Tomorrow, the Bengals play against a football team whose name I can hardly bring myself to type. They’re mostly psychopaths or crybabies, depending on how much credit you give them. This week, the Pittsburgh Steelers host our favorite team.
When Cincinnati has the ball, you’d assume offensive line will continue to struggle. Football Outsiders and Justis Mosqueda’s settingedge.com rank Pittsburgh’s pass rush second in the NFL. Both acknowledge some weakness in the Pittsburgh rush defense, but the Bengals haven’t put anything on film that makes me think they’ll be able to take advantage. Overall, Pittsburgh boasts a top pass defense (though this may be colored by games against 5 pitiful passing offenses) according to Football Outsiders. That means Bill Lazor will have to get even more creative this week, and Dalton will need to be sharp pre-snap against a defense that disguises zone coverage well. And it’s pretty much only zone coverage, as PFF reported that Pittsburgh plays the least man in the league at 10%.
When Pittsburgh has the ball, their rushing offense looks good, too. David DeCastro and Le’Veon Bell are playing very well together. I think the Chiefs matched up poorly with Steelers’ running attack and seem like a worse defense, but that will be a big test for the defense this week. The Pittsburgh QB, whose name I definitely won’t type because he’s evil, looks shaky. Despite incredibly games from the offensive line and Bell, the QB was just “a guy” last week. He hit some very open receivers, he threw some interception-worthy passes, and on sum looked average to me. Antonio Brown is obviously very good, but the Bengals could make life difficult enough for their QB.
On the injury front, Pittsburgh’s Stephon Tuitt is out and Marcus Gilbert is doubtful. They’re both significant absences, though I’d argue Tuitt is more significant. He’s been very good alongside Cameron Heyward in the nickel pass rush. Tyson Alualu is a big step down, and will join Bud Dupree on the right side. Since right guard has been shaky, Tuitt’s injury could make game planning to protect Dalton much easier. Marcus Gilbert missed last week and Chris Hubbard was OK. Pouncey and Foster missed early-week practices, but weren’t on the injury report Friday.
For the Bengals, the big news is that John Ross practiced in full Friday and is questionable. I think that would be particularly important this week. If the Steelers can focus on A.J. Green and running backs, it’ll be uphill sledding for the offense. If Ross plays, that adds a second vertical threat and big-play potential if Green and the running game can’t get going.
Now, a look at offensive film: PIT Rushing Offense
There are a few interesting plays from Pittsburgh’s game against Kansas City last week that I wanted to highlight. The Steelers pull a ton on running plays. They ran a sweep concept at least 3 times, pulling Maurkice Pouncey and DeCastro. They asked a tight end to start on the outside linebacker until Pouncey gets there to help, allowing DeCastro to block anyone else on that side of the field. The right tackle cuts off the defensive tackle, allowing the run to bounce outside. It’s blocked well, Bell follows the blocks well, and it worked a few times. It didn’t always involve reverse-like misdirection, nor was it always to the 2-receiver side. The consistent idea was pulling Pouncey and DeCastro, with the right tackle cut-off blocking the defensive tackle who thinks he has a free lane into the backfield.
They’re running out of spread formations quite frequently, too. It gives the QB an opportunity to take quick smoke routes when KC’s corners played way off and creates space for athletic pullers to work. If the Steelers use this sweep concept this week, I think the Bengals defensive ends and linebackers match up better than the Chiefs. Asking a tight end to block a 4-3 defensive end is asking a lot. Asking backup right tackle Chris Hubbard to be quicker than Geno Atkins is asking a lot. It could work if they catch the Bengals expecting pass and get Ryan Glasgow next to Carl Lawson, but that interrupts the same-side pull scheme for DeCastro, which seems important.
Another staple run game concept that worked well last week was the counter lead. The fullback starts left before cutting back while the right side of the offensive line moves left on the snap. This serves to create a little hesitation in the second level (Sorensen, 49, bites) and seals the first level inside while the run bounces outside. Backup left guard BJ Finney pulls and fullback Roosevelt Nix crushes the corner setting the edge. When Derrick Johnson whiffs on Bell’s ankles in the hole, he’s off to the races.
The Pittsburgh running game was at is most effective when using pullers. They had success with a lead blocker under center (4th quarter), and spread out (especially early). The Bengals will have to be ready to win individual match-ups and not tackle like Daniel Sorensen to contain Bell.
And I really need to take a moment to note Sorensen. He had the single worst game I’ve ever seen from a defender. Bad angles, bad tackling, bad coverage. He was even involved in the the interception-worthy Antonio Brown touchdown. They really miss Eric Berry.
And the PIT Passing Game
Speaking of the passing offense, Kansas City plays more man than anyone in the league. They play man about twice as much as the Bengals play man. I think that made the Pittsburgh QB’s job easier, at least when it comes to identifying where the free receivers will be. On this play, Martavis Bryant motions to the left to confirm man coverage. He has a free release with Derrick Johnson playing an underneath zone and a safety deep.
Terrence Mitchell, the corner, respects Bryant’s deep speed and as soon as he backpedals, there’s a wide open window for Bryant on the skinny post. Maybe Mitchell is expecting more help from Johnson, but it looks like it’s just a great playcall given the off corner and loose coverage. The ball is out quickly, off the back foot, to a very open receiver. It’s a first-down play, the Chiefs are on their heels and had no chance.
I think Todd Haley called an excellent game. At one point, the Steelers ran a play-action deep pass in 22 personnel, followed by a draw from 11 personnel in shotgun. He used misdirection well in the running game and kept the offense in position to find free yards with smoke routes or wide open passes. I expect a better fight from the Bengals defense. Paul Guenther and his men know the Steelers well, and have been on top of their game this year. It’ll be exciting to watch them against an offense that mostly clicked last week.
The Steelers are about as villainous as a team gets in the NFL. Joey Porter’s history of dropped charges is pretty insane, and he’s a coach. Mike Tomlin cheated in a playoff game. The QB is probably one of the worst kinds of criminals. Le’Veon Bell is so deluded he went on record saying the Bengals entire team was trying to hurt him last year. Mike Mitchell was Vontaze Burfict before Burfict, and continues to play dirty. Ryan Shazier doesn’t know how to tackle without the crown of his helmet. Yet, the national narrative is that Burfict is the only bad guy in the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry. That drives me absolutely insane.
Let’s acknowledge the list of injuries Bengals needed to endure to inspire rule changes. Carson Palmer’s knee, Keith Rivers’ jaw, Gio Bernard’s brain. Besides those rule-changing hits, Mitchell has concussed Eifert and Green. Steeler fans complain about Burfict injuring Bell and Brown. The claims that Burfict’s (high) tackle intentionally tore up Bell’s knee are laughable, and I think Brown’s concussion in 2015 was bad luck as Brown’s head snapped down just before impact. Burfict has a history of dirty hits. So do several Steelers.
The narrative of this game ought to be: “When the Bengals and Steelers play each other, both teams have a history of questionable hits that have led to injuries on both sides.” Instead, it seems to be “BURFICT BURFICT BURFICT BURFICT BURFICT.” I’m sick of it.
Since reporters and columnists won’t write it, I will. Both teams have been really bad to one another, and I hope they both play clean this week. Burfict is too good for his shenanigans, and the Bengals might actually be better than their 2-3 record if they can stay healthy.
Gerald McCoy in stripes makes plenty of sense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved on from star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy earlier this week after failing to find a suitable trade partner for his $13 million salary and the Cincinnati Bengals have taken notice.
— Dianna (@diannaESPN) May 22, 2019
As for Gerald McCoy and the Bengals — @diannaESPN was first on Marvin's departure, Burfict's release, and then Webb and Dennard's signings.
— JG (@JoeGoodberry) May 22, 2019
Russini is clearly qualified and plugged in when it comes to breaking Bengals related news and this seems like a step in the right direction for fans who want this “New Dey” for the Bengals to start going after top tier talent with minimal long term risk. It’s clear that no team around the league wanted to give up draft picks while taking on McCoy at such a high cap number.
The Bengals should roll the dice here and take a calculated chance on a guy like McCoy who could turn this entire defense into the group most Bengals fans had high expectations for last season but ultimately finished as a bottom-three unit. McCoy and Geno Atkins would make up arguably the best interior line combination in the league. One that would rival the duo of Ndamokung Suh and Aaron Donald that the Rams rode to the Super Bowl.
After missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2012 last season, McCoy still notched six sacks and more importantly a team-high 21 pressures for the Buccaneers. Over his highly productive career, the former Oklahoma Sooner has tallied 393 pressures, good for sixth among interior linemen since 2010. McCoy is a stud who was the best defensive player on his team and a wrecker who has never been surrounded by much talent in the trenches.
Despite a rough year across the board for this Bengals defense, Atkins clearly showed he is still at the top of his game after tallying double-digit sacks for the first time since 2010 and creating 64 pressures, which ranked fourth among all interior linemen. Joe and Jake brought up a great point on Wednesday’s podcast, McCoy would be the best inside partner that Atkins has ever played with and would not only help open up more playmaking opportunities for him but also spell players across the line more rest after it was ravaged by injury in 2018.
The Bengals have roughly $23 million in cap room as we head into the summer months and despite a clear goal of extending Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, signing McCoy to a one or two year deal worth $10-12 million annually is more than doable. Green already accounts for $15 million against the cap this year and most estimates have his new deal reaching around $18 million per year, while Boyd has gone on record this week with expectations of a deal similar to Sterling Shepard’s four year/$41 million contract.
That leaves Cincinnati with just enough room to sign McCoy to a deal he’d be happy with.
The bottom line is players like this don’t come around very often, and during the Marvin Lewis Era, they were almost never targeted by the front office. McCoy could turn this swiss cheese-defense into a formidable force overnight while helping Bengals fans see the light of a New Dey at Paul Brown Stadium.
The AFC North Power Vacuum
The AB shoe has dropped.
After a drama-filled start to the offseason, Antonio Brown got his wish: A new home and contract in the Bay Area. The Pittsburgh Steelers shipped their disgruntled star to the Oakland Raiders for a pair of third and sixth round picks in this year’s draft.
The Killer-B Era in the Steel City is over.
Le’veon Bell called the organizations bluff last year and sat the entire season after he was offered $14.5 million on another franchise tag. That decision left the Steelers with the fifth most unused cap space in the NFL last season and now the loss of Brown hamstrings them even more. The Steelers must now eat $21 million in dead cap money with Brown in the Silver and Black, ostensibly the largest hit of its kind in league history.
Sweet, sweet music for the rest of the AFC North.
While Pittsburgh holds on to a fading era the other three teams in the division have kickstarted themselves with new coaches, quarterbacks, and in the Cleveland Browns case, both.
Baker Mayfield‘s talents are now fully paired with Freddie Kitchens, the duo led Cleveland to a 5-2 record down the stretch and has injected a breadth of confidence the franchise hasn’t felt since returning to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999. The Lamar Jackson Era is in full swing after the Baltimore Ravens shipped Joe Flacco to Denver for a fourth-round pick. Jackson is a dynamic playmaker but struggled as a passer in year one, despite aerial issues the former Heisman winner notched six wins in seven starts with a 27-24 loss to Kansas City mixed in.
In Cincinnati all of the eggs now lie in the Zac Taylor basket, The entire coaching staff has been overhauled outside of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and after 16 seasons of Marvin Lewis, there is tepid optimism surrounding this young coaching staff.
For the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, the Steelers don’t seem like the go-to favorite to win the AFC North and stomp on another Marvin Lewis team. Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are bringing fresh eyes and concepts to this roster and ideally Bengals fans will experience the 2018 LA Rams Offense: Midwest Edition when they roll into Paul Brown Stadium this Fall.
On the defensive side things can’t get much worse than last season with new coordinator Lou Anarumo taking the reins of a unit that ranked 32nd in total defense (413.6 yards allowed per game), 32nd against the pass (275.9 per game), 30th in points allowed (28.4 per game) and 29th against the run (137.8 yards per game).
Meanwhile, many of the draft experts have the Bengals selecting do-it-all LSU linebacker Devin White with the 11th pick. A massive value at that spot, White is as durable a player you’ll find at the linebacker position and is graded by Scouts Inc. as the fourth best prospect available in April. He would be a welcome addition to a defense that was the worst in the NFL defending tight ends last season.
A New Dey has arrived not only in Cincinnati but throughout the rest of the AFC North and with the Killer-B’s done in Pittsburgh the Bengals have their chance to fill the power void.
The Bengals fans guide to Super Bowl LIII
It’s been 30 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last played in a Super Bowl. A heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was the Bengals most recent shot at glory, and while Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams showcases how far Cincinnati is to breaking that drought, there are plenty of things for Bengals fans to focus on inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Keep an Eye on the Incoming Head Coach
Zac Taylor is taking the reins from Marvin Lewis in what will be the first head coaching change since I started watching Bengals games during that magical 2005 season. The 35-year old Rams QB coach joins six other “young, offensive-minded” hires from this years coaching carousel. For Bengals fans, they are hoping he’s a cut above the rest, despite being the last to ink a deal. Bengals faithful should pay close attention any and every time the CBS production crew decides to show him in action on Sunday.
This is the biggest game Taylor has been a part of since entering the NFL coaching ranks with the Dolphins back in 2012 and it will be really interesting to see him handle a moment all Bengals fans hope he can relive sooner rather than later in Cincinnati. No one on the outside of the Rams organization really knows how involved Taylor is with setting up the gameplan, but he has clearly had a very positive effect on Jared Goff since taking over his tutelage in 2017.
How he interacts with Goff in between plays and coaches him through mistakes could go a long way in determining how he will help Andy Dalton (or Ryan Tannehill?) return to his 2015 form. Zac Taylor might not be the most experienced coach getting a chance this year but the results with Goff prove he deserves this opportunity.
Pre-snap and Play-Action
There are still questions as to who will call plays and control the 2019 Bengals offense, but in saying that fans should expect a lot of carryover from this Rams system that has willed their way to Atlanta with pre-snap communication and play-action passing. It’s no secret that Goff and Rams head coach Sean McVay communicate right up to the 15-second cutoff during every play.
McVay can read the defense, then call something to match their formation and he often times uses motion to accomplish that. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was allergic to this kind of communication and the offense ranked 32nd and 26th in his two seasons because of it. Expect Taylor to have his voice in the Red Rifle’s ear plenty on Sundays.
In terms of play-action passing the Rams used these plays as the cornerstone of their offense, calling them 34 percent of the time with devastating effect. LA’s 9.0 yards per play on these calls ranked third in the NFL and they averaged 1.9 yards per play more than regular calls. On the flip side, Cincinnati ranked 13th in the league calling play-action on 24 percent for 1.5 yards per play more than all other calls. It’s not rocket science, play-action works wonders in today’s NFL and Taylor is expected to bring that mindset with him to the Queen City.
Todd Gurley: The Receiver
Player A: 55 targets, 43 receptions, 296 yards, 6.9 yards per catch, 1 TD
Player B: 81 targets, 59 receptions, 580 yards, 9.8 yards per catch, 4 TD
Yes, I know Joe Mixon had a stellar year running the ball (1,168 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) but he was totally mismanaged in the passing game and his Player A numbers reflect that. Player B, well I’d say he was used correctly and will continue to be used that way on Sunday. Despite his two costly drops in the NFC Championship Game, Todd Gurley is still one of the best receiving backs in the NFL.
A big reason why he’s so productive is the way LA puts him in an ideal position to make big plays, whether it’s a wheel route down the sideline or a throwback screen off of…. play action, this coaching staff does all they can to help him gash defenses. So far in Mixon’s career, I’ve barely seen any of that, it’s similar to putting a governor on a 66′ Cobra. Keep an eye on how the Rams use Gurley’s receiving skills to their advantage and imagine Mixon on the other end of those throws.
This One’s For Whit
Every Bengals fan should be rooting for the new head coach to bring a Super Bowl winning pedigree with him to his new digs in Cincinnati, but if that wasn’t enough, we should all be rooting for Andrew Whitworth.
Likely on his way to back-to-back All-Pro selections Whitworth is one of the best players to ever play the tackle position and was a consummate professional during his 11-year stint in a Bengals uniform. He notched his first playoff win 13 years into his career and why not knock down all of the playoff milestones in one run. I know who I’m rooting for come Super Bowl Sunday.
Enjoy the holiday.