The Bungles No More: Steelers Week 8 Opponent Preview
Week 8 in the NFL started with a disappointment and more than a few conundrums. Naturally Sunday’s game vs. the Chiefs didn’t end the way Steeler Nation hoped. But this is a more comfortable year to be in the AFC North than 2014.
Last season at this point the Ravens were 5-2, with a 2-1 division record. The Bengals started out like gangbusters, winning their first three games, but after their Week 4 bye came back, lost two games, and tied the Panthers 37-37. They were 1-0 in the division, and 3-2-1 otherwise. Even the Browns were at .500, although they were 1-2 in the division. The first number, though, was a win against the Steelers, in embarrassing fashion (for the Steelers, that is).
The Steelers were 4-3 at this point last season, but were 1-2 in the division. They lost to the Ravens as well as the Browns. And that was with Ben, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and a kicker who during the course of the season made over 90% of his field goal attempts.
The Steelers are also 4-3 this season, despite missing Bell for two games, Bryant for five, and Ben for four and a half. They could possibly have been 5-2 or even 6-1 with an ordinarily proficient kicker. They have only played one division game, although it was a frustrating loss, very possibly due to the lack of said ordinarily proficient kicker. These things make this season feel rather different, at least at this point.
The Ravens are 1-6. Think about that for a minute. It’s really rare for a coach who has won a Super Bowl to have such a poor start to a season. It isn’t like he went somewhere else and tore apart a completely dysfunctional team. It’s one of the above-mentioned conundrums. The Browns, after a couple of surprises, are 2-5. There’s only one fly in this soothing ointment—those pesky Bengals.
The Steelers have the opportunity to make up some ground. The only caveat is, they have to actually win Sunday’s game.
Historically I think it’s fair to say the Steelers have owned the Bengals. The overall record is 55-34, for a .618 win percentage since 1968. From 1970, the first year the two team played each other, until 2002, the last year before Head Coach Marvin Lewis was hired, the record was 38-27. Essentially all of those losses occurred between 1980 and 1990.
After Lewis was hired things got worse—the overall record is 18-7, a .720 win percentage. The Bengals have been cast as the lovable losers, who may do well for a while but will always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This perception is only enhanced by their post-season showing under Marvin Lewis: 2005, lost wildcard. 2009: lost wildcard. 2011 – 2014: lost wildcards. Four of them.
After the first six games of the 2014 season, during which they acquired the 3-2-1 record, they lost only three of the remaining ten games. Two of those were to the Steelers. And yet, the last time the Bengals won less than 10 games was 2011, when they went 9-7. It just doesn’t seem to add up. But this year’s team apparently isn’t your father’s Bengals, or even your brother’s.
So what’s different? There are several possible factors. One is, they have been patiently accumulating good players on both sides of the ball. They have multiple weapons on the offense, including an excellent tight end who, prior to this season, had trouble getting on the field because of injuries. They have two very good backs. Neither are as good as Le’Veon Bell, but both are threats in the passing game as well as the ground game. A.J. Green is a very proficient receiver who can hurt you big time, and they have several other guys who can make you pay if you double up Green. They also have a great deal of continuity on offense.
And they have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, at least in pass protection—Football Outsiders has them ranked at No. 2 this week, behind the Jets.
On defense they aren’t quite what they were a year or two ago, seemingly, but are still a good defense.
In my usual preview I would now look at the numbers. But circumstances have dictated otherwise. I have been using numbers from the beta test of Pro Football Focus’ new system, and I liked it. I was more than happy to purchase a subscription, but discovered as I started to do so that their copyright agreement specifically prohibits uses such as this. I can go to their site and enjoy the heck out of it by myself, but I can’t give you the sort of numbers I have been in the past weeks. So for the moment I’m going to use the more generally available information and sum things up.
The Football Outsiders ranking for the two offenses according to DVOA:
- Bengals offense: No. 1, up from No. 2 the previous week,
- Steelers offense: No. 5, the same as the previous week.
Despite not playing in Week 7 the Bengals moved up. This is presumably because DVOA is recalculated each week as additional games cause the FO guys to re-evaluate the strength of the defenses each team has played.
The Bengals’ offense is headed up by the Red Rifle, otherwise known as Andy Dalton. Is there any question where he got his nickname? His hair gets redder every year. Perhaps if he keeps playing the way he has the general NFL prejudice against red-headed quarterbacks will change. And if you think I’m kidding, here’s what one NFL scout said to Peter King of Sports Illustrated on the eve of the 2011 draft:
Has there ever been a redheaded quarterback in the NFL who’s really done well? It sounds idiotic, but is there any way that could be a factor? We’ve wondered.
There’s even more of a mystery here than what the scout was thinking. I found numerous articles from April 2011 which quoted the Peter King article, and not a single one of the links led to anything but the dreaded 404 Not Found page. SI must have taken it down. The linked article, from Taki’s Magazine, goes into a history of “ginger prejudice.” I have a Welsh son-in-law who is definitely a ginger, and he can tell you story after story. People never cease to amaze me with what I assume is their need to build themselves up by denigrating those who are not like them.
To shift the focus from Dalton’s hair to his performance, he currently holds the highest QBR in the league, as well as the highest NFL QB rating. He doesn’t have as high a completion percentage as, say, Brandon Weeden. (I kid you not—Weeden has a completion percentage of 72.4%, best in the league.) He hasn’t thrown for as many yards as Philip Rivers, doesn’t have as many touchdowns as Tom Brady, etc. (although of course many of the QBs have played one more game than Dalton.) But he’s just plain getting it done.
Mike Prisuta told an interesting story on Wednesday’s edition of Steelers Live. Dalton was at the All-Star game last summer, which was held in Cincinnati. He was introduced, and the crowd booed him. Prisuta’s theory is, that gave him something to chew on. Perhaps he’s just matured in terms of confidence. Perhaps the teams they have played so far just haven’t matched up that well, but whatever the case, he sure looks good at the moment.
In theory the Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger back. Interestingly enough, last season’s Week 8 game was the offensive breakout against the Texans. Maybe history can repeat itself. That would be sweet. But history also tells us that Ben hasn’t been particularly good in his first game back after an injury. There is, however, a possible mitigating circumstance in our next category:
The Bengals have two very good running backs. Giovanni Bernard was the first back drafted in 2013, 11 slots in front of Le’Veon Bell. Jeremy Hill was drafted in 2014, also in the 2nd round. He’s the battering ram—Bernard is more of a finesse back, which I mean in a good way. As mentioned above, both of them are capable receivers. Bernard is the better back—better average (5.5 vs. 3.1), more receptions, and so on. There is one stat, however, where Hill really shines—he has five touchdowns. (This probably partially explains his YPC—if you get the ball on the 2-yard line, it’s hard to get more than 2 yards out of that carry.)
The Steelers have two even better running backs. I don’t think anyone would dispute this. And while the Steelers’ defense has managed to (mostly) hold teams in check in the running game, the Bengals haven’t done quite as well. More on this in the defense section.
On the Bengals side is a cadre of capable receivers, and a monster. A.J. Green isn’t having the sort of year he sometimes does, but this is probably as much as anything a function of how many different people Dalton has to throw to. Green has three touchdowns this year, but the really dangerous receiver on the team is TE Tyler Eifert, who is tied with Larry Fitzgerald, James Jones (Packers,) and Rob Gronkowski for the most TDs in the league—6. And that is in one less game than Jones or Fitzgerald. The Steelers receiver with the most touchdowns is Martavis Bryant, also with three. Antonio Brown has two. Don’t mention this to him, however…
As far as tight ends go, there is no comparison between Eifert and a still-beloved but aging Heath Miller or a capable blocker but seldom-targeted receiver like Matt Spaeth. And to be fair to both Spaeth and particularly Miller, there are two factors which go into their lack of involvement in the passing game—playing most of the season with back-ups who throw as seldom as possible, and a weakened offensive line who needs the blocking assistance. As far as wideouts go, I would take the Steelers receivers in preference to Green and Co., good as they are. I may be a homer, but here are some numbers, and you can draw your own conclusions.
For the Steelers we are comparing Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Marcus Wheaton. For the Browns it is A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Mohamed Sanu.
I broke down their figures into several categories which were less dependent upon total games played, since Bryant has only played in two games and the Bengal receivers have only played six games. (Thus total yards isn’t a good indicator.)
Catch rate: It would be better if I could give you some idea of how many non-completions aren’t on the receiver, like for instance the ball Landry Jones threw at AB’s feet. But I don’t have time to watch all 13 games the two teams have played and try to make that determination, nor do I know who might have done so, now that I don’t have access to the PFF Premium Stats. So we’ll just go with the ratio of targets to catches.
Antonio Brown has the best score, at 77%. Marcus Wheaton has the worst, at 50%. All of the Bengals have a high percentage: Jones, 65%, Sanu, 66%, Green, 70%. They are, naturally, helped by having been thrown to by a rather more accurate quarterback than the Steelers’ backups often were.
Average Yards Per Reception: The surprising leader in this category is Marcus Wheaton, at 21 yards per reception. In fact I was so surprised I checked again. He is 10th in the league. The only other WR with this high a number who has more than a very few receptions is Torrey Smith. No. 5 on the list is none other than Jake Fisher, who also plays for Cincinnati but probably isn’t on your fantasy team, as he is an offensive lineman. Less surprisingly, the second best is Martavis Bryant, at 20.2. The lowest average is held by Marvin Jones, at 13.4.
Average Yards after Catch: The leader is Martavis Bryant, with an average of 10.5 yards. Mohamed Sanu is next, with 9.6, and all the others are 5 or less. (AB has 4.5.)
Receptions per Touchdown : This is my own little metric. No need to thank me. The leader is, big shock, Martavis Bryant, with one touchdown per three catches. This must be some sort of a record. Next best is Marvin Jones, with a TD per eight receptions. Worst is Antonio Brown, with one per 23 receptions. (Of course, it could have been one per 15 receptions if he had caught the pass in the endzone a few weeks ago. Not that I’m bitter.)
Hopefully I wasn’t cherry-picking the stats too much, but I think I proved the point. And as I look at these numbers I start to see why Darrius Heyward-Bey thinks Bryant could be in the conversation for the best wideout to ever play football, if he stays out of trouble and continues the way he’s been going.
As mentioned above, in terms of pass protection the Bengals are at the top of the league. They have given up six sacks so far (in six games.) The Steelers have given up 18 in seven games. This isn’t an entirely fair comparison, of course, because the Steelers’ line has been blocking for backup quarterbacks who are still trying to figure out what they want to do. Furthermore they are playing with a considerably less accomplished center than their injured No. 1 and now with a green left tackle.
The Standard may be the Standard, but there’s also reality. If Cody Wallace and Alejandro Villanueva were, in the opinion of the coaching staff, better than Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum, they would have already been starting. But however we wish to excuse it, the Bengals’ line is clearly superior in this regard, and is contributing in a major way to Dalton’s success.
Interestingly, in run blocking the Bengals are pretty much on a par with the Steelers. But pass protection is also going to be critical for the Steelers this week—in fact, you could say it is particularly critical. You don’t want Ben’s knee being targeted, as Ramon Foster opines will happen. He wasn’t pointing a finger specifically at the Bengals, for the record.
But why wouldn’t they? If you’re the Bengals you know that Ben Roethlisberger may be the only person standing between you and an easy path to winning the division. You have to see him again at least once, and maybe in the playoffs as well. Yes, those same playoffs which have been such a sore subject for the 21st century Bengals. The temptation would be enormous, and Mark Barron demonstrated how to do it without even getting penalized, much less fined.
If this sounds like a plea to the Steelers’ O line to eat their Wheaties and otherwise do whatever it takes this week, that’s exactly what it is. And a huge key to that is going to be a recently fledged offensive tackle, one with all of 113 snaps as an offensive linemen in the NFL in a game that counts, ever.
Last week Mike Tomlin said in his press conference:
I’m not shocked by anything that Al does. He’s a unique, unique man. He’s a talented man. He’s a sharp guy, he’s a very gifted athlete—I think he’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to.
So Al, please put your mind to it.
Football Outsiders ranking:
- Bengals: No. 13, up from No. 16 the previous week.
- Steelers: No. 16, down from 14 the previous week.
Let’s start with the secondary and get it out of the way. The Bengals have a pretty good secondary, led by possibly the best cornerback in the league, Adam Jones. Leon Hall is no slouch, either, and George Iloka is playing very well this year.
The Bengals defense as a whole has five interceptions in six games, with all but one of those coming from a DB. They are currently 21st in the league in yards given up per game, but from watching this years’ Steeler defense we know that doesn’t mean all that much if the opponent isn’t converting the yards into scores.
The Bengals defense has given up eight passing touchdowns, which has them in a four-way tie with Atlanta, Minnesota, and the Jets. Of those four teams, only Atlanta has played seven games. This works out to 1.33 passing TDs per game. The Steelers have now given up 11 passing touchdowns, or 1.57 passing TDs per game.
Curiously, they have essentially the same completion percentage allowed (68.6) as the Steelers (68.8) and are right next to them near the bottom of the league. So while the Bengals secondary has a few more respected players than the Steelers (okay, they are all more respected than the Steelers,) the results haven’t been as different as one might assume.
Football Outsiders has the Steelers’ defensive line at No. 16 in passing defense, and Cincinnati’s at No. 10.
The Bengals currently have 17 sacks, an average of almost three per game. This isn’t a big surprise, as they have some pretty fearsome defenders, including Geno Atkins, one of the top DTs in the league, and Carlos Dunlap, who has seemingly put it all together this year and is tearing it up. Rey Maualuga is also playing very well, speaking of someone who hasn’t lived up to expectations for most of his career. Brandon Thompson has also been very good in the interior.
Vontaze Burfict has been on the PUP list so far this season. He can return to practice this week, and practiced yesterday. The team has until 4 pm on Saturday to decide whether to activate him. Burfict “vowed” to return for this game back in September, but I for one would be happy to let him out of it if the team feels he isn’t ready.
There are already plenty of good LBs on the Bengals defense—we don’t need a good one with fresh legs. He can be a problem if you don’t have Willie Colon on your offensive line to crush him into the ground. (Watch the video if you’ve managed to expunge this from your brain.)
The Steelers defense has 19 sacks in seven games, which I think most of us would have signed up for at the end of the preseason. However, the loss of Stephon Tuitt will definitely be felt if he can’t play again this week. It’s frustrating when the Steelers get nice things and keep breaking them.
As noted above, here is where there might be an opportunity for the Steelers offense. The Bengals are giving up an average of over 109 yards per game, 4.9 yards per rush attempt. They have given up three rushing touchdowns. The two teams they have held below 100 yards are Oakland and Baltimore, both early in the season. They gave up 131 yards to an Antonio Gates-less San Diego (meaning they had to know San Diego was going to run the ball a lot, as their receivers are a pretty motley crew) and, even more curiously, 200 yards to the Seahawks, who were minus Marshawn Lynch.
The Steelers, despite a few bad games, are giving up an average of under 100 yards per game, 3.9 yards per attempt.
The Football Outsiders ranking, Run Blocking:
- Bengals defensive line: No. 19
- Steelers defensive line: No. 17
The Bengals, in stark contrast to the Steelers, have been disgustingly healthy. Other than Burfict, who they knew would be out from the start, they aren’t missing anyone of note on the team. Wednesday’s injury report for the Steelers was pretty long, although it did contain several veterans’ days off. The Bengals report contained two players—a veteran’s day off for Andrew Whitworth and limited participation for Leon Hall. (Burfict of course won’t appear on the report until they reactivate him.) That’s it. Yesterday William Gay practiced fully for the Steelers, but Tuitt still hasn’t practiced, nor Will Allen. Leon Hall was still limited for the Bengals.
Whether or not this will last remains to be seen. After all, the injury rate in the NFL is 100%. It makes me think of 2010, when the Steelers were quite healthy until almost December. At that point a rash of injuries hit them, one after another, culminating in the loss of Maurkice Pouncey in the AFC Championship Game. Conversely, the Packers had a large number of injuries concentrated early in the season. As a result most of the back-ups or new signees had almost a season’s worth of experience by the time the Super Bowl arrived. We all remember how that turned out.
Last week I finished my preview with this:
Once again the question will be, can the Steelers put up one point more than the Chiefs? I’m guessing that will come down to whether the Steelers offense can keep the Chiefs’ defense from scoring.
While the Chiefs’ defense didn’t literally score, they took the ball away three times, in contrast to the Steelers D, which didn’t manage to take it away even once. That’s a backbreaker even without a defensive score.
One of the things Andy Dalton has done very well this year is take care of the ball. He’s getting the ball out quickly if need be, and his line is giving him lots of time if need be as well. He isn’t forcing throws if nothing is there, and it shows. Last year he finished with almost as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns (19.) This season he has 14 touchdowns to 2 interceptions.
Perhaps the best way to stop the Steelers defense from having to deal with all that ball security and confidence and plethora of good receivers is for them not to be on the field. Assuming Ben is back, the Bengals’ defense will have to respect the pass, at least once Ben has proven he isn’t a cardboard cutout and the offensive line has proven they can give him enough time for at least a quick throw. So clearly the sensible game plan would include a massive infusion of No. 26.
Or, as Bruce Dickinson might say, “More Bell Cow!”
Hopefully Antonio Brown will be happy to let Bell lay that track down, whatever the results to his stat line.