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, looking at the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Bengals Run Game
On paper, their run game looks bad. Despite a talented back in Joe Mixon, someone who has a similar run style as 49ers’ back Matt Breida (Mixon is bigger and stronger though), the numbers are poor. Cincinnati is averaging just 2.4 YPC as a team, the worst mark in football, and Mixon isn’t faring any better 2.7 per tote. Their longest carry in three games is a 14 yard run by Mixon while they’re averaging just 42 yards on the ground per game, easily last in the league. Two of their games were close too so it wasn’t just a game circumstance issue. They have only one rushing touchdown on the season and that came from Andy Dalton.
But. I like the physical and intense nature of their big guys up front and their rushing attack started to turn the corner against the Buffalo Bills last week. Mixon carried the ball 15 times for 60 yards. Not great numbers, I know, but an improvement.
Their run style is varied. Inside zone and duo are their two most popular run concepts and it’s almost exclusively done out of 1 back sets. No fullback/H-back here. D-line has to hold the point of attack and shooting gaps is risky. Watch the WILL linebacker get picked off here.
Josh will touch on the individual players more than I will but the strength, literally, is along the interior. From an outsider point of view, seeing Billy Price benched for Trey Hopkins came as a surprise but Hopkins has played well at the pivot and plays with an old-school demeanor.
Aside from Dalton, Mixon and backup Gio Bernard are really the only two ball carriers. Tyler Boyd did receive a carry on 2nd and 11 at the Seahawks’ 34 in Week 1. It went for just three yards.
Couple other miscellaneous notes. Their offense is middle of the pack on 3rd down (40.9%) and struggling in the red zone. Just 37.5% of their drives have resulted in touchdowns, 29th in the league. A bad run game probably isn’t helping that number.
Bengals Pass Game
Easily the better unit of the two they’ve fielded this season. Andy Dalton is having a Dalton-like season which is to say it’s bland but far from terrible. Completing 63% of his passes, thrown five touchdowns to three picks. Pass protection hasn’t been great though. Sacked 11 times in three games and at least twice in all three weeks. Steelers’ pass rush should be able to get after their weak tackles.
Tyler Boyd is the #1 as long as AJ Green remains out. He’s their go-to gut on third down. Has seven such receptions (tied 7th in the NFL among WRs) and all seven have gone for first downs (tied third in the NFL across all positions). But John Ross is their big play threat. Averaging 22.5 yards per catch with three touchdowns and is finally settling in as a former first round pick. Prior to Sunday, he only trailed Keenan Allen and Sammy Watkins in receiving yards,
As a unit, they have 14 completions of 20+ yards, top five in the NFL. While the Steelers have given up 15 such plays, tied 28th worst in football. Advantage Bengals, just as it was for the 49ers a week go.
They’re a unit that dares your defense to take the cheese. Lot of double-moves and route combinations to put players in conflict. Check this play out Week 2 versus San Fran. 3×1, formation in the boundary (which is relatively uncommon), and a post/wheel to the trips side.
Or this double-move by Ross last week against the Bills. Top of the screen.
Steelers’ secondary has to be on their toes and knowing their tells for when they’re actually breaking down or when they’re going to turn upfield and go deep. Playing a two deep shell will help avoid those big plays but of course, could cause the run defense to suffer.
And in general, new head coach Zac Taylor does a nice job of spacing concepts to strain defenses and have answers to beat man and zone or single high vs two high. Check out this “Pin” concept, a post and a deep dig, that moves the sticks on 2nd and 10. Post carries the single high safety, receiver on the dig runs under.
Josh’s Individual Report
It’s Bengals week, Steelers fans! We’ve been waiting all week for Monday night.
In years past, this matchup was going to be hyped up all week leading up to kickoff, but this year it’s much different as both teams ride into Heinz Field Monday night with identical 0-3 records and any hopes of competing in the 2019 season all but dashed.
That said, it’s going to be a battle as both teams are desperate for a win and want to show out in front of a national audience.
Despite making wholesale changes on the coaching staff during the offseason that saw long-time head coach Marvin Lewis sent away and upstart young head coach Zac Taylor brought in, not a whole lot has changed for the Bengals, at least offensively.
They want to run the ball and keep their defense on the field, all while mixing in play-action, misdirection, and a couple of deep shots per game. Lately, the Bengals have relied heavily on Andy Dalton’s arm as the offensive line has struggled to get much of a push up front on the ground.
To his credit, Dalton has played pretty well through 3 weeks, minus a bad interception last week in Buffalo. He’s looked very confident in Taylor’s new scheme and has thrived on play-action throws up the seam.
One credit to Taylor and his new scheme in Cincinnati is the creativity and the ability to get guys open down the field when working into the middle. Credit to Dalton too, because he hasn’t hesitated once to fire the ball down the field over the middle.
Here’s bunch set right against Seattle early in Week 1, where Tyler Boyd and John Ross III line up stacked, yet off-set. Watch the route combination right away. Ross darts outside, allowing Boyd to slip underneath, allowing for free releases from both.
That slight slip gives Boyd just enough room to get up the field for the 15-yard dig route, before then hauling in the pass from Dalton for the first down.
Again in Week 1, Taylor and Dalton attacked the middle of the field, this time drawing up a zone coverage killer for Ross III.
Boyd is lined up in a tight slot and pushed vertically, while Giovani Bernard is lined up in the slot to the left and runs a shallow cross. Those two routes draw attention short and deep, opening up the middle of the field for Ross to slip into for the big gain. If Pittsburgh is to play more zone coverage this week, they have to make sure to communicate well and pass off routes quickly and correctly to avoid mistakes like this that the Bengals will take advantage of.
It’s very obvious on film that the Bengals like to get guys to the boundary to show off their speed and really stretch the defense. This is a breakdown by Seattle, but the intricacies of the play are evident.
The fake jet sweep for Ross is designed to get the defense flowing that way with the speedster, and the handoff out of it to Joe Mixon is designed to freeze the front 7, which creates a ton of problems for the back half of the defense now that it’s a pass.
Mychal Kendricks does a poor job staying with Ross III on this play, ensuring that the Wheel Route forever remains undefeated.
When you can scheme up easy throws like this for Dalton, you have to do it. He’s a decent quarterback: neither good nor bad. He can hold down the fort for a few years, but he was never going to take the Bengals to the promise land. That doesn’t mean he can’t win you some games.
Speaking of scheming up easy throws…
Look at the route concepts here again. Ross III goes deep as the outside receiver in the bunch set, while tight end Tyler Eifert (having a strong season) runs the out route, drawing the boundary corner’s eyes.
That allows Boyd to work the out and up into wide-open space, making for an easy pitch and catch with Dalton.
Taylor might be new to this whole head-coaching thing, but he’s darn good drawing up plays and knowing when to call them. When you have two talented receivers like Boyd and Ross III firing on all cylinders, it makes it easier.
Third-year receiver Auden Tate has also emerged in recent weeks as a viable pass-catching option for Dalton. He’s a big-bodied receiver at 6-foot-6 that reminds me a little bit of Kelvin Benjamin before he tore his ACL and gained weight. He’s shown some explosion and has been tough to get to the ground for smaller defensive backs.
Tight ends Eifert and CJ Uzomah have helped stretch the field early on this season as well, with Eifert getting most of the targets. I still believe Uzomah is the better tight end at this point in their careers, but Dalton trusts Eifert more, so keep an eye on that Monday night.
In the backfield, Mixon has gotten off to a slow start, but his performance in Week 3 against the Buffalo Bills might have been the turning point in his season. He had a ton of success running off tackle, allowing him to use his speed to turn corners on defenders. When the Bengals ask him to run up the gut behind that offensive line, it just doesn’t work. It’s not Mixon; it’s the blocking.
Like I said though, when they get him on the edge with a full head of steam, look out.
You have the fake jet motion again, freezing the Buffalo linebackers, allowing Dalton to pitch the ball out to Mixon on the move, giving him just enough time and space to run past Jerry Hughes 1-on-1 off tackle.
That leads to a nice 12-yard gain and a first down, setting Cincinnati up at the 1-yard line. One play later Mixon caught a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game.
Mixon is overlooked in this league, despite leading the AFC in rushing yards last season. He’s a complete back that is just playing behind a bad line. Put him anywhere else and he’s an absolute star.
The only knock I have on Taylor is his inability to find the correct way to use Bernard yet. The Bengals paid him nearly $11 million late in camp to keep him out of free agency, but they’re just not utilizing him correctly. That said, he always has good games against Pittsburgh for some reason, so look out.
Up front, this is a bad offensive line. Yes, they’re missing some key young pieces in guard Michael Jordan and left tackle Jonah Williams, as well as veteran tackle Cordy Glenn, so it’s important to note that. That said, it’s still a bad offensive line that is getting exposed quite a bit.
Left to right, here’s how I expect them to line up on Sunday:
LT – Andre Smith
LG — Michael Jordan
C — Trey Hopkins
RG — John Miller
RT – Bobby Hart
Hart was terrorized in both games last season by TJ Watt, so I expect more of the same, while Smith surprisingly is still in the league, let alone at left tackle.
This group doesn’t get much of a push at all in the run game, but they’ve done a good job protecting Dalton so far this season. Let’s see if that continues.
On special teams, kicker Randy Bullock has had some major struggles this year. His miss in Seattle in Week 1 likely cost the Bengals a huge road win.
Punter Kevin Huber continues to be as solid as they come. The 11-year veteran is averaging just over 43 yards per punt, but 30 percent of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line.
Returner Alex Erickson has to be one of the most underrated special teams players in football. He’s consistently making plays in the return game, and has a knack for making the Steelers pay on special teams. Quite honestly, with the way the Steelers coverage units have tackled so far this season, Erickson worries me just as much as Boyd, Ross, and Mixon do.