Opponent Preview: Bengals @ Steelers

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It’s Bengals week. Storylines abound. Will Vontaze Burfict and his new contract live up (or down) to expectations? Will the Bengals miss Tyler Eifert, who is having surgery, is done for the season, and really ought to retire before he becomes the first Breakable Bionic Man, or will Tyler Kroft make him a distant memory? Will Joe Mixon, another of their Troubled Youth Rehabilitation projects, and who has wrested the starting job (legally) from Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill, look more like Leonard Fournette or Kareem Hunt on Sunday in terms of his stat line vs. the Steelers defense? Will A.J. Green or Antonio Brown look like the best receiver in the league? And who will impact the game the most—Old Man Pacman Jones or Really Old Man Deebo Harrison? (Jones will almost certainly have more opportunities to do so, unless he is unable to play—see the Injury Report below.)

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Like the Ravens, the Bengals are old and bitter rivals. But a much greater percentage of the cast of characters on the Bengals is the same. Which doesn’t necessarily make things any easier.

Take Geno Atkins, for instance. You would think that by now he would be slowing down, and you would be wrong. (Perhaps they are saying the same about Harrison, but Atkins is still the starter, although he’s very much a spring chicken compared to Deebo.)

Or here’s a storyline for you. In the game after their bye week the Bengals during Marvin Lewis’ tenure have five and a half wins compared to eight and a half losses (in other words, 5-8-1.) I went back through to look at the actual circumstances.

First it should be noted that they are better since drafting Andy Dalton—they are .500 after their bye. But there’s more to it than that—overall they are a substantially better team since drafting Dalton. Lewis’ cumulative win percentage is .053, (118-103-3) but pre-Dalton it is .047, (60-67-1) and since drafting Dalton it is .060 (58-36-2.) These are regular season stats only.

So since we will undoubtedly be seeing Dalton on Sunday, let’s look at those six post-bye weeks and see what games they were and where the teams they played ended up.

  • 2011: In Dalton’s rookie season the Bengals, at 4-2, played the 2-4 Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. The Seahawks ended the season at 7-9, the Bengals at 9-7. All the numbers say the Bengals should have won, and they did.
  • 2012: The Bengals (3-4) played Denver (4-3) in Cincinnati and lost. They ended the season at 10-6—Denver ended the season 13-3. So again the numbers line up with the result.
  • 2013: The 7-4 Bengals went to San Diego to play the 5-6 Chargers and won. They ended the season at 11-5, the Chargers at 9-7. I’m sensing a trend, and one that doesn’t seem to reflect whether the game is at home or away.
  • 2014: At 3-0, the Bengals traveled to Foxboro to play the 2-2 Patriots and lost. They ended the season at 10-5-1, the Pats at 12-4.
  • 2015: The 6-0 Bengals invited themselves to Heinz Field and beat the 4-3 Steelers. They ended the season 12-4, the Steelers 10-6.
  • 2016: Not a great year for the Bengals, and not surprisingly they extended their four losses to five (3-4-1 before the game) against the New York Giants. The Giants were 5-3 and ended the season at 11-6, while the Bengals ended with the first losing record of the Andy Dalton era (6-9-1.)

In other words, the Bengals’ results with Dalton at the helm line up precisely with expectations. [The only partial exception is 2014, when they had a better record than the Pats going in, but ended the season with a worse record. The game in question wasn’t the difference, as the Pats ended the season up a game and a half.] It doesn’t seem to matter how early or late their bye week comes. Admittedly I didn’t go so far as to see how close the score was and all that, but in the end a W is a W.

Just out of curiosity I looked at the pre-Dalton record, and there were two instances where the result was not in line with the expectation. In Lewis’ first season the 1-4 Bengals beat the 3-2 Ravens in Cinci. Furthermore, they ended up 8-8, the Ravens 10-6, so that was an anomaly. The other instance was when they managed to tie the 5-4 Eagles in Cinci, when they were 1-8 at that point. The Eagles ended up 9-6-1, the Bengals 4-11-1.

So if they stay true to form in the Dalton era, the 2-3 Bengals should be tidily handled by the 4-2 Steelers. The problem is, the Steelers are favored in the game, and we all know what a bad thing this is. We also know that division games are a different animal. That said, it was certainly heartening to see how well the Steelers’ defense handled the league’s No. 1 running back and one of the best wide receivers last Sunday.

Let’s start looking at the matchups. As usual I will use Football Outsiders for unit comparisons and Pro Football Focus for some of the individual matchups.

Overall Defense

Things have tightened up considerably from earlier in the season when the Baltimore Ravens had an almost cartoonish DVOA of over -70.0%, almost double the nearest competitor. Jacksonville now leads the league with a DVOA of -20.7%, Buffalo is next, and Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are cheek by jowl at Nos. 3, 4 and 5 respectively, with CIN at -15.8%, PIT at -15.4%, and BAL at -14.4%. (Both BAL and PIT moved up one slot from last week, and CIN moved down one.)

Interestingly, if you look at the rush/pass breakdown Cincinnati has the most balanced defense, ranking No. 7 in both rush and pass defense. Baltimore is No. 2 against the run and No. 16 against the pass, and PIT splits the middle at No. 4 against the run and No. 12 against the pass.

Defensive Lines

Football Outsiders ranks the D-lines separately, and there are two defensive lines in the top ten. One is Pittsburgh, and, astonishingly, the other is Cleveland, at No. 2(!). Which doesn’t seem to be helping them much. Here are the numbers:

Adjusted Line Yards: CLE 2.85 (No. 2), PIT 3.45 (No. 7), BAL 3.9 (No. 12), and CIN 4.27 (No. 19.)

But looking at pass protection by the defensive lines is another story—PIT is No. 2, right behind Jacksonville, CIN is No. 6, BAL is No. 8, and CLE is No. 20.

Let’s look at the offense now. First, Team Offense expressed as DVOA—on offense higher is better, the converse of defense:

The Steelers are the only team from the AFC North in the top 10 at the moment, which isn’t too surprising. They sit at No. 6 with a DVOA% of 11.8. This moved them up from No. 15 the previous week. Kansas City is still No. 1 despite the meagre offense they generated against the Steelers, at 32.4%. The next closest AFC North team is the Bengals, at No. 23 (they moved up two slots during their bye week at a DVOA of -9.5%.)

Split out into rushing and passing, PIT is No. 5 and No. 11 respectively—CIN is No. 23 and 27. This is of course partially because of the first two games under the now-departed offensive coordinator in which CIN generated essentially no offense whatsoever.

How about the Offensive Lines? As we will see when we get to the individual matchups, PFF is totally underwhelmed by 4/5s of the Cincinnati line (the sole exception is LG Clint Boling.) In fact, backup lineman B.J. Finney ranks far higher—like 25 points higher—than any Cincinnati lineman except Boling, and he’s only 5 points below Boling. But I’m getting ahead of myself. PFF and FO don’t always agree on these things, so let’s see what they say:

PIT is ranked No. 13 in run blocking, which given the individual talent would seem to say they are under-achieving. (Not having the same line from week to week will do this, of course.) CIN ranks No. 30. So apparently they are quite bad. We’ve seen this movie before, though—a supposedly putrid O-line manages to keep the opposing quarterback upright and opens huge lanes for the running backs when they play the Steelers. But a weak O-line against our D line is a matchup I’ll take every day.

Interestingly, in pass protection both teams move up the ladder—PIT all the way to No. 3 and CIN to No. 23. Good news on this front. No pun intended.

FO ranks Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, and Running Backs, and I think there’s enough data to be meaningful at this point.

QBs: Ben, No. 13, Dalton, No. 25. If you look at QBR, Ben is No. 13 and Dalton is No. 27. I was, I admit, rather surprised by these numbers. You’ll never guess who is No. 5—none other than Case Keenum. It’s a funny game…

WRs:

  • No. 1s: Antonio Brown, No. 1, A.J. Green, No. 14.
  • No. 2s on down (with enough snaps to be ranked): Martavis Bryant, No. 54, Brandon LaFell, No. 68.

RBs: Le’Veon Bell, No. 5, Joe Mixon No. 23

That is all very gratifying. Now let’s look at the PFF matchups. A word of explanation first—PFF sets up “match-ups” by who they think is going to play, divided into a 2-receiver package vs. a base defense and a 3-receiver package versus a nickel defense. It’s always interesting to consider who that puts onto the field, or removes, and how it appears, according to the individual PFF grades, to effect the strength of the units. So when the Steelers run a 2-receiver package, supposedly Bryant is on the field and JuJu is subbed out by Roosevelt Nix. (As we know, that is not always the case.) Nix grades considerably higher than Smith-Schuster. (As does Bryant, although the spread is not nearly as wide—Nix, 74.8, Bryant, 58.6, JuJu 46.0. I’m guess a lot of JuJu’s low grade is due to the penalties he seems to incur on a weekly basis.)

None of the PIT TEs are highly rated—Vance McDonald at 54.3 has the highest rating and is ranked No. 39. James is No. 49 with a grade of 47.9. [Grimble actually rates a bit higher but doesn’t have enough snaps to be ranked.] I’m guessing the low ratings for McDonald and James are partially because neither seem to be much of a threat in the passing game, but both block pretty well, mostly. Interestingly, this is the lowest rating McDonald has had, by far, since his rookie season. I’m thinking that as he and Ben get more comfortable he’s going to start moving up. Broken out into pass blocking, run blocking, and receiving, it’s pretty obvious what the problem is. He is highly rated (83.9) in pass blocking, not nearly as good in run blocking (63.9) and as you might expect, grades dreadfully in receiving, (41.9.)

Oddly, James has steadily moved down in their estimation, from a season average of 73.5 his rookie year to 50.1 last season, and now this. Where they really dinged James was in pass blocking, but he’s nothing to write home about in PFF’s estimation in receptions or run blocking—his best grade is 61 in the latter.

As for the CIN TEs, as noted above Tyler Eifert is done. (He was No. 12 with a 74.5 grade.) His replacement, Tyler Kroft, is not that far behind, at No. 15 (73.3), but the new No. 2, C.J. Uzomah, has about the same grade as Jesse James. (Which presumably means either could be easily replaced by a trip to Walmart…)

Let’s see what PFF thinks about the backs and receivers:

AB is still No. 1. In the league. His 93.6 grade is way ahead of the No. 2, Julio Jones, at 86.7. A.J. Green, to return to this week’s matchup, is No. 3, at 86.4.

As for the other receivers, there’s a big drop-off on both teams, as you might suspect. Bryant and JJSS are ranked Nos. 72 and 93 (Eli Rogers is above JuJu and below Bryant.) Juju’s best grade is in run blocking, which is Bryant’s worst. For CIN, Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell are Nos. 95 and 98 respectively.

And what about the QBs? PFF has the order reversed—they rank Andy Dalton at No. 14 and Ben at No. 17. The actual grades aren’t very different.

And finally, the O-line.

As noted, the only player PFF considers even average on the CIN O-line is LG Clint Boling. None of the others even rate at “Below Average” (as opposed to “Poor,” where they are all rated.) They are opposing a PIT defensive front in which the only grade below T.J. Watt’s 74.1 is Bud Dupree’s 44.7. (They don’t like Dupree much, and admittedly he has been a disappointment so far.) And while only Cameron Heyward is in PFF’s top 10 (at No. 10) in “Interior Defenders,” Stephon Tuitt isn’t far behind, at No. 13. And while Hargrave is well below this, at No. 47, his grade is still a very respectable 78.7. I’m hoping to see a lot more of the pocket collapsing we saw last Sunday from those guys. (But, gulp, see the injury report…)

As noted, PFF is a big fan of the Steelers’ O-line. Interestingly, though, they don’t like Ramon Foster nearly as much as Finney. I find this very interesting in light of a comment I saw by one of the local sports people—I can’t remember which one at the moment—who, when asked if Finney was better than Foster, said in effect that Finney was fine as a short-term replacement but would be exposed with longer reps. I often wonder what they base these things on. They have Gilbert in the lineup, and indeed if Gilbert can play this would be lovely, because he’s one of their higher-rated tackles (No. 11 overall—they rank right and left tackles together.) But they see Hubbard as a big dropoff—his grade of 64.0 is right at the bottom of “below average.” They are opposing a Cincinnati defensive front that is a major strength of the team. The highest graded player is Geno Atkins, the ageless one, who is graded at 88.9, No. 6 in the league. And since No. 5 is J.J. Watt, and he’s out for the rest of the year, Atkins moves up. Pat Sims, part of the base defense, is considerably less well-regarded, being at the bottom of “below average.” The rest of the starting defensive line are considered “edge defenders” by PFF, and the highest-rated is Carl Lawson, at No. 13. (This kid is a rookie, and is fantastic from all reports.) All of them grade well, with only Michael Johnson (60.9) grading below 75.

As far as the linebackers go, the highest grade on either team is 84.3 for Vontaze Burfict, with Ryan Shazier right behind at 80.0. The weakest link, according to PFF, is Bud Dupree, followed by Nick Vigil of the Bengals. (PFF, BTW, likes both Arthur Moats and James Harrison better than either Dupree or Chickillo, who grades even lower than Dupree.) Of course, Vince Williams’ 74.0 or Tyler Matakevich’s 70.0 could be replaced by L.J. Fort’s 64.3 on Sunday. Williams did not practice on Wednesday (although Tyler was a full participant.) But let’s just go to:

Injury Report

The injury list is short, but that’s the only thing you can say for it. The biggest and most concerning news for the Steelers is that 3/5s of the offensive line did not practice on Wednesday—Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, and Marcus Gilbert. Neither did Vince Williams or Stephon Tuitt. However, Tyler Matakevich was a full go, despite sustaining a shoulder injury last Sunday.

Thursday’s practice was more encouraging, with Pouncey and Foster practicing, but Tuitt and Williams were still out. If I had to choose one or the other I would take Tuitt. It’s so frustrating that just as the D-line looks dominant they aren’t complete again.

As for the Bengals, the two biggest names to not practice either day are Adam Jones and Tyler Boyd. G Clint Boling didn’t practice but it wasn’t injury-related. A couple of non-starters were limited. But all in all they are in pretty good shape.

P.S.—be sure to check out this article by Ed Bouchette. It begins thus:

The Steelers were supposed to be among the best teams in the NFL, if not the best. With a powerful offense and a dominating defense, little could stop them but themselves.

And they did just that. Distractions, holdouts, a player wanting to be traded, a drug issue, on and on. The Steelers of 2017? That too, but these guys have nothing in that regard over their 1977 counterparts.

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