a 17-play drive that seemingly ended in the end zone until a flag ruined the touchdown. They settled for another field goal, trimming the lead to 10-9.
Not much happened for a while -- I'm not just being lazy, I promise -- until the fourth quarter, when the Texans actually mounted a somewhat impressive drive that spanned 13 plays, traveled 66 yards, and killed nearly six-and-a-half minutes. Most importantly, the Texans added a field goal that pushed their lead to 13-9 at the two-minutes warning, which meant the Bengals needed to score their first touchdown of the 2017 season to win the game. They did not score a touchdown, stalling at the 44-yard line. Yes, that means the Bengals still haven't scored a touchdown this season.
The game ended after a few formalities. And by formalities, I mean J.J. Watt saying "GAME OVER" with his body.
Here are eight takeaways in case you missed the game (lucky you):
1. Deshaun Watson struggles with his arm
Alleged quarterback whisperer -- and the head coach of the Texans -- Bill O'Brien has quietly used more starting quarterbacks than the Browns since 2014. On Thursday, it was Watson's turn after O'Brien benched Tom Savage midway through the season opener.
Watson, a first-round pick, struggled in his first-ever start, despite emerging with the win. He ran for a crazy touchdown, which proved to be the difference in the game, but he didn't do the important parts of quarterbacking very well like, you know, throwing the ball. In all, he went 15 of 24 for 125 yards (5.2 YPA), no touchdowns, no picks, and a 75.9 passer rating. His stat line should've looked worse considering the Bengals dropped one pick-six in the first quarter and nearly had another in the second quarter.
This just about sums up his night:
But he did outplay Dalton, which is really saying something. He outplayed him by using his legs for that touchdown run.
Deshaun Watson has the second-longest run in the NFL so far this season, behind Kareem Hunt's 58-yarder last Thursday.— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) September 15, 2017
Deshaun Watson's 49-yard rush TD is the longest rushing TD by a QB since @Titans Marcus Mariota's 87-yarder in Week 13, 2015 vs JAX— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) September 15, 2017
Deshaun Watson's 49-yard TD was the longest rush by a Texans player since 2014 (Arian Foster 51-yard run against the Jaguars).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 15, 2017
It's not all Watson's fault, of course. He's playing behind a shaky offensive line that's missing Duane Brown. Almost all of their tight ends didn't play. He has no real offensive weapons besides DeAndre Hopkins.
With that being said, Watson looks like the kind of rookie who desperately needs a strong supporting cast to succeed. He's unlikely to get one this year. He did not look good, appearing jittery as soon as his first read wasn't open. He nearly turned the ball over on multiple occasions.
Luckily, his defense made Dalton look just as bad.
2. Bad Andy Dalton
Dalton was awful. He completed 20 of 35 passes for 224 yards (6.4 YPA), no touchdowns, no picks, and a 76.4 passer rating.
Like Watson, Dalton's getting no favors with his offensive line, but he's regressed right along with his supporting cast. It's almost like Dalton's best seasons were more about his talented teammates and less about his actual ability to play quarterback. As the team's offense around the quarterback has declined, so has the quarterback. He doesn't appear to be good enough to elevate their level of play without help.
Dalton had a few chances to hit a couple key plays, but consistently missed. On one sequence in the first half, he threw the ball so high and wild toward the sideline that this happened:
Someone doing stats in the press box was legitimately confused as to who Andy Dalton was actually trying to throw to— Katherine Terrell (@Kat_Terrell) September 15, 2017
The answer is No One, as in Arya Stark, as in a person who doesn't exist.
We can give Dalton a pass for that -- all jokes aside, it was pretty clearly a throwaway -- but he doesn't get a pass for the next play, when he missed a wide-open A.J. Green deep down the field.
It's worth noting that Dalton did have a touchdown called back when Tyler Eifert stepped out of bounds, came back into play, and was the first to touch the ball. If Eifert doesn't botch that play, the game proceeds a bit differently and Dalton's numbers look a bit better.
But Eifert did botch the play. And Dalton didn't respond.
3. Dalton's one shining moment
The first exciting play of the game that didn't involve a punt was John Ross' first ever NFL touch. Unfortunately for the Bengals' rookie receiver, who missed Week 1 with a knee sprain, it didn't end well.
Midway through the first quarter, with the scoreline knotted at 0-0, the Bengals called a reverse for the speedster. The play began with promise. Space was created and Ross shot through like a cannon ball, picking up a big chunk of yards.
But as he approached the ever elusive first-down marker, the ball was popped free by Kareem Jackson. It landed in Jadeveon Clowney's arms. Clowney, one of the most athletic players in the entire sport, took off down the sideline, seemingly destined for the end zone.
And then Andy Dalton tackled him. Seriously:
Dalton wasn't even supposed to be trying to stop him. According to ESPN's Katherine Terrell, the Bengals instructed Dalton to never tackle again after he broke his thumb tackling an interceptor in 2015.
He did anyways. Foolish or not, Dalton saved four points in a low-scoring game, as the Texans were forced to settle for three points. Yes, Clowney might've been tackled anyways. But let's give Dalton credit for bringing down the big guy. He's good for something.
4. A.J. Green: Still awesome
The Bengals offense, which didn't score a single point in Week 1, was stalling early on. So, they decided to run the one play they knew would work. I call it the "throw it up to A.J. Green and let him catch it" play.
In between three defenders, Green hauled in this 50-yard bomb to set up a Bengals field goal early in the second quarter -- their first points of the season, which means it took more than 75 minutes of game time for the Bengals to score.
That's where the good ended for Green, though that's not really his fault. He caught five of his eight targets for 67 yards. Don't blame him for his low production, which was a result of his quarterback.
5. Ross' disappearing act
The Bengals' first-round pick, speedy receiver John Ross, missed Week 1 with a sprained knee, but he made his debut on Thursday night opposite Green. It didn't go well. After his early fumble, he was hardly on the field. He didn't get targeted once as a receiver.
That's about as bad of a debut as you can have. His final stat line? One rush for 12 yards and a fumble. And oh yeah, negative Fantasy points.
6. A tale of two different rookie running backs
Bengals rookie running back Joe Mixon was the higher draft choice (second round), but he got outshined by the third-round pick, Texans running back Dont'a Foreman. That's not necessarily Mixon's fault considering Marvin Lewis was for some reason dead set on giving the ball to his other running backs. Mixon only carried the ball nine times for 36 yards while Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard combined for 27 yards on 11 carries. It might be time for the Bengals to give Mixon the starting job.
Note: The time should've been Week 1.
Meanwhile, Foreman looked like a player who could steal carries away from Lamar Miller. His stat line wasn't overly impressive -- 12 carries for 40 yards -- but the workload indicates that the Texans plan on using him somewhat frequently behind Miller, who carried the ball 18 times for 61 yards.
Like the quarterbacks, it was a bad night all around for running backs.
7. Two Texans cornerbacks go down
The Texans suffered a potentially big blow when cornerback Kevin Johnson suffered a knee injury and didn't return, and cornerback Johnathan Joseph suffered a shoulder injury and also didn't return. Keep in mind, this was already a banged-up team entering this week. They almost didn't have a healthy tight end to put on the field!
As my editor R.J. White remarked, "How are corners getting hurt when there's no downfield passing?"
8. What's next?
Things won't get any easier for the Texans, who will be forced to make a trip to New England to take on the Patriots on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Bengals will also face tough test in Green Bay, where they'll meet the Packers.