September 15, 2014

Preview: Bengals @ Steelers

Wow, it’s Steeler week again already?!

You can make a solid case for either of two factors as the cause of the Bengals’ 7 point loss to the Steelers in round 1. On one hand, the defense gave up 132 yds and two TDs in the first 11:30 of the game. The offense had never been down so much so quickly. But the D rebounded well and only allowed 10 points after that.

On the other hand, Andy Dalton threw two crushing INTs in the 4th qtr, both in Pittsburgh territory. Pittsburgh did not convert those turnovers into points, but they gained enough advantage with the clock and with field position to hold off the Bengals. Avoiding either INT (but especially the second at Pitt’s 25) probably allows the Bengals to tie the game and force OT.

Now the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh for their 7th road game of the year. The Bengals have played well on the road (4-2). They have outscored opponents by 40 on the road, but only by 4 at home. Their largest margin of victory (22) came on the road in Seattle, and two of their three 10-point wins came on the road in Cleveland and Jacksonville.

So do the Bengals stand a chance in round 2? Or are they destined to lose again to a team that just beat them 3 weeks ago. With the spread giving Pittsburgh 7.5, we know where Vegas stands.

When the Steelers have the ball…

The Steelers were more balanced in their attack in round 1 than I expected. They called 30 carries (for 105 yds) and 33 passes (for 245 yds). I figured they would continue to call passes at a nearly 2:1 pace. In their first two TD drives, the Steelers passed 10 times and ran 5 times, so passing was effective. But the fractured thumb that BR sustained in that game may make it difficult for them to play a pass-heavy game this time.

QB Ben Roethlisberger v. Mike Zimmer. He is coming off his worst passing performance of the year last week against Kansas City, the only game in which he has been held under 200 yds. Studying what KC did to hold Mike Wallace to 17 yds is imperative.

The Bengals held the QB to 245 yds passing, which is a mediocre day for him. He has 6 better games this year, all of which are 280+ yd games. Limiting him to 210 yds will spell success for the Bengals, as the Steelers have not scored more than 17 points this year when he has been kept below that number.

Offensive Line:

For all of the disrespect that the Steelers’ O-line gets every year, they seem to be able to give their QB just enough time to make something happen. But with all of the hits that he takes every week, I can’t help but wonder when the hit that puts him on the bench for a while will come. At some point, it will come.

LT Max Starks v. RDEs Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. Starks gave up a sack to Rucker and a half sack to Johnson in round 1. Another 1.5 sacks from these two would be wonderful.

RT Marcus Gilbert v. LDEs Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. Like Starks, Gilbert gave up 1.5 sacks to Geathers in round 1, but he did not have to face Dunlap, who sat after being injured in the game against Tennessee. Dunlap, if back to form, will be a huge factor in this game. He can add a sack as well as elevate the play of Atkins and Johnson by chasing the QB toward them.

LG Chris Kemoeatu v. DT Geno Atkins. Geno has been playing like a beast lately, collecting a sack in each of the last 3 games and 4 in the last 5. Continued disruption and mayhem from Atkins, and the rest of the D-line, are the Bengals’ primary means of limiting the QB to that 210 yds.

Running Game:

The Steelers’ are gaining a whole 1.1 yds/game rushing than the Bengals are. But they are doing it on 2 fewer runs per game. While they only rank #18, they are just effective enough to keep the passing game open.

RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman v. LB Rey Maualuga. The Bengals must hold this duo under 100 yds this time around, and a major factor in that is Rey playing under control. He did a good job of that against Cleveland and was able to slow down Peyton Hillis in the second half. If Rey stays under control and does not over-pursue on plays, he will force Bruce Arians to the air.

Passing Game:

Wallace and Grommet Brown are turning into an explosive combo this year. One of them is going to have a good day against any team, but letting both have good days is deadly.

In round 1, the Steelers scored on 4 of 11 drives. If the Bengals can do just a little better in slowing down the Steelers’ passing game and can either limit the Steelers to 3 scoring drives or can force 2 of 4 scores to be field goals, they will significantly improve their chances to win this meeting. Keeping the Steelers under 21 is everything.

WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown v. CBs Nate Clements, Adam Jones and Kelly Jennings. Either New England showed teams how to defend Wallace, or he has been getting extra attention lately, because Wallace’s numbers are down significantly since facing NE on Oct 30. He averaged 104.3 yds/game in his first 7 games, but he has averaged only 52.3 yds/game over the last 4 games, including a 54 yd game against the Bengals 3 weeks ago.

Antonio Brown, however, has been the beneficiary of Wallace’s struggles. After averaging a mere 43.7 yds/game through the first 6 games, his numbers have jumped to 89.0 yds/game over the last 5 games, including 86 yds against the Bengals.

TE Heath Miller v. LB Thomas Howard. Miller was limited to 31 yds on 3 catches last time, below his average in yards, catches and targets. Good pressure from the D-line is the best way to contain Miller because it forces him to stay in for protection.

When the Bengals have the ball…

Just like 21 is the magic number against the Steelers, 23 is the magic number for the Bengals’ offense. The Bengals are 7-1 when scoring 23 or more, but they are 0-3 when scoring 22 or less.

QB Andy Dalton v. Dick LeBeau. The thing I like most about Andy Dalton is his ability to learn from his mistakes and avoid repeating them. Dick LeBeau has an extensive play book, but he goes to have to dig deeper to find new schemes to throw at Andy this time. Andy will watch the tape of the previous game 100 times this week, and he will recognize a number of things that he did not 3 weeks ago.

Of course, the key for Andy is avoiding turnovers. The Steelers will be looking for more INTs on throws short right, where they got the two last time. Spreading the ball around and keeping that defense off balance will lead to success. He had about the right number of passes last time (30), but completing passes at his season-average 60% instead of the 50% he got in round 1 will make a big difference.

Offensive Line:

I said this 3 weeks ago: “The continuity that the Bengals have had on the offensive line means that they have seen most of what the Steelers have to offer before.” Despite the much-praised complexity of the Pittsburgh blitzing schemes, the O-line kept Dalton completely clean, allowing no sacks to a team that has recorded 24 this season.

RT Andre Smith v. LDE Ziggy Hood. Smith struggled in the fist half of last week’s game, but he turned it around nicely in the second half. He must be solid start-to-finish this week. If he shows any cracks, LeBeau will do his best to exploit them.

Running Game:

The O-line not only kept Dalton clean, but they opened some holes for the running game. Both Benson and Scott got runs of 10+ yards. Controlling the line of scrimmage is essential to beating the Steelers.

RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB Lawrence Timmons. I was happier with the balance between Benson and Scott in the first meeting, with Cedric getting 15 carries and Bernard getting 7. That balance allowed the pair to collect 95 yds rushing. But these two need to get more than 22 carries this time, which should allow them to combine for over 100 yds. And that’s a very good thing.

Passing Game:

The Bengals’ passing game lost some of its punch when A.J. Green hyperextended his knee on that beautiful TD catch over Troy Polamalu. Having Green for a full game should enable the Bengals to get more than 7 passing first downs this time.

WRs A.J. Green and Andrew Hawkins v. CBs Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor. I know that Hawkins isn’t a starter, but he has proven himself over the past few games — starting with the Steelers when Green exited the game — to be a real matchup problem. Though there is a big height difference between the two, they both have the speed, the hands and the savvy to be a potent combo and could do some damage to the Steelers’ secondary.

TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB LaMarr Woodley. Gresham and Jay Gruden seem to be getting more comfortable with each other, which is a great thing for Gresham’s production. After being held to just 23 yds against the Steelers, Gresham had his 2nd best game of the season last week against Cleveland. Gresham’s size and speed make him another matchup problem, and I like the potential that a three-headed monster like Green, Hawkins and Gresham could bring to the passing game.

Special teams…

P Daniel Sepulveda v. P Kevin Huber. Sepulveda has improved his average, while a few shanks over the past few games have dropped Huber’s average. His 38-yd punt on the first drive of the game set up Pittsburgh’s first score on a short field from the PIT 46. The punter who avoids mistakes will give his team an advantage.

K Shaun Suisham v. K Mike Nugent. Suisham has missed 5 of 23 attempts this year, so long field goals are hardly guaranteed. Nugent has missed only 1 of 23.

KR/PR Antonio Brown v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. The Bengals must hold Brown below his average again. Field position means everything in this game.

To win this game, the O-line must be solid. That not only means giving Dalton time and opening holes for the RBs. It means keeping their heads in the game on every play, avoiding false starts and drive-killing holding penalties.

On the flip side, the D-line must create constant pressure on the QB. In the first game, after the first two drives, they did a good job of that, racking up 5 sacks. They must get hands on the QB often to limit him to 210 yds. Having Dunlap back, even if for a limited number of snaps, helps that happen.

The Bengals must also improve their third down production. They converted only 4 of 11 third downs 3 weeks ago, which led to a meager 14 first downs for the entire game. And the primary way to do that is to…

Punch hard with A.J. Green. After scorching Joe Haden, he can do the same to McFadden and Taylor. Connecting for a big play or two will force Dick LeBeau to make an adjustment, which will open the play book for Jay Gruden.

How is this for a final assessment 3 weeks ago? “The team that gets to 20 points first will have the inside track. I expect the Bengals to follow their typical pattern for this game: score early, let the lead slip away, trail at halftime (so don’t let that worry you), and then close out strong, allowing no more than 10 (likely 7 or even less) in the second half.” Except for the Bengals never having a lead to let slip, I did alright. I’ll hold with the 20-point prediction.

Green and Dunlap make all the difference this time around.

Final Score: Cincinnati 24. Pittsburgh 20.