As we’ve been doing 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. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Starting the 2022 season with the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense.
Alex’s Scheme Report
Bengals’ Run Defense
An underrated defense with a solid front, this unit ranked 17th in points per game allowed last year. But their run defense was above average, allowing just 4.3 YPC, 13th best in the league. They allowed 47 runs of 10+ yards and again, that’s slightly above average, tied for 12th best in football.
Adding Logan Wilson gives them a solid off-ball linebacker they’ve been missing for years. He led the team with 100 tackles last season. Their secondary is as active as any defense being around the ball. Most years, their safety tandem of Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell lead the team in tackles. Last year, they didn’t capture the top spot but combined for 185 total tackles while NCB Mike Hilton posted a career-high 66 tackles in his first year with the team. Four of their top six tacklers came in the secondary.
It’s a base 4-3 defense. While they were ultra vanilla in the preseason, watching last year’s rematch, they regularly ran a 5-2/5-1 front against the Steelers’ heavier sets. And they were successful stopping Pittsburgh’s rushing attack. Take a look:
The Bengals shift their front to the strength, an over front with the three-tech to the strong side and the one-tech to the weak side.
There isn’t a lot of shifting against pre-snap motion and jet runs/looks, especially with their linebackers. They’re not going to take the bait and will play the back but this is a chance for the Steelers to use the jet game effectively and get WRs out in space. Gunner Olszewski might be someone to benefit from that.
Bengals Pass Defense
Talk about the difference a year can make. Their pass rush saw a serious upgrade in 2021 compared to 2020. The Bengals hit on most of their free agent adds, none bigger than DE Trey Hendrickson, who was just outstanding last season for them. He finished the year with 14 sacks, one in each game against Pittsburgh, and seeing a career-high for a single-season. Those 14 sacks were second most in Bengals’ history and the most since the sack became official, only trailing Coy Bacon’s mark set back in the 70s.
Put it this way. Hendrickson had 14 sacks last year. As a defense, the Bengals had 17 sacks in the entire 2020 season. But he isn’t the only name to worry about. Sam Hubbard is a solid strong side end who has played Pittsburgh well, timing snaps and batting down passes at the line.
They aren’t an especially blitz-heavy team, relatively common for a 4-3 front, blitzing just 20.5% of the time, 26th in the league. But their pressure rate was good, 24.5%, 14th best in the league.
Defensively, they allowed only eight completions of 40+ yards, tied 13th best in the NFL. What’s interesting is that they gave up a ton of real estate 20-40 yards, allowing a whopping 65 completions of 20+ yards. That was 30th in the league. My guess is some of that is due to teams playing catch-up late and getting some chunk plays but not double-explosive plays as the Bengals were playing more of a prevent defense. Still, it’s an interesting disparity.
From a coverage standpoint, the Bengals don’t quite play as much two-high as they used to, though they still can and generally speaking, the league has trended that way. And the Steelers will look to run against those looks. Example. RPO last year, two-high look, soft box, Roethlisberger hands the ball off for a decent gain.
Generally speaking, it’s a Cover 1 team but they show different pre-snap looks at you and with two established veteran safeties who have played together a bunch, Bates and Bell, they can hold looks and rotate at the perfect time. Even Ben Roethlisberger struggled identifying coverages. In the preseason, watch them show a two-deep look until the snap, rotating to Cover 1 Lurk/Robber. Young QB Bryce Perkins never sees it and throws it right to the Robber, who should’ve had the INT but dropped the pass.
The Bengals do get creative on third down and send a lot of MUG/aggressive looks but will drop out of it. They create chaos on third down. Not much on first/second down, a lot of straight rushes, but they pull out their bag of tricks on third down. It’s always the gameplan but staying out of third and long here on the road with this struggling o-line is critical.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Pittsburgh Steelers kick off the 2022 season going on the road to square off with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals who are fresh off a Super Bowl appearance last season. Expectations weren’t necessarily high on this Bengals team last year after they finished 4-11-1 and saw their rookie QB Joe Burrow go down with a knee injury. However, they quickly turned things around in 2021, drafting Burrow’s former LSU teammate WR Ja’Marr Chase as well as spent big in free agency to add talent at key positions of need to help the team finish atop the AFC North at 10-7 en route to a playoff run which fell just short of capturing a Lombardi Trophy.
While the addition of Chase cannot go understated for Cincinnati, the injection of talent along the defensive side of the football complemented the dynamic offense with a stingy unit compared to previous seasons. The run defense notably improved, going from 29th in the league in total yards allowed on the ground in 2020 to 5th, surrendering nearly 600 less rushing yards due to the improvements they made upfront.
The Bengals DL may not have one proclaimed superstar, but the unit possesses a bunch of solid players at the respective positions to form a formidable unit along the LOS. DL #98 D.J. Reader missed most of 2020 with a quad injury but returned last season to provide Cincinnati with a formidable nose tackle against the run. The 6’3, 347lb defensive linemen plays mostly as a 0/1 technique, using his size and superior strength to demand double teams in the middle and will make opposing offense spay if singled up with an undersized center or guard. He moves very well for his size and could be a problem for C Mason Cole if asked to block him with no help from a guard beside him.
Despite losing DL Larry Ogunjobi this offseason to the Steelers in free agency, the Bengals have another notable running mate next to Reader in DL #92 B.J. Hill. Hill was traded last season to Cincinnati from the Giants in exchange for OL Billy Price and quickly made a mark on the defensive line, racking up 50 total stops, (29 solo), six TFLs, and 5.5 sacks in 16 games with only two starts.
With Ogunjobi playing on the opposite side of the AFC North rivalry, Hill figures to be the man next to Reader in the middle with #68 Josh Tupou, #97 Jay Tufele, and rookie #95 Zach Carter rounding out the unit. Hill himself is strong, powerful defender that can fight off blocks to clog interior gaps as well as use a bull rush to push the pocket and pressure the passer.
On the edges for the Bengals, DE #91 Trey Hendrickson headlines the unit as the team’s most accomplished pass rusher. He came over from New Orleans on a big money deal after a breakout season in 2020 and proved e was worth the investment last season, tallying 34 tackles, 12 TFLs, 27 QB hits, 14 sacks, and three forced fumbles en route to his first Pro Bowl nod. Hendrickson may not be the twitchiest edge rusher, but he plays with a motor that is always running hot that wins as a power rusher and likes to use a chop/swipe move paired with a rip around the edge as a changeup from straight power.
Opposite of Hendrickson is #94 Sam Hubbard who is a solid second pass rusher and capable run defender for the Bengals. He primarily plays on the left side and does well at keeping outside contain to set the edge and will stack and shed effectively to make tackles against the run. He hasn’t topped 8.5 sacks in his four-year NFL career, be he like Hendrickson is a high effort pass rusher that constantly pursues the QB, winning with his hands and pursuit to get into the pocket. In terms of backup edge rushers, #96 Cam Sample got some run last year as a backup pass rusher with fellow second-year defender #58 Joseph Ossai and rookie #93 Jeff Gunter also providing depth on the edges.
The linebacker play had plagued the Bengals for years due to inconsistencies with the starting unit being unable to diagnose and fight off blocks to make plays against the run. However, last year the unit took a big leap forward thanks to the second-year leap made by #55 Logan Wilson. The Wyoming product plays as the MIKE backer and does it all for the defense, being a sound run defender with great instincts that racked up 100 stops last season as well as a capable coverage linebacker, having batted away four passes last season while picking off another four with two coming against the Steelers in Week 3 last season.
#57 Germaine Pratt starter beside Wilson in the LB core and brings size and strength to the table as a rocked-up ILB. Pratt has good play speed and explosiveness, filling gaps well as a run defender and can work off blocks. Due to his size and athleticism, he will also align outside and can set to rush the passer should Hubbard or Hendrickson ever kick inside for more of a speed rush package.
Behind them, #59 Akeem Davis-Gaither is more of an undersized nickel defender that will come out in passing situations. He possesses good play speed and shows great pursuit of the football from sideline to sideline while providing decent coverage. Markus Bailey is more of a run stuffer, having the downhill physical play style to sub in for Wilson or Pratt should either miss time in Cincinnati’s base defense.
The Bengals have completely remade their CB room over the last couple of years, signing both #22 Chidobe Awuzie, former Steeler #21 Mike Hilton, and #20 Eli Apple last offseason. Awuzie is an athletic, twitchy cover corner that mainly plays on the outside and has the skill set to matchup with opposing teams’ #1 wideouts. Hilton made his bones in Pittsburgh as a physical nickel defender that excelled in run defense as well as on the occasional CB blitz, racking up eight TFLs last season He also forced a fumble and has a knack for undercutting routes like he did against Ben Roethlisberger last season, picking him off and taking it to the house.
Of the three starting CBs in Cincinnati’s nickel defense, Apple is the one for opposing offenses to target. He had both high and low moments in coverage last season for the Bengals, providing a bigger body type to match up against more physical WRs, but also can get beaten with nuanced route running like when Cooper Kupp got the best of him in the Super Bowl. Should Pittsburgh get more matchups with Diontae Johnson on Apple should he play Sunday, that could be a matchup the team would look to exploit to their advantage. #33 Tre Flowers also is another CB that should provide depth in the secondary that has ample starting experience.
Much has been made about the ongoing contract situation of #30 Jessie Bates this offseason who will be playing out his last season in Cincinnati on the franchise tag. The talented free safety is a ballhawk on the backend, having 10 INTs and 35 PBUs to his name in his first four NFL seasons. He can excel as a single high safety or in split zone, having the range to get from the middle of the field to the sideline and contest deep passes. #24 Vonn Bell is the other starter next to Bates, being more of a rugged run defender after starting his career with the Saints. He is strong in run support but also will be tasked with covering TEs from the slot.
First-round rookie #23 Daxton Hill figures to likely replace Bates next season should the Bengals choose to not re-sign him this offseason. He is an athletic, versatile defensive back that played all over the secondary during his time at Michigan playing outside corner, single high safety, split zone safety, and in the nickel/dime defense as a slot corner. Given Bates’ role in the defense, we will likely see Hill play more in the slot if he gets some run in the opener. Behind Hill, #31 Michael Thomas serves as a core special teams ace and a capable backup as a seasoned veteran who used to previously start for the Giants and Dolphins.