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.
Continuing things with the Cincinnati Bengals.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
BENGALS RUN DEFENSE
It’s a pretty good run defense, allowing just 4.4 yards per carry this season, just inside the top ten in the league while they’ve allowed only eleven rushing touchdowns this season, tied for 11th-best in the league They’ve given up 29 runs of 10+ yards, tied 14th in the league so slightly above average. Like they always are, the Bengals run a 4-3 front with a ton of different bodies upfront with seven playing 30%+ of the defense’s snaps and nine playing 15%+.
Their leading tackler is actually Germaine Pratt, not star linebacker Logan Wilson or one of their starting safeties that have seemingly led the team for years and years. Pratt has 60 total tackles on the season, though he’s played only 64% of the defense’s snaps. Wilson is still on the field the most at over 86% of the time and is second on the team with 50. Safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are tied for third with 40.
They’re a 4-3 team with bigger ends that can be tougher for tight ends to block in the run game. The line is active and shoots gaps. Here, you can see them shoot/scrape with the DE shooting into the gap and the LB scraping over the top to help blow this run up.
Wilson also shoots gaps and looks to get in the backfield, making him someone who can blow up runs.
Hubbard has done a great job this year out on the edge and is having a career season. He’s tough to block on the edge to get to the perimeter and is routinely getting off blocks. On gap schemes, the Bengals show excellent backside pursuit and chase. If I were Pittsburgh, I’d run a lot of inside zone and duo and keep the ball between the tackles.
The Bengals respond heavily to motion, far more than what I’ve seen from the Steelers and most defenses I’ve studied. Cornerbacks who travel across but also, generally speaking, Logan Wilson is the strongside linebacker while Germaine Pratt is the weakside. And they will shift when the strength does. Like here.
Some other overall defensive stats: They’re 13th in points per game at 20.6. They’ve only allowed 22+ points in a game twice since Week 1. As you probably know, Pittsburgh hasn’t scored more than 23 points this season and hasn’t scored more offensively than 20. They’re above average situationally, 38.4% on third down (11th) and 53.8% in the red zone (12th).
BENGALS PASS DEFENSE
A strong pass defense that’s allowing just 6.6 YPA (tied 5th-best), 58.2% of passes to be completed (3rd-best), and just nine passing touchdowns on the season (tied 2nd-best). They’ve allowed more rushing scores than passing scores so this unit has been strong. That’s despite a team that doesn’t get a lot of sacks, 30th in the league with just 14, but they’re still creating turnovers with 13 takeaways, tied for 11th-best in football.
DE Trey Hendrickson had a fantastic first season with the Bengals last season but has only four sacks through nine games and is on pace for just 7.5 this year. He does at least have a pair of forced fumbles. Despite having Mike Hilton, their DBs only have a combined half-sack. In fact, Hilton doesn’t have a sack in his 1.5 years with the Bengals. They blitz 22.1% of the time, that’s 21st in the game, while their pressure rate is 22.4%, slightly better at 16th. Watch out for Hilton from the field or boundary on 2nd and medium.
Their defense has picked off eight passes this year. Bell leads the team with four while Bates has two. As a unit, they’ve allowed 28 completions of 20+ yards, tied for 13th-best so they keep a lid on things well.
It’s a Cover 2 heavy unit, especially against 2×2 formations. Examples below.
But despite being a four-down team who doesn’t blitz a ton, they show a lot of pressure. A ton of Cover 0 bluffs and actual Cover 0 calls to send – or show – all-out blitzes. These come on third down in obvious passing situations and are a headache for quarterbacks and protections. Examples.
That’ll be one of the biggest things the Steelers’ offense has to overcome, dealing with those third down/pressure looks. Pittsburgh didn’t handle those well last week against the Saints.
Last thing. Should also mention LB Akeem Davis-Gaither replaced Pratt on passing downs as the better athlete and coverage-guy.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Pittsburgh Steelers look to build off a much-needed win at home against the New Orleans Saints last weekend as the team prepares to host the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals in Pittsburgh this coming Sunday. The Bengals currently sit at 5-4 and are second in the AFC North, coming off its bye week. Cincinnati has dealt with a slew of injuries, losing WR Ja’Marr Chase to a hip injury that has sidelined him in recent weeks along with losing DL D.J. Reader at the beginning of the year to a knee injury which landed him on IR as well as CB Chidobe Awuzie who tore his ACL and is out for the remainder of the 2022 season.
Despite the injuries, the Bengals have been able to remain afloat in their pursuit of the AFC North crown and appear to be getting healthy at the right time with Chase hoping to return in Week 12 and Reader’s practice window opening this week, prompting a return against the Steelers this weekend.
The return of Reader to Cincinnati’s defensive front cannot go understated. 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 lineman 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. So far in 2022, Hill has recorded 37 solo stops, two sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, three pass breakups, and a blocked kick.
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 a 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 he was worth the investment last season, tallying 14 sacks. Hendrickson’s numbers haven’t been as impressive this season (22 tackles, four sacks, two forced fumbles), 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 has just 3.5 sacks on the season, but 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. Wilson currently sits at 50 total stops, two PBUs, and an INT so far in 2022 as the leader of the LB core and should only benefit from having Reader back to occupy blockers and let him run free to the football.
#57 Germaine Prat is the 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. He is a capable zone defender that can occupy space but tends to struggle running with backs and tight ends in man-to-man coverage.
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 loss of Awuzie in the secondary is significant as he was Cincinnati’s top cover corner on the outside. However, the Bengals appear to be getting another cover man back from injury this week with #21 Mike Hilton practicing in full after missing the Carolina game. 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. He has struggled at times this season as well, having a 47.2 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. 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. Rookie CB #29 Cam Taylor-Britt has also gotten more run on the outside in recent weeks since the Awuzie injury. Taylor-Britt started the season on IR with a core muscle injury but was activated back in October and has seen more play time in recent weeks.
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. He has two picks so far in 2022 and is a guy to keep an eye on when trying to attack down the field in the passing game.
#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. Bell particularly has had a strong season, picking off four passes while being active near the LOS and in the box as a quality run defender.
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. Hill is currently nursing a shoulder injury and his status for Sunday’s game appears to be up in the air. 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.