Steelers Opponent Preview: The Grudge Match?
One of Hombre de Acero’s 5 Smoldering Questions yesterday boiled down to “Are you worried about this game?” My short answer was, more or less, yes. Here’s the long one…
Cincinnati has not been particularly good this season. As Mike Tomlin might say, they are what their record says they are. But why? This is a team who quite handily survived the late-season loss of Andy Dalton in 2015. They started a kid who was essentially a rookie instead—A.J. McCarron was their 2014 fourth-round pick, but he saw no game action whatsoever in 2014. Their only loss after the Week 14 game in which Andy Dalton’s thumb received an unfortunate introduction to Stephon Tuitt’s thigh was an overtime loss to the Broncos, in Denver.
And it isn’t like Dalton was some scrub, either. Up until Week 14 he was having a career year. His average quarterback rating was 106.3, he had 25 touchdowns to only seven picks, and he had a good corps of receivers and two accomplished running backs. The offense was averaging 27.8 points per game, and the defense was giving up an average of 16.3 points per game. They didn’t lose a game until Week 10. So what happened?
Dalton isn’t having a terrible season by any means. His passer rating is 93.8 (although ominously his QBR has dropped precipitously from last season—from 78.0 to 53.0.) He has 16 TDs to 6 interceptions—hardly embarrassing. The main problem is, his offense mostly consisted of A.J. Green and then everybody else. His best running back (Giovanni Bernard) is out for the rest of the season, although it looks possible that A.J. Green will be back. In the meantime their 2016 2nd round pick, former Pitt star Tyler Boyd, has stepped up, so for the long term Green’s absence may be good for his development. He still has Tyler Eifert.
But the numbers tell the tale—this year the offense is averaging only 20.9 points per game, down almost 7 points. And the defense, who were so good last year, is giving up 20.7, up over four points. Last year the offense ended the season ranked as the No. 2 offense in the league by Football Outsiders. This year they are No. 11. Their defense was No. 10 last year, and moved up to No. 19 this week, up from 20 last week.
There are a lot of factors which have impacted their season, although one of the main ones is just that some players who were really good for them, on both sides of the ball, left in free agency.
Unfortunately there is a still a core group on defense. Two of those guys are of course Adam Jones and Vontaze Burfict. But they aren’t the only ones to worry about, either from a extracurricular activity standpoint or a defensive one. (And make no mistake, Vontaze Burfict is a terrific player.) Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Karlos Dansby, Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson—they are still all present and accounted for.
On the offensive side, they still have an excellent offensive line, with the possible exception of the right tackle. Or I should say, an offensive line made up of excellent players. Because they aren’t playing particularly well as a line. They are ranked No. 15, but that is mainly because of their run blocking. Their pass protection ranking has improved to No. 27 (!). A few weeks ago they were No. 32 in pass protection. Andy Dalton has been sacked 36 times, which is well over twice as many sacks as the Steelers’ O line has given up (!) The Steelers’ O line is ranked No. 2 in both run blocking and pass protection)—something we could have only dreamed about five or six years ago.
Another problem, oddly, is their kicker, Mike Nugent, who is 23 of 29 for both field goal and PAT attempts. That’s 24 points down the toilet, according to my calculations. And none of the field goal attempts were from over 49 yards.
Not surprisingly, the Bengals just cut him this week and picked up Randy Bullock, who will be kicking for the opposition on Sunday. It’s a funny league.
In other words, the Bengals really ought to be doing better than they are so far. And they have been playing better in the past few weeks, although their opponents (the Eagles and the Browns) aren’t quite the cream of the league. Unfortunately they aren’t actually mathematically eliminated from winning the division. They would have to win out and the Steelers lose out, but stranger things have happened. In other words, they still have something to play for besides being the spoiler. Just.*
One possible explanation is health. Last season they were pretty much the healthiest team in the league until Andy Dalton went down. (Or went sideways, I suppose.) This season the picture is a bit different. I checked out Man-Games-Lost.com, a site in which all injuries are tracked. They graph every team in the NFL according to not only how many players are injured but how important they are. Last season the Steelers were at the top of their list (or the bottom, depending on how you view it) in terms of injuries to significant players, and for the vast majority of the season the Bengals were at the opposite end of the spectrum.
This season it looks rather different. Or so I assumed, before I actually looked up the site and found the Week 14 chart. Here’s part of it—you can see the whole thing by clicking on the link above. You have to register to see the content, but it’s free in season:
Pittsburgh is right about in the middle of the chart with close to 150 man-games missed. 12 teams have more “man-games” missed, including Baltimore, which is one of the most impacted teams in the league. (They are behind only San Diego and New Orleans in number of man-games missed—somewhere around 230 so far. They are way over to the right, where you can’t see them.) Cleveland, as you can see, is slightly behind the Steelers, with about 155 man-games missed. Cincinnati, despite the loss of Giovanni Bernard and A.J. Green for a chunk of the year, is one of the healthiest teams in the league. They have just 90 or so man-games missed.
In case you’re wondering, the size of the bubble in which each team’s abbreviation appears is larger or smaller depending on the relative importance of the players missing time. So you can see that Cincinnati’s number of missed games is low, but also, despite the loss of Green and Bernard, most of their missed games haven’t been to crucial players.
So that’s not the reason either, or at least it shouldn’t be, apparently. I expect the truth lies somewhere in the mysterious land of team chemistry. I was watching the Dave Dameshek Football Program for this week, and very enjoyable it was, too, with Dameshek, Ike Taylor, and Maurice Jones-Drew discussing the Steelers and Le’Veon Bell’s historic day.
But they said something interesting which I’ve been mulling over. They had a segment called “premature celebrations”, having to do with whether they thought some of the currently hot teams like the Buccaneers and the Lions are likely to actually make the playoffs. During the discussion about the Lions, MJD said that when you get on a roll and start winning a lot of games in a row, it’s hard to lose, because you believe in yourselves. And I would expect the converse to be true as well—when you haven’t been playing very well, it’s hard to believe that the futility is not going to continue.
So kudos to the Steelers’ coaching staff, who didn’t let four losses in a row derail their season. And you have to give Marvin Lewis credit for turning around a rather dismal season and leaving the door open for some semblance of respectability.
*Here’s the actual scenario which would have to occur for them to win the division outright—the Steelers would have to lose the next three games. The Ravens would have to lose all their remaining games except, naturally, the Steelers game. This would give both the Steelers and the Ravens an 8-8 record. If Cinci wins out, they will have an 8-7-1 record—in essence, 8 and a half wins. If they lose to any team then a very complicated set of tiebreakers would have to come into play and everything would have to fall just right. If either the Steelers or the Ravens beat them, as far as I can tell it’s over. Let us hope that is the case as of Sunday about 4:30 or so…
BTW, don’t miss MJD breaking down film on the Steelers’ offensive line and Le’Veon Bell in the Buffalo game on the DDFP. Great stuff! Starts at around 44 minutes in.