Steelers Opponent Preview: The Cincinnati Bengals, Take Two

Photo via Steelers.com: Prepare for some old-school football

We know these guys. Right? A.J. Green, receiver extraordinaire. Vontaze Burfict, jagoff extraordinaire. Andy Dalton—nice guy, inconsistent quarterback. Geno Atkins—leading the league in sacks for a DT, as usual. Wish he would slow down. Hasn’t he noticed he’s old? Pacman Jones—assistant jagoff, although I note from Pro Football Focus that in the past three games his snap counts, after being in the 60s early in the season, are 27, 0, and 26. He’s clearly being phased out in favor of William Jackson III, which is a pity from our standpoint.

You get the idea. The Bengals are an old and well-hated opponent. They aren’t having their best season ever this year, but they are trending upwards, again unfortunately for us. After completely sucking early in the season, Andy Dalton is looking much more competent. Or is this true? Certainly Dalton’s first game of the season, against the Ravens, was one for the books. His NFL QB rating of 27.4 was only matched in lack of awesomeness by his QBR of 0.7. (I think it is possible to get a negative QBR, but this is about as close as anybody would ever like to get.)

But as I looked at the numbers, Dalton would appear to have played a lot better than their record would suggest. And since Ben has been a bit up and down, and since this year’s schedule has featured some rather ferocious defenses, I thought it would be interesting to compare how the two did versus common opponents. As we all know, teams evolve, for better or worse, throughout the season, and a team the Steelers played early in the year might not have represented as much of a challenge as they presented to the Bengals five weeks later, or vice versa. But it is still interesting, and to be honest I didn’t find quite what I expected. [Note that teams are in alphabetical order, not the order in which either team played them.]

As you can see, I put all of the games on the chart, whether both teams had played them, or are even going to. I think I’m going to extend the numbers to the whole AFC North in a week or so, just for kicks. But as you can see, Andy Dalton did considerably better against Jacksonville than Ben Roethlisberger did, (or, to be precise, the combination of each QB plus his offense, which certainly has some say in how well the QB does.) On the other hand, Ben did much better against the Ravens than Dalton did. (As usual there is the caveat that this often depends on whether you consult the NFL rating or the QBR, which supposedly corrects for things that aren’t the fault of the quarterback.)

But as you can see, Dalton is actually having a good season for the most part. After the four-pick game against Baltimore he has only thrown four more in the next 10 games. Although the Bengals lost to the Jaguars, Dalton managed to not throw any picks, unlike Ben’s five. And would you say Kansas City has a better defense than Denver? Because Dalton appears to have` played better against the Denver D than Ben played against the KC D.

Interestingly, though, Ben’s best game of the season according to both the QB rating and QBR was not the Titans game but the game against Cincinnati. And Dalton’s second-worst game was the game against the Steelers. So there’s that. But to give Dalton his due, he’s been playing behind a fairly unimpressive O-line (although I haven’t looked them up lately, so we’ll see how they are doing at this point in the year when I get to the stats.) If they are still sub-par, Dalton’s season is all the more impressive.

As for the rest of the team, here are the usual numbers from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus:

Defense:

  • Team Defense (for the FO metric of DVOA, lower is better for defenses:) Cincinnati: -0.2%—No 16. Pittsburgh: -13.7%—No. 4 (PIT dropped from No. 3 to No. 4, CIN from No. 12 to No. 16.)
  • Passing Defense: Cincinnati—No. 16; Pittsburgh—No. 7
  • Rushing Defense: Cincinnati—No. 14; Pittsburgh—No. 6

Defensive Lines:

  • Run Blocking: Cincinnati—No. 30; Pittsburgh—No. 4
  • Pass Protection: Cincinnati—No. 18; Pittsburgh—No. 2
  • Sacks: CIN 33, PIT 38

Offense:

  • Team Offense (higher DVOA is better): Cincinnati: -6.9%—No. 21; Pittsburgh: 15.0%—No. 5
  • Passing Offense: Cincinnati: 0.9%—No. 23; Pittsburgh: 35.1%—No. 7
  • Rushing Offense: Cincinnati: -12.2%—No. 20; Pittsburgh: -2.8%—No. 11

Offensive Lines:

  • Run Blocking: Cincinnati: No. 30; Pittsburgh: No. 7
  • Pass Protection: Cincinnati: No. 26; Pittsburgh No. 2

I saved myself some typing by cutting and pasting the lists above from last week’s preview, and it was interesting to compare the numbers as I replaced the Green Bay figures with those of the Bengals. (I did also update the PIT figures, in case you were wondering…) I think there was only a single category in which Cincinnati was better than Green Bay—sacks. In most cases they were substantially worse. This was unexpected, because their records are exactly the same at the moment. Which just goes to show that there are 5-6 teams and 5-6 teams, and depending upon circumstances they may not look the same at all.

But in terms of playing a desperate team, batten down the hatches and hide the women and children, because not only are our next two opponents fully as desperate as Green Bay was, they also hate the Steelers in a way Green Bay doesn’t. Or so I would presume, being not only in a different division but a different conference.

On to the Pro Football Focus numbers. As usual I’ll look at how they view the matchups between players:

First let’s look at the Cincinnati defense, because at the moment I feel much more cheerful about the Steelers’ offense than defense:

Geno Atkins is the creme de la creme of the Bengals’ D, graded at an elite 91.8. This is good for No. 2 in the league for an “interior defender,” as they would have it. (As I suspected, former Pitt star Aaron Donald is No. 1. But guess by how much? Donald’s grade is a ridiculous 97.3.)

The next tier of players, ranking in the “above average” category, are Vontaze Burfict at 84.8 and Carlos Dunlap at 80.9. Their linebackers are mostly good if uninspiring, except for Nick Vigil, who PFF thinks is dreadful. The rest of their base defense doesn’t grade particularly high, other than George Iloka. But in their nickel package Carl Lawson, Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson come in, and they are major upgrades, all rating above 80. I think if I were the Steelers I would run the ball a lot…

The Killer Bees’ ratings all went up after last Sunday, with Brown an even-more elite 93.9 (and he was already the top wideout by a good margin, except for Julio Jones, who grades at 93.3.) Ben, who was spurned by PFF for many weeks (and perhaps rightly so) is now their No. 3 QB at a very respectable grade of 86.6. What’s crazy is that the grades are cumulative, so in a fairly short time Ben has overcome the decidedly pedestrians grades he was getting earlier in the year.

Bell got a bump up, as did DeCastro, who was already their top guard in the league. PFF is not enamored of any receiver/TE etc. not named AB. They have a point. (They like JuJu but Rogers is their slot receiver at the moment.)

Now let’s give Cincinnati the ball and see what PFF thinks:

According to PFF, the O-line, other than LG Clint Boling, is still abysmal. This would certainly be in line with a ranking of No. 30 in the league from FO. A.J. Green is, unsurprisingly, their best-graded offensive player, at 87.1 (No. 5 in the league for PFF.) The next best is RB Joe Mixon, at 80.1. Andy Dalton’s grade of 78.0 makes him the No. 19 QB in the league. And TE Tyler Kroft, who was thrown into the fray after Tyler Eifert went down, is holding his own with a rating of 71.5. (This is, alas, considerably better than any Steelers TE not named Vance McDonald. Or in other words, any Steelers TE who is actually playing…)

Last week I wrote “they [meaning Green Bay’s offense] are opposed by one of the best D-lines in the league, with Tuitt, Heyward, and Hargrave all rating as “Above Average” (Hargrave) to “High Quality” (Tuitt and Heyward.) And Hargraves’ grade is perilously close to the magic “High Quality” mark (80.0—his grade is 79.7 this week.) The only poorly-rated defensive players at this point are Bud Dupree and Sean Davis, although Mike Mitchell’s grade took a hit. Despite some questionable-looking stuff last Sunday, Burns and Sensabaugh are still in the “Average” category, and Sensabaugh is almost as close to “High Quality” as Hargrave is (79.6.) These things are a mystery…

And before I get to the Injury Report (which I’m sorry to say I forgot last week) I want to share something from Ben Roethlisberger’s radio show on Tuesday, in regards to Le’Veon Bell. After praising AB, he noted:

I honestly thought Le’Veon was the MVP of the passing game. I know that sounds crazy to people, but I’m out there. I know what plays are being made, and yes, A.B. is gonna make the highlight plays, but there were a lot of plays in that game where the linebackers were getting depth and trying to get underneath of some of those in routes [where] we were trying to get A.B. the ball, and Le’Veon was getting out.

He’s checking to see if his guy blitzes, and sometimes it’s multiple guys. He has to check two or three guys to see if anybody blitzes. When no one does, then he has to get out in his route and when he gets out in his route sometimes it’s man, and he has to run a man-beater. Sometimes it’s zone and he has to find a spot. For him, there’s a lot more involved than just kind of running out and turning around.

Shut up, Ben. Let’s not add fuel to the “Pay me like the a No. 1 RB and a No. 2 receiver” fire…

Injury Report:

This is of course an early report as the game is on Monday, but so far here’s the deal:

JuJu was a full participant Thursday. Which is great. The list of DNP was annoying, in that Vance McDonald was still on it, and Ryan Shazier. I’m hoping for both, particularly Shazier, this just means they’re giving the ankle an extra day to heal up. Strangely, James Harrison, Iron Man, was on the list, this time with a knee. Mike Mitchell was out with the same ankle problem he’s been dealing with, and of course Joe Haden was on the list (and we don’t expect to see him for a while.)

Before I get to the Bengals I have to throw in a Mike Prisuta story. He asked Haden how much game action he thought he would need to get ready for the playoffs, and Haden was pulled up short, because he’d apparently forgotten teams actually go to the playoffs. At least a team he is on. His answer, for the record, is none…

Three Bengals players, two of them starters, were on the DNP list: LB Vincent Rey is a backup, but S Shawn Williams and LB Nick Vigil are the starters at their positions. TE Tyler Kroft was limited with a wrist injury, as was OT Cedric Ogbuehl. I’m guessing it will be all hands on deck on Monday, though, as I’m also guessing it’s about the Bengals’ last chance for any hope of a Wild Card. Gosh, don’t you just love facing a desperate team? (The correct answer to this is “No,” in case you were wondering.)

Sorry for the lack of content yesterday. I was traveling all day, and thank heavens, by the time you read this I will be back in the land of reliable Steelers broadcasts (and reliable internet, for that matter…) But you all upheld the standard with the great answers and comments on the 5 Smolderings. I did, fortunately, have a long enough layover in Minneapolis, home of the next Super Bowl, that I could check Steelers.com. Love free airport wifi…

6 comments

  • Yes or no? How about dread. Cincy can go from the Bungles to the Felons when they get desperate. One key injury can derail our quest to be the franchise with the most Lombardies. This is the dread caused by playin the Cincinatti Felons.

    Not many would share this opinon but I think Andy is an above average QB say in the range of 9 to 12. Actually I think in thetop ten but I know I can defend 9 to 12. So the short logic of this is any QB that rates near averagewith such an abyssmal line and no running game therefor by definition must be reasonably good.

    I predict this game will be much more a battle than anyone would expect and not because divisional game, playoff hopes,, personal animousities ect but because last week for the first time all year Mixon got the majority of carries and by a big margin at that. Suddenly Bengals seem to have an average run game and blocking improving to mediocre. It would be good if this gets squashed by our front seven rather than a surprised by it. IMO this is a good litmus test by the coachnig staff.

    Like

  • Having literally given Bengals’ fans more grief than any other Steeler’s fan over the last seven years, I say, give the Bengal’s a break, they are tapping out about right now.Am stopping by to say HI, and hoping everyone is having a wonderful Holiday Season.

    Like

  • cold_old_steelers_fan

    Am I the only one who is really worried about the next two games? The Ravens seem to be making themselves relevant, Cincy has a grudge and the Steelers are starting to have a lot of wounded players. The Pats can wait. These two games are important.

    Liked by 1 person

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