When the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday, they will be facing a defense that has seemingly improved by leaps and bounds thus far in 2021 compared to years past. Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic was brought onto the Terrible Podcast this week to discuss the game from the Bengals perspective, stating that the financial commitments over the past couple of seasons, specifically to the defensive line, has paid dividends in the team’s first two matchups against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings. Normally a defense that is easily exploited on the ground, the Bengals have held Dalvin Cook to 61 yards on 20 carries (3.05 YPC) and David Montgomery and David Montgomery to the exact same numbers in Week 2.
When popping in the tape, you can see the improvement in the run defense thanks to the play of the defensive line. Getting #98 D.J. Reader back from a quad injury that cost him his 2020 campaign has brought a breath of fresh air to the Bengals defensive front, providing the unit with a stout, powerful defender in the middle. The 6’3, 347lb nose tackle can control the LOS, man-handling centers and guards across from him like we see on this play against the Bears where Reader does a great job fighting the reach block by the center on the zone run, crossing his face and stuffing #32 David Montgomery for no gain.
Despite being a massive human being in the middle, Reader is very mobile for his size and can provide a pass rush up the middle that creates fits for the QB as he collapses the pocket. Watch this play were Reader lines up inside shade of the RG and engages the center on the snap, getting his hands on him and then hits the rip through with his right arm when the center drops his head in pass protection, getting around his outside shoulder and meets #14 Andy Dalton in the pocket for the sack. Steelers center Kendrick Green has struggled with size and power on the inside and Reader could give him fits on Sunday if he isn’t able to drop anchor in pass protection.
Due to the impact and penetration that Reader creates upfront, other defensive linemen tend to eat and makes plays thanks to his efforts. #65 Larry Ogunjobi is one of those beneficiaries that has formed a strong duo in the middle for Cincinnati with Reader. The offseason addition from the Cleveland Browns has been a welcomed addition so far in the Queen City, providing a pass rush from the interior as well as playing well against the run. On this play, Ogunjobi in the B-gap on the outside shoulder of #68 James Daniels and engages RT Germain Ifedi on the snap, holding the point of attack and gets across his face to stuff the inside run with Reader for minimal gain.
Over the course of the first 2 games of the 2021 season, five Bengals DL have recorded a sack: B.J. Hill (2) Trey Hendrickson (1.5) Larry Ogunjobi (1) D.J. Reader (1) Sam Hubbard (0.5) The interior pass rush has contributed to that success, as Ogunjobi has been just as disruptive as Reader when chasing after the QB. Watch this rep against the Vikings as Ogunjobi hits center #56 Garrett Bradberry with the long arm upon the snap, walking him back into the lap of #8 Kirk Cousins where he collapses the pocket and finishes the play by wrapping up the passer while engaged with Bradberry, bring both to the turf simultaneously.
While the interior defensive line has been impressive thus far this season, the edge defenders have also made their mark on the Bengals defense. Cincinnati thought highly enough of DE Sam Hubbard to give him a 4-year, $40 million-dollar contract extension this offseason. On the other side, they signed FA DE Trey Hendrickson to a 4-year, $60 million-dollar deal, bringing in the former New Orleans Saint pass rusher and allowed Carl Lawson to walk to the New York Jets.
The corresponding moves seemed like a lot of money to invest in the defenders mentioned, but to this point, both have proven to be worth the investment. The EDGE tandem has been providing consistent pressure on opposing QBs in 2021; something the Bengals haven’t been able to do for years now. Take a look at this example of #91 Hendrickson and #94 Hubbard converging on #1 Justin Fields, both rounding the corner on the edge and meeting at the QB for the combined sack on first down.
Hendrickson particularly looks to be picking up where he left off with the Saints last season, adjusting to more of a full-time role in Cincinnati. Take a look at this sack he gets while going up against #71 Jason Peters, getting his left arm through on the dip/rip, turning the corner right into Fields and knocks the ball out for good measure to force the fumble. The offense recovers the ball, but nonetheless an impactful play by Hendrickson.
In summary, this Cincinnati defensive front appears to be much improved from the units the Steelers have faced in recent seasons, being the matchup opposing teams would circle as a unit could bully on the ground. Their investments via the draft and free agency look to be paying off, solidifying a unit that can be a problem to establish a running game against as well as neutralize in pass protection. Pittsburgh’s offensive line has their work cut out for them this week, as the Bengals have players with the traits and skills to exploit the weaknesses in the expected individual matchups. Personally, I do think that Pittsburgh can be successful at containing this unit, but it all starts with getting the running game going early.
What are your thoughts on the Bengals defensive line? Do you think this unit has noticeably improved compared to previous years? Can Pittsburgh’s offensive line win the battle upfront in the running game and slow down their pass rush? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!