Kind of a big game going on this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, don’t know if you’ve heard. The Bengals (4-1) will host the Steelers (2-2-1) in an early season match to set the table for this year’s divisional race. Statistics, and such, matter very little in full-fledged rivalries, such as this, but let’s take a look at the numbers, anyway.
In case you’ve not listened to the radio, non-stop, like the degenerate that I am, here’s how the series looks between these two franchises. The Bengals trail in the all-time series 35-60 (counting playoffs). Marvin Lewis is 8-24 against Pittsburgh (again, with the playoffs). Andy Dalton is 3-12 against the Steelers (still, with playoffs). Cincinnati has endured three separate losing streaks of five or more (including the one they are currently in of six) to Pittsburgh, under Lewis. The good news is, that the last two times the Bengals broke out of five-game losing streaks to the Steelers, they won two in a row. If the pattern is to hold, that means the Bengals will winboth matchups this year. So, you know, that’s something.
Andy and the Bengals offense went through its worst game of the season, last week, as they mustered just one score. Dalton had a reasonable performance, completing 20-of-30 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown. Joe Mixon was the man of the game for the Bengals offense, rushing for 93 yards on 22 carries and adding a receiving touchdown, all on his first game back since having his knee cut into. AJ Green had his normal 100-plus yard performance as he racked up 112 on six catches (10 targets).
Miami brought pressure, early in the game, on Dalton which forced some early mistakes. The line will need to be ready and Bill Lazor will need to have a game plan for moving Dalton around, in and out of the pocket, to avoid a sort-of above-average Steeler rush.
It woke up, ladies and gentlemen. Geno Atkins (two) and Carlos Dunlap (one) combined for three sacks and the rest of the defensive line kept the Dolphins signal caller, Ryan Tannehill, on his heels all game. Teryl Austin’s turnover-minded scheme forced two interceptions, a fumble, and two scores. Michael Johnson (interception) and Sam Hubbard (fumble) both waltzed into the end zone as the defense outscored one of the AFC’s highest scoring offenses (the Bengals), on the day.
The Bengals held the Dolphins to 128 rushing, combined, which will be a big takeaway for the Steelers game. It is well known that Pittsburgh likes to limit Ben Roethlisberger’s exposure, when the team is on the road, so a heavy dose of James Conner is coming. Should they cause the Steelers to throw more, the defensive line should be able to pressure Roethlisberger into multiple mistakes, just as Cleveland did in week one.
“Throw out the record books,” “No love lost,” “Hatfields and McCoys,” however you slice it, this is the biggest rivalry the Bengals have. They’ll be amped, the stadium will be rocking (and with a decent amount of Pittsburgh fans in attendance, sadly), and all this number mumbojumbo won’t mean a hill of beans. That being said, when it’s boiled down, Pittsburgh is on the ropes. A loss will put them in a most precarious position, divisional race-wise, and Mike Tomlin will not be looking to change sights to a wild card, less than halfway through the season. He will have every arrow knocked and ready to fire once that opening kickoff lands. The key, as is per the usual in these games will be on special teams. Geoff Hobson, of Bengals.com, talked with Darrin Simmons after practice, this past week, and asked him about the deficiencies on special teams. Simmons alluded to a mindset of “playing not to lose” as a key behind their failures, noting that it’s not just the young players who are having this problem. Should Pittsburgh block a kick/punt, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done so and Cincinnati manage to win anyway. However, in a game this close, field position will be of utmost importance, and Kevin Huber cannot be dodging blockers, constantly, to get a punt off.
Bringing it Home
Really, from my perspective this comes down to two things: the absence of Le’Veon Bell and the re-re-re-emergence of Andy Dalton. Bell had 374 all-purpose yards in the last two meetings of these teams. Now, Conner is no slouch, but he’s also no Bell. Secondly, if Andy continues the level of play he has opened the season with, the Bengals will win. He’s finding seams, piercing the smallest of windows, and making plays with his feet. He understands that his line isn’t going to give him a year, and that’s ok. Two stats on Andy. The first, he’s never led the Bengals to score more than 21 points in a game against the Steelers. The second, however, is he is completing 70% of his passes when he releases the ball less than two second after the hike. Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, or Ike Taylor aren’t walking out of that Steelers’ locker room in pads. I say Andy carves up the Pittsburgh secondary and gets the Bengals more than 21 points, on Sunday.
Prediction: 26-24 Bengals over Steelers
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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.