As we have been for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, revisiting the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Bengals’ Run Game
Like Mike Tomlin said in his press conference, the Bengals have found their guy in the run game. It’s Joe Mixon, who has dominated the carries and recently, his production has followed suit. He’s coming off the best game of his career, rushing 23 times for 114 yards and a touchdown against a better-than-you-think Cleveland Browns’ run defense.
In two of his last three games, he’s averaged better than four yards a pop and has two scores over that span. That’s put Gio Bernard in the backseat (and Jeremy Hill is on IR, if you weren’t in the loop). Bernard still sees work on passing downs but has just 11 carries over the last five weeks and hasn’t had more than one catch over the last six. So his involvement in the offense is minimal which to me, even with Mixon, is still too low for Gio.
The run game is finding its footing but still, the seasonal numbers aren’t kine. Only 25 runs of 10+ yards, that’s tied for 25th, and just five of 20+. That’s tied for 22nd. Mixon is responsible for two of the latter with a long of 25 this season. He’s still averaging just 3.2 YPC for the year, though again, part of that is thanks to his tough start.
The offensive line, like their running backs, have found stability. And played better because of it. Fewersacks, we’ll touch on that in the passing portion of the report, and a better run game. The projected five.
It’s still not a great group. Clint Boling is arguably their best and steadiest piece and even he’s probably only above average but it’s a unit getting more reps together and naturally, they’re playing better because of it. The tackle rotation we saw back in Week 7 is done. Jake Fisher, part of that group, is done for the season – maybe for his career – due to a heart condition.
The scheme is generally the same. Some inside zone, power, and maybe a little more lead plays with their fullback, #89 Ryan Hewitt. Often, they’ll run Lead Weak plays away from the strength of the formation, like they did here.
Last stat on the run game. They do have just four rushing touchdowns, one of the lowest numbers in the league and when they get in the red zone, they look to the passing game for paydirt.
Bengals’ Passing Game
Andy Dalton is the same. Ok, not great. But he can make enough plays to win. Completing 62% of his passes, 18 TDs, 8 INTs, sacked 28 times. However, as we noted above, the OL is playing better. He’s been sacked just four times over the past three weeks…as many as he was by the Steelers alone in the first meeting. Might not be as easy this time around.
A.J. Green, and this isn’t a shock to anyone, is still the first, second, and third option in the offense. He’s up to 53 receptions (92 targets) for a stellar 15.3 YPC and six touchdowns. He’s got at least seven targets in each of the last three weeks and that streak is only broken because he got thrown out of the Jaguars’ game.
Where to watch out for Green the most? Third down in the red zone. He leads the entire NFL with four touchdowns in that situation, despite having only 10 total catches on any third down, not just red zone. For reference, Keenan Allen leads the league with 29 total third down catches. So to sum up. Defenses do their best to take Green away on money downs but in the red zone, Green’s physical skillset is just too tough to stop. Keith Butler will need to come up with an answer.
But Tyler Kroft has also gotten involved in the offense too. He’s found the end zone each of the past two weeks and Brandon LaFell is…there. The young guys haven’t stepped up. Tyler Boyd has just nine receptions on the season and John Ross, their first round pick this year, hasn’t caught a single one and has seemed to already lose the faith of the coaching staff.
Their red zone offense is really weird. Overall, it’s pretty much middle of the pack. On the road, it’s the best in the NFL at over 90% (but just 12 trips). At home, it’s the worst at under 28%. Of course, the Bengals are hosting the Steelers so bad news for them. But very opposite what you’d expect.
To the schematics. Watch out for those over routes. Whether that’s in max protection or with the field spread out, they’ll often clear out #1 on the backside and get an over route coming to replace it. Big Cover 3 beater. Corner gets cleared, zone doesn’t match up, hit the crosser at 15-18 yards and get the receiver in space.
And I know it’s a pretty obvious thing to say that could apply to a lot of teams but watch out for their screen game. Going to often see it after a negative play. Run that gets stuffed, penalty that puts them in second and long, whatever. This one goes for a first down.
And they’re always looking to stress the safety by running 4 verticals. Put guys in conflict and if you don’t match (and the Steelers don’t always do a good job of doing so). Gotta match those seam routes.
Josh’s Individual Report
A heated rivalry is on tap for Monday night in the Queen City against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football.
Heading into Monday night’s matchup, the Bengals have won two games in a row to keep their slim AFC playoff hopes alive. In the two-game winning streak, the offense – which has been hit or miss throughout much of the 2017 season – has gotten on track as rookie running back Joe Mixon put together his best performance of the season last week against the Cleveland Browns, while Andy Dalton has put up similar numbers to likely NFL MVP, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, in the last month.
They’re clicking at the right time, which is a concern for a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that has struggled to contain the big plays dating back to the bye week.
Let’s look at Dalton first. He’s looked much more comfortable in the pocket over the last few weeks, making quick, decisive decisions while getting star wide receiver AJ Green going. That’s a big boost to an offense that still struggles to put up points, but have consistently moved the ball in the last two games.
What has made Dalton much more comfortable is his ability to work off of play-action fakes, thanks to an established run game with Mixon and backup running back Giovani Bernard.
Through play-action fakes, Dalton has been able to dissect defensive secondaries without heavy pass-rush presences in his face, which was what was his downfall was early in the season.
Here in a trips right formation with Mixon as the sidecar right in the gun, Dalton fakes the handoff to the rookie back heading left, freezing the Broncos linebackers just enough to allow Brandon LaFell to get behind their drops into the open part of the Denver zone coverage.
Although Dalton has put up impressive numbers in the last five games (1,012 yards, 9 touchdowns, 0 interceptions), the veteran quarterback caught a break last week against the Browns thanks to two dropped interceptions by Cleveland cornerback Brien Boddy-Calhoun.
While Dalton’s passing numbers in terms of yardage won’t blow you away, the Bengals have been able to take care of the football through the air, establish a run game and get after the passer defensively, leading two a record of 3-2 in those five games.
A big boost has come from Mixon on the ground, who rushed for a career-high 114 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries last week against the Browns, consistently gashing one of the best run defenses in the NFL, statistically.
Running out of shotgun seems to be Mixon’s most comfortable area of the Bengals’ run game, considering how great he was out of this formation at Oklahoma. Here in Week 12 against the Browns, Mixon displays his vision to cut back against the grain, his speed when he puts his foot in the turf to burst up the field and then the power at the end of the run, dishing out punishment.
He’s the total package as a back, but it’s fair to criticize him this season for the lack of rushing and receiving stats prior to Week 12’s game.
Late in the game after the Browns pulled to within one score on the road, the Bengals turned to Mixon on the ground, leading to the game-clinching touchdown.
Prior to the score, Mixon continued to display his impressive talents on his final run before the touchdown, showing off his great footwork to squeeze through the hole before lowering the boom on fellow rookie Jabrill Peppers at the end of the run. It was a great run to nearly finish off an impressive day for the rookie.
One unit that hasn’t gotten much credit for the Bengals’ mini resurgence is the offensive line, that was much-maligned in the first half of the season. In the last five games the pass protection has improved dramatically, going from bottom half of the league in pressure percentage allowed, per Pro Football Focus, to one of the top 10 teams in the NFL.
On the ground, the struggles are still there in terms of yards per carry, but Week 12 against one of the top run defenses in the league was a great showing for the Bengals’ offensive line.
Expect the Bengals to line up like this left to right on Monday night: Cedric Ogbuehi, Clint Boling, Russell Bodine, Trey Hopkins and Andre Smith.
It’s not a great line on paper, but this unit is gelling at the right time, allowing the Bengals’ offense to get going.
Out wide, Green continues to be a superstar receiver in this league, one that draws a ton of attention from opposing defenses. Earlier in the year, it didn’t matter how much attention opposing defenses put on him because the other receivers on the roster weren’t producing.
That’s not the case now.
LaFell has emerged as a solid No. 2 receiver for the Bengals, developing a strong rapport with Dalton over the last month or so, while second-year receivers Tyler Boyd and Alex Erickson are emerging as viable options in the slot thanks to great route-running and run-after-catch abilities.
Rookie first-round pick John Ross continues to be plastered to the bench in a very disappointing first year in the league, but this is a receiving corps that has is underrated, at least from my standpoint.
Tight end Tyler Kroft continues to make light work defenses in the red zone, hauling in a touchdown in three of his last six games, providing Dalton with a safety valve over the middle and in the red zone.
On special teams, Cincinnati is hit or miss, much like on offense for much of the season.
Kevin Huber is a solid field-flipping punter for the Bengals to lean on when playing the field position game as the veteran is averaging 47.3 net yards per punt, dropping 24 of his 58 punts inside the 20-yard line, but kicker Randy Bullock is as shaky as they come in the NFL.
Although he’s missed just two field goals, he’s missed a number of extra points, and half of his kicks have you holding your breath that they’ll squeeze through the uprights.
While the punting has been strong for the Bengals for the most part, the punting unit did give up a punt block in Week 11 at Denver, allowing immediate pressure right up the gut for the block.
Erickson and veteran cornerback Adam Jones will serve as the kick and punt returns on Monday night. Both are solid options to return kicks and punts, as Jones had a long punt return touchdown wiped out in Week 12 due to a late penalty flag, while Erickson is averaging 8 yards per return.
Jones will usually get a shot when the punt will be fielded around midfield, giving him a short field to work with, so keep an eye on that. He’s still shifty with the ball in his hands at this stage in his career. He can flip a game on its head with one well-timed return.