Week 2 Steelers Opponent Preview: The Cincinnati Bengals
It’s a bit difficult to do these previews at this point in the season because there isn’t a lot of information upon which to base them. This is even despite the long (and increasingly bitter) history between the Steelers and the Bengals. But let’s jump in and see what there is to find out so far.
The most stupidly interesting facet of the coming game, if I may be allowed to express it this way, is that Vontaze Burfict will not be part of it. I think many of us were more than a little shocked to learn his first game back from suspension wasn’t Steelers/Bengals on Monday Night (or at least Sunday Night) Football, but for once the NFL apparently put other factors ahead of sheer audience-drawing potential.
Which isn’t to say that both teams won’t feel they have some scores to settle. You just know the Bengals, or at least some of them, feel the Steelers kept them out of the Super Bowl (or at least kept them from participating in more than one playoff game.) It’s getting pretty embarrassing for them and Marvin Lewis. And you just know the Steelers, or at least some of them, feel the Bengals kept them out of the Super Bowl.
And both teams (or at least said members of the teams) would be wrong. The Bengals probably have multiple beefs about the playoff game, starting with the fact that Andy Dalton wasn’t the starting quarterback. But in this particular instance Andy Dalton actually injured himself when he hit his hand against Stephon Tuitt’s leg. This is, of course, a supremely ironic foreshadowing of the playoff game, because the Bengals managed to beat themselves. All things considered, they should have won the game. I suppose I should feel sorry for the rest of the team, given it was the undisciplined actions of a few which brought them down, but I’m having trouble doing so.
And really, the Steelers, to a certain extent, have a legitimate beef, despite the fact they may well not have won the Cincinnati game unaided by Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones. I say this because I am a Steelers fan, of course, but I also believe that an impartial observer of the salient facts would agree. It began and ended with Vontaze Burfict.
First he took out Le’Veon Bell, thus reducing the Steelers’ effectiveness during the remainder of the season. And despite the initial impression, examination of the film of that injury shows that it wasn’t just a clean hit. Burfict has always got something a little extra for those he doesn’t like. And there appear to be a lot of people he doesn’t like. Case in point was the extra hit to Ben’s shoulder after he already had him down. This sort of thing is indicative of the sort of sociopathic behavior which got him into trouble during college. There was a reason the Bengals found him in the bargain bin.
And naturally the final blow, literally, was the one he gave Antonio Brown’s head as the ball sailed overhead, far out of reach. It wasn’t as egregious as the hit he placed on Ravens TE Maxx Williams when the play was actually occurring at the opposite end of the field, but it was pretty bad.
“Well,” you might say, “but if it wasn’t for that hit the Steelers wouldn’t have won the game anyhow.” Which is probably true, but it was certainly a Pyrric victory, with Brown absent, Ben struggling with a shoulder injury, and DeAngelo Williams out. I’m sure Burfict’s only regret was that he had not been the one to cause Williams’ injury.
So I’m guessing that, despite the absence of Burfict, the game is not going to be pretty. This is not to say it will be wildly undisciplined. I hope and trust the referees are going to make it clear that they will shut down any nonsense immediately. But I expect that, nonetheless, a few players may find their feelings getting the better of them. I just hope it is mainly on the Bengals’ side.
And with this very long preamble, let’s see what we’re likely to see, in a football sense, from the Bengals. The first consideration is that Andy Dalton is back. The second is, the Bengals’ wide receiver corps is mostly pretty new to the system, and at least last weekend it showed. I found an interesting nugget on ESPN.com indicating that Andy Dalton was only OK when throwing to anyone else, but the tandem of Dalton and A.J. Green were virtually unstoppable. I went through the play-by-play and here’s the stats:
- Pass attempts to A.J. Green: 13
- Pass attempts to everyone else: 17 (This includes tight ends and running backs)
- Incomplete to A.J. Green: 1 (it was initially ruled complete.)
- Incomplete to everyone else: 6 (One drew a PI call.)
- Balls intercepted when Green targeted: 0
- Balls intercepted when anyone else targeted: 1
- Touchdown passes to A.J. Green: 1
- Touchdown passes to anyone else: 0
Perhaps the ESPN comment was a bit of hyperbole, as Dalton had 54-yard and 49-yard completions to other receivers, but these are interesting numbers. The pairing of Dalton and Green reminds one a bit of a pairing we know well, namely Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Here are the same stats for the Week 1 Steelers game:
- Pass attempts to Antonio Brown: 11
- Pass attempts to everyone else: 26
- Incomplete to AB: 2
- Incomplete to everyone else: 6
- Balls intercepted when AB targeted: 0
- Balls intercepted when anyone else targeted: 1
- Touchdown passes to AB: 2
- Touchdown passes to anyone else: 1
As you can see there are similarities, but the Pittsburgh offense isn’t quite so dependent upon one receiver. And this is despite the fact that Martavis Bryant, Le’Veon Bell, and Markus Wheaton were missing.
As for the outcome, it is certainly possible the Jets defense is better than the Washington defense. Almost certainly, in fact. Dalton was sacked seven times. (Just as a matter of interest, two of those sacks were by Steve McLendon.) Shaun O’Hara of NFL.com noted that the Bengals’ offensive line didn’t give up their seventh sack last season until Week 8.
For what it’s worth, he thinks the Bengals’ offensive line will have a bounce-back game against the Steelers’ defense, who he rightly notes didn’t get a single sack last week. The question is why, and a possibility O’Hara doesn’t appear to entertain is that this was perhaps because of the game plan, which might be somewhat different against a different opponent. (What a radical concept!) O’Hara may be correct, but I wouldn’t think it was a slam-dunk. (In fact, I’m hoping for a few slam-dunks of Dalton, in a kind and caring [and unflaggable] way, naturally.)
By contrast, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once. I’m not sure he was even hit other than that. Once again, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, and we’ll find out just how much tougher the Jets defense is in a few weeks.
Then there is the running game. The Steelers attempted 29 runs, most of them by DeWill, and gained a total of 149 yards. (I’m eliminating the Roethlisberger “run” which was actually a dropped snap.) The Bengals attempted 19 runs and gained a total of 57 yards. (In this case I’m including the three Andy Dalton scrambles, as they may have been planned and actually gained yardage.)
In the meantime, let’s have a quick look at the defensive stats for both teams. The Bengals’ defense was on the field more than the Steelers’ (34:53 for the Bengals vs. 26:42 for the Steelers,) so they had over eight minutes longer to accumulate stats. But here’s a few of the interesting ones:
- Sacks: Bengals—1, Steelers—0
- Interceptions: Bengals—1, Steelers—1
- Forced Fumbles: Bengals—0, Steelers—1
- Fumble Recoveries: Bengals—0, Steelers—0
- Passes Defended: Bengals—2, Steelers—4
I find the last stat particularly interesting. The Bengals weren’t playing the Greatest Show on Turf, featuring Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce, and Torry Holt. They were playing the Jets, featuring Ryan Fitzpatrick and heaven only knows who at receiver.
That’s all I’ve got for the moment, except for predictions. John Breech at cbssports.com thinks the Bengals are going to win a close one. I’m not sure why—his stated rationale was that the Bengals have a one-game winning streak at Heinz Field. This is a rather bizarre reason, in my opinion. If you are talking streaks, the Steelers under Mike Tomlin have lost their home opener precisely once in ten years, in the midst of what was clearly, in retrospect, a rebuild of the team (2013.) I would have thought this would also have been a streak worth considering, but this is probably why he works for cbssports and I don’t.
Another thing I’m taking into consideration is the quality of leadership, over and above that of the coaching staff. For instance, one of the other “random shots” by Joe Bryant was an item about Ben Roethlisberger. After DeAngelo Williams’ touchdown the first person Ben ran to was not Williams but Sammie Coates, to congratulate him for a block which helped spring DeWill. I’m not intending to downplay Andy Dalton’s leadership or his relationship with his receivers. I just think that, along with so many other aspects of his game, Ben’s leadership has reached a new and lofty elevation. In games like this, the little things matter.
My prediction? 27-23, Steelers.