Week 1 of the regular season is finally here! Today I wanted to dive into some information and pose some questions for you, the readers, as we start the journey that is the regular season. The Cincinnati Bengals will undoubtedly be a tough divisional matchup to open the season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. First thing I wanted to mention is Cincinnati did not play many of their starters in the preseason, could the Steelers possibly benefit from an early season matchup as they return to the field? The Bengals retained several key players from their Super Bowl run last season, but this could perhaps be an opportunity to seize for Pittsburgh with this in mind.
While the last time the two teams faced off in Week 12 is painful to rehash (a 41-10 blowout), there are many important takeaways that will be included in this article, mainly Pittsburgh falling behind early with a poor showing overall. I will also include some thoughts from this preseason along with 2021 regular season information that could be factors as well.
First, let’s look at quarterback. With the Steelers announcing Mitch Trubisky as their starter, and him serving as the backup to Josh Allen in Buffalo last season with minimal playing time, this first visual will emphasize a couple areas Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow excelled in during the 2021 season. Here is his completion percentage and aggressiveness (the amount of passing attempts a quarterback makes into tight coverage, where there is a defender within one yard or less of the receiver at the time of the completion or incompletion as a percentage) from Next Gen Stats:
Burrow had the highest completion percentage (70.4%) of quarterbacks with at least 135 attempts. This is impressive in itself, but he also threw into tight coverage at the second highest rate (19.2%), making this number even more impressive. Hopefully Pittsburgh’s defense can be around the catch point, and if Burrow makes similar tight window throws in this game, could be a huge factor considering losing the turnover battle 3-1 being one of the many factors in the week 12 blowout, including a pick six from former Steeler Mike Hilton. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick provided the one Pittsburgh turnover on an interception last game, and Pittsburgh will likely need to be atop the turnover battle in hopes of a win.
Will the Bengals passing game hit the ground running right out of the gate to open the 2022 season? How about Trubisky and the Steelers?
Next let’s look at the running game, which was one of the key factors to the outcome in week 12 facing Bengals running back Joe Mixon:
One of the most documented struggles of the Pittsburgh Steelers last season was the run defense, and the 2021 week 12 matchup against Mixon is a perfect example. He comfortably had the best rushing stats that week, with 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 28 attempts. One key factor I’ll be looking for on Sunday is how Pittsburgh’s run defense fares with gap integrity, considering my notes last game including Mixon skillfully finding cutback lanes routinely in his fantastic performance. With a healthy 2022 Steelers defense, including the additions of linebacker Myles Jack and former Bengal Larry Ogunjobi, hopefully this will be a much-improved performance in this regard or we’re in for another long game.
As noted on the graph, Pittsburgh running back Najee Harris only had eight attempts (thus not appearing on the graph) for 23 yards, obviously pale in comparison with the game circumstance eliminating the run game. This of course cannot happen this time around, especially with the new look young offense that will likely need to lean on the run game to hopefully find success this season. The Steelers offensive line has been the weak link of the offense this preseason, can they show a positive trend against Cincinnati’s strong defensive front seven? Do you think Mixon will have another big game, or will the Steelers run defense step up? What do you think Harris’ rushing stats will look like?
Now let’s look at the wide receivers. The Bengals present a huge challenge with arguably the best wide receiver trio in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s coverage strategy on defense is to typically try and eliminate the oppositions best target, something we saw in week 12 with wide receiver Jamar Chase only having three receptions for 39 yards. But it did open things up for wide receiver Tee Higgins:
For the Bengals, we can see Higgins had the fifth best receiving yardage game of the week, with 114 on six receptions and a touchdown, also averaging an impressive 19 yards per catch. Tyler Boyd is also a quality target to keep an eye on, though he was quiet last game. Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson headlined the receiving stats for the Steelers, with nine catches for 95 yards, no touchdowns, and a long of 16 yards. He has been limited this week with a shoulder injury and cramps, but was a full participant on Friday’s injury report and thankfully available for Sunday’s game. Fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool had less opportunity with three catches, providing a strong 27.3 average including a double explosive play for 41 yards!
This brings up a huge game factor, and strength of the Bengals 2021 campaign: explosive plays. I did a deep dive this summer and created a data point I call adjusted explosive plays, where I take the raw total of all explosive plays of 20 yards or more, if the play was double explosive (40 yards or more) added a multiplier of two, and triple explosive (60 or more) multiplied by three, and if the play resulted in a touchdown multiplied by six. Here’s a visual of the offensive and defensive results from the 2021 season:
The Bengals were comfortably the best team in adjusted explosive plays on offense, having the fourth most double explosive, tied for second most triple explosive, and most importantly highest touchdown score on explosive plays. The Steelers defense allowed long plays from Mixon and Higgins in week 12 last year, each were a long of 32 yards with Higgins ending up in the end zone, so obviously a key factor I’ll have my eye on Sunday.
With Trubisky at quarterback for the Steelers, we will hopefully see an improved offensive adjusted explosive play result, as he showcased pushing the ball downfield this preseason. If the Steelers defense can stay healthy unlike 2021 (knocks on wood), that number should improve as well, hopefully starting on Sunday. It will be interesting to see what this facet of the game looks like initially in this matchup. I also can’t wait to see how the new Steelers wide receivers are utilized and fare to start the season, particularly rookie George Pickens who has fared well overall this preseason, along with the opportunities and contributions of Gunner Olszewski, Miles Boykin and Steven Sims.
The tight ends are an intriguing aspect in the week one matchup, starting with the departure of C.J. Uzomah from the Bengals to the Jets, and Cincinnati adding tight end Hayden Hurst from the Falcons. It will be interesting to see how he fits with the team and what his role is considering Uzomah’s stronger production comparatively. For the Steelers, really interested to see how tight end Pat Freiermuth opens the season, hopefully finding a strong connection with Trubisky including a longer depth of target than he saw in 2021. Freiermuth had the lone touchdown in the week 12 game, and though it was a nice play, came very late with the game well at hand.
How do you think the passing offenses will fare? Which pass defense will come out on top?
Looking at the offensive line, and as we wrap a bow on the offensive side of the ball, here’s a visual I provided following the 2021 week 12 game of PFF snap totals and grades for the Steelers offense:
While there are many new faces on the offensive lines for both squads, we can see Steelers tackle Chukwuma Okorafor fared the best last go around along with fellow tackle Dan Moore struggling the most. One big factor for Sunday will be the success (or lack thereof) of the tackles, particularly Moore needing to step up from preseason struggles and last matchup. Also seeing how the new additions of center Mason Cole (strong preseason) and guard James Daniels (trended positively to close the preseason) fare, along with how fellow guard Kevin Dotson fares after missing several games to end last season due to injury (including week 12).
Cincinnati’s offensive line is returning left tackle Jonah Williams, who received a 77.5 PFF grade as a run blocker, but struggled as a pass blocker (49.4) grade in week 12 last season, allowing two pressures from Steelers edge rusher Alex Highsmith. He didn’t play for the defense this preseason due to a rib injury, but is available just in time for the season opener. It will be very interesting to see how he looks coming off injury, considering a hopeful positive jump in performance in his third year. Bengals rookie guard Cordell Volson had a good preseason opener especially as a run blocker, but particularly struggled as a pass blocker in game two allowing three pressures and a sack. Hopefully a strong and healthy Steelers pass rush can make an impact on the strong Bengals passing attack, and really hope the Steelers scheme defensive lineman Cameron Heyward onto Volson to test the rookie. Center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa, and tackle La’el Collins are all new faces, playing for the Patriots, Buccaneers, and Cowboys last year. While each had strong years respectively, hopefully the lack of playing time the Bengals gave their starters will hopefully create some miscues/time needed to gel in this first game, with Pittsburgh hopefully able to capitalize as a defense in the trenches.
Some other key names for the Steelers defense obviously starts with star edge rusher T.J. Watt, hopefully starting the season off with a bang against Cincinnati’s retooled o-line. Defensive lineman Tyson Alualu being healthy could prove huge in the middle, hopefully returning to his 2021 form prior to his injury and providing the reinforcement and quality of play for a hopeful improved run defense. It will be interesting to see the quality of play and usage at linebacker, with Jack and Devin Bush. Hopefully the former can provide more of the solid play we saw from him in the preseason, with the latter hopefully playing better as he did in the second preseason game, in comparison to last season and his other preseason offerings. The cornerbacks will have their hands full, and especially looking forward to seeing how Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace meet the tough challenge the Bengals receivers present. Cornerback Cam Sutton is known as a great leader and communicator, and it will be crucial he provide that in hopes of limiting their explosive attack. Also interested to see how the slot reps are distributed as we begin the 2022 season. Hopefully Fitzpatrick can be a factor as he was in the week 12 matchup last season, providing a splash play.
Cincinnati has quality players at all levels of their defense. Linebacker Logan Wilson led the team with 100 combined tackles and four interceptions last season, and he will likely be a factor in both the run and pass game. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie led the Bengals in passes defensed, and it will be interesting to see if he picks up where he left of last season and which Pittsburgh receiver he primarily matches up with. Their safety tandem is very strong, featuring Jessie Bates and Von Bell along with a defensive line that is sure to provide a challenge for Pittsburgh’s o-line. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson led the team with 14 sacks last season, playing primarily on the right side of their defense. If this holds true, Dan Moore will have a tough matchup as he did last season when he struggled. Sam Hubbard holds down the opposite end position. Considering Okorafor crept on the injury report this week with a back injury, but thankfully the Steelers Friday injury report was very clean with full participation. If he is not able to perform at 100% though, could be the key factor if the game swings to the Bengals favor.
Are you optimistic the Steelers defense can step up against a potent Bengals offense? How do you think the new look Steelers offense will fare?
Hope you enjoy the season opener! Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments.