“Spread ‘em and shred ‘em” is the cliché most often associated with the ever-growing use of spread formations, and it’s something that the Cincinnati Bengals will have a chance to do in their Saturday afternoon matchup with the Houston Texans. To take it one step further, it’s something that the Bengals will have to do to pull off an upset win over the Texans, because it’s the best way to attack an injury-riddled brigade.

It’s also something that they didn’t do at this time last year. In last year’s Wildcard matchup, the Bengals traveled to Houston and got tamed with a 31-10 loss. Andy Dalton threw three interceptions and the offense, overall, didn’t look good. Not enough creativity, not enough matchup advantages, and simply not enough output.

They featured “12″ (one back, two tight ends) personnel with compressed formations far too often it seemed, trying to run the ball at the heart of the sturdy Houston front-seven and finding little to no success, and they didn’t spread the defense out until they were down by two touchdowns late. This time, play caller Jay Gruden can’t be down two touchdowns and scrambling to find something that works, especially if he wants to impress any potential future employers. There are several keys strategies that he should, in my opinion, aim to implement against Texans defense.

Spread the Texans – The biggest weakness right now for the Texans is their linebackers. They’re playing with reserves after losing stud Brian Cushing early in the season and placing Darryl Sharpton on injured reserve as well only a couple of days ago. This means that unless the Texans go to sub-packages, which they will, the Bengals need to make the linebackers chase their quick receivers, which will lead to a less than ideal matchup. Their current linebackers are Tim Dobbins and Bradie James, who have had issues with taking proper angles in coverage, and often they simply lack the foot speed to run with receivers and backs.

Get Andrew Hawkins Making Plays – Over the last three weeks, slot receiver Andrew Hawkins has exactly six receptions. In Week 14, he had six receptions.

Although he may be battling a knee injury, he’s going to need to make plays this weekend. He has the quick feet to do damage against the Texans’ slow linebackers — who sometimes look like they are running in tar — and give fits to nickel defenders, such as cornerback Brandon Harris, safety Glover Quin, and Kareem Jackson if and when he slides inside. All three defensive backs have had issues with technique as of late, and Hawkins could expose that.

In last year’s Wildcard matchup, Hawkins wasn’t much of a factor, catching only one pass for eight yards. The lone pass he caught was on a pivot route that exposed inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who is no longer with the Texans but similarly lacks foot speed much like the aforementioned inside linebackers, James and Dobbins.

Moreover, Hawkins should be moved around the formation. At times this season, the 26-year old receiver has lined up in the backfield and ran routes from there, which is something Gruden should consider doing again tomorrow to create a mismatch with the Houston linebackers and get his receiver the ball in space. The Patriots did this with tight end Aaron Hernandez at times (with the wide receiver clearing out space underneath) and found success.

Complement Dalton with the Running Game – This is perhaps the toughest job of all for Gruden this weekend. How is he going to get the running game going with J.J. Watt incessantly penetrating into the backfield?

The Colts didn’t have much success in Week 17, and the Bengals gained little on the ground in last year’s Wildcard matchup. So where do they turn? One area that they can take advantage of is by running the ball when they spread out the Texans. The Patriots did this quite well when they pounded the Texans in Week 14, utilizing stack and bunch sets with multiple receivers and/or tight ends. Once they widened the Texans out and had a numbers advantage at the point of attack, they were able to run the ball successfully. Cincinnati doesn’t have the same offensive quality as New England, but they could still run the ball well enough in these situations to force the Texans to respect it. And if the Texans go to their sub-package to defend the passing game, Cincinnati should look to run the ball.

Set up Houston’s Aggressive DB’s to Fail – One thing about the Texans’ secondary that stands out is their aggressiveness while attacking the football. They’re a confident group that trusts what they see. This leads to them firmly sinking their feet in the ground, and eying the football as they squat/sit on short routes and attack downhill. They’ve been very good at this, but they’ve had some hiccups as well, as expected. Last year, the Bengals didn’t attack the secondary vertically enough, instead settling for short to intermediate routes far too often. There has to be double moves involved that are set up from a core or base play that the Texans expect.

Figure Out How to Block J. J. Watt – Honestly, I don’t really know how to figure this one out. Half-slide? Full-slide? Chip? Combination blocks? Good luck, coach Gruden.

Those are the five keys for offensive success against the Texans’ defense. However, the concern going into the game is that the Bengals’ offense hasn’t played all that well lately. As Jay Morrison of the Dayton Daily News notes, their offense has only scored five touchdowns over the last four weeks, and is averaging nearly 100 yards less than their output over the first 12 weeks. According to Gruden, he needs to do a better job of getting his players in position to succeed:

“We’ve just got to do a better job as coaches to get our guys in the best situations to succeed,” Gruden continued. “And when our guys are in those situations, they’ve got to make the plays.”

First year Bengal BenJarvus Green-Ellis elaborated on Gruden’s comment, saying “We just need to make adjustments on the fly.”

If the Bengals plan on advancing into the playoffs, Gruden will have to adjust his gameplan from a year ago and get his offense going by putting his players in position to succeed.