June 28, 2017

On The Precipice: Three Keys To Victory

Having been a fan and observer of the Cincinnati Bengals for over 30 years, I can say with honesty that I have witnessed most of the team’s seminal moments. Both Super Bowls, almost every playoff game, six head coaches, two home stadiums, and the reigns of both King Paul and King Mike.

It is a rare time and unusual time in Bengaldom. Marvin Lewis has reconfigured the team from scratch a third time in his tenure, and after 10 years and hundreds of roster moves, he may finally have a truly championship caliber assembly of moving parts. 

He has a gritty and determined young quarterback with the intangibles and pedigree to be great. That quarterback doesn’t have the size and arm of a number 1 overall pick, but he has everything Carson Palmer didn’t. Everything that is of most importance.  Andy Dalton is a leader and a winner. When you have those qualities, he rest generally takes care of itself. 

Of course it helps that he has perhaps the best wide receiver to come out in years in A.J. Green.  While Palmer was feeding the ball to the “look at me” sideshow of Chad Ochocinco and temperamental T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Green’s unassuming demeanor and team-first mentality is a breath of fresh air and a study in the new era’s anti-hero, which is the same as the old era’s hero.  

I didn’t think they made players like these cars anymore; at least not in optional orange and black exterior. 

Add to them the best DT in football in the equally-unassuming and undersized Geno Atkins, the redemptive projects known as Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, and there is a lot to like about the make up of the team. The front office has managed to draft well as of late, and free agent signings have been panning out.  The offense has been growing steadily, and the defense has become the model of consistency. 

Dare I say it-they have the look of a consistent winner now, top to bottom. 

Sure they have their issues. Who doesn’t? But this is the best looking group I’ve seen since the days of Boomer Esiason, Anthony Munoz, and Reggie Williams. 

But looking the part and acting the part are two different things. As the saying goes, and in deference to the Nature Boy, if you want to be the man you gotta beat the man.  The “man” in this instance is the evil empire known as the Steelers. The hated black and gold storm troopers have been the class of the NFL for forever. They are often talented, and perpetually tough. If they can out finesse you, they will, but they can always try to intimidate you-and usually do. 

Pittsburgh is not the blitzkrieg of fear they used to be. Their offensive line, an ongoing issue, is even more of a liability thanks to several untimely injuries. They are an astonishing minus-14 in turnover differential, they aren’t getting pressure on defense, and their secondary is without their best corner back.  They are an aging group and finding it harder to hide their frailties with superior schemes and sheer brutality. They are even starting to point fingers and show cracks in their famous solidarity, with Ben Roethlisberger openly questioning offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s olay-calling. Perhaps worst of all, they don’t seem to have the heart they used to have. If there was ever an opportunity to force their current roster into upheaval, it’s now. 

Heart is one thing the Bengals never seemed to have in great supply, but guys like Dalton, Green, Atkins, and Burfict are changing that.  Now all they have to do is prove it Sunday against a wounded but dangerous animal in the den of yellow. 

Can they do it? That’s what’s left to be answered. Yes they can. Here’s how: 

Three Keys: Offense 

It will be important for the Bengals to possess the football. Pittsburgh did a great job in the first matchup in Cincinnati at keeping the Bengal offense on the sidelines. The Steelers possessed the ball for 19 more snaps and nearly a quarter longer in time.  This cannot repeat in Pittsburgh. The Bengals need to keep Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines and make him play from behind.  

This means : 

Run the ball- a big day for BenJarvus Green-Ellis is just what the doctor ordered. The Bengals are rushing the ball much better than they were the first time the two teams played, though the Law Firm played well in the first meeting. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden needs to emphasize power running and the line has to be up for it.  If BJGE can get 100 yards or more, The Bengals should find themselves in good shape. I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see the Bengals close out the game with four consecutive runs like the Steelers did mast time. Cedric Peerman’s availability is unclear, and the Bengals will be using a new full back in John Conner. The Steelers are always one of the best teams at defending the run. This will be a real challenge.

 Limit Turnovers– The Bengals cannot afford any giveaways. Dalton will need to be careful with the ball and pick his spots. The offensive line will need to protect him from the numerous blitzes, stunts and twists they’ll try. The guys up front had difficulty with the Eagles line games last week, so the Bengals will need to do a better job in Pittsburgh. 

Spread ’em out– one way to help the running game and keep drives alive is to make the Steelers defend the perimeter. I like Gruden to call more than a few sweeps, reverses, and screen passes. The Bengals would do well to get the ball into the hands of Andrew Hawkins via reverses and bubble screens. The Bengals have also found success with quick-outs to the receivers, and interior screens to Jermaine Gresham. These plays will help open things up for Green-Ellis, slow the Steelers pass rush, and keep  drives going.  In the past, the Bengals have always found the most success against Dick Lebeau defenses with 3-receiver sets and quick passing games. With a depleted Steeler secondary and an I characteristically weak pass rush, the Bengals could potentially exploit them more than in the last game.  

 Three Keys: Defense 

The Bengals need to continue their recent defensive success. This means simply getting the Steelers into difficult third downs, and then getting the heck off the field. Cincinnati did well in forcing the Steelers into third downs last time, but allowed far too many conversions. Roethlisberger’s ability to avoid the rush, extend plays, and improvise make him a unique challenge for Mike Zimmer’s boys.  Here’s how they do it: 

Stop the run-The Steelers will like to establish the ground game as they did last time, when they got over 100 yards from Jonathan Dwyer and 167 as a team. Along with Dwyer, they will have Rashard Mendenhall back, who was unavailable last time, along with Isaac  Redman and Chris Rainey. The Steelers will have a full compliment of backs to use. The Bengal defense admitted they were sloppy in their run game discipline last time. They need to be on point this week.  The way Pittsburgh salted the game away running right down the Bengals throats should be motivation enough to keep it from happening again. 

Coordinated Pressure-The Bengals lead the NFL in sacks, and getting to Big Ben is the best way to ensure victory Sunday, as proven by Dallas last week. That said, Roethisberger is tough to contain and bring down. The Bengal defensive front must put together a coordinated rush, maintaining rush lanes and collapsing the pocket around number seven. No escape paths should be shown him. If he can escape the pocket, he’ll find one of his receivers open no matter how well the secondary covers. Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, and Wallace Gilberry need to take advantage of the young and makeshift Steelers offensive line. Consistent pressure on Ben will limit his effectiveness, shorten their drives, and potentially cause turnovers. 

Linebacker Coverage-Last time, Pittsburgh took advantage of an incredibly poor showing by Rey Maualuga in pass coverage on crossing routes and passes to TE Heath Miller and the running backs.  Maualuga has been much better since then, having dropped weight and worked hard with Burfict to develop the right communication. Add to that the emergence of rookie free agent Emmanuel Lemur, and the linebackers look better on paper. If they can limit Roethlisberger’s underneath options, it will help the secondary, who knows they have their hands full with the Steeler wide-outs. 

Three Keys: Special Teams

 Nothing new here.

Limit Return Yardage-Pttsburgh has great kick returners in Emmanuel Sanders and Chris Rainey, and the Bengals gave up a TD on a punt return in last year’s game in Pittsburgh. The Bengals are generally good on kick coverage. They’ll need to stay disciplined in this one.

Brown or Nugent?-Mike Nugent is still having calf muscle issues, while Josh Brown has been money on field goals and has shown a booming leg on kick-offs. It’s imperative that the Bengals make the right call on who to activate for place kicker. The game may come down to a field goal, so the guy suited up is huge. Personally, I say stick with the hot (and healthy) foot and activate Brown. 

Careful Return Game: Adam Jones is questionable for the game. If he can’t go, then the Bengals are forced to use more of Brandon Tate in the return game. Tate fumbled in last year’s game in Pittsburgh and his bone-headed decision last week to catch a punt on the goal line don’t instill me with a lot of confidence. I’d prefer Jones returning the punts, but if Brandon Tate is the guy, he needs to be on top of his game and keep the football secure. 

So that’s it. All that’s left is to go out and stake their claim to the upper-echelon in the NFL. It’s time for Dalton and Green to prove-again-that they are worthy of being on the same stat sheets with guys like Dan Marino and Mark Clayton, and Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne. It’s time for them to kill the “They can’t beat Pittsburgh” talk, and stop a 30-year drought of back-to-back playoff appearances in the process. It’s time to make this Bengals team, this era, one to be remembered more so than others. The time is now.  Make a statement in this statement game. 

Who Dey.