So let’s get this straight: the Steelers, at a respectable 6-3, are in third place of the AFC North? And it’s not the soft-scheduled Browns they’re chasing, but rather, the dysfunctional Bengals?
We’re going to find out over the next two months whether the Bengals are a Cinderella story or a farce. First, let’s establish some expectations by examining what the film has revealed over the past two months.
1. The ginger rookie & Jon Gruden’s brother
There’s a growing movement to anoint Andy Dalton the Offensive Rookie of the Year instead of Cam Newton. That’s a fair. Dalton’s team is 6-2, Newton’s is 2-6. But let’s keep our perspective and remember that Dalton is NOT the physical specimen that Newton is. He doesn’t have Newton’s arm, wheels or athletic improv skills. And he’s not being asked to do the same things as Newton.
That said, Dalton has been much closer to Newton’s athletic level than anyone would have ever guessed. He has shown the arm strength to make just about every throw that first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has asked of him. He’s been poised when operating from a muddied pocket, and he’s very good at releasing the ball on the move.
Gruden has done a phenomenal job playing to Dalton’s strengths. The Bengals have a balanced attack that hinges on play-action and rollouts, two concepts that slice the field for a quarterback and help define his reads (see graphic). Gruden also incorporates a lot of three-and five-step drops – another simplification tactic. As a result, the Bengals offense has not only been nearly mistake-free but also calm and consistent.
A play-action rollout simplifies things for a quarterback by essentially slicing the field in half. In this sample (against a basic two-man coverage), a fake handoff compels the defense to flow left. The only defenders who go right are the ones responsible for the two receivers running their patterns to the right.
Quarterbacking 101 teaches you to never throw across your body or back across the field. Thus, after the quarterback rolls out, he only has to read the right side of the field, which consists of nothing but his two receivers and their defensive matchups. Often, the read is simplified even more by throwing to wherever the free safety is not giving help-coverage. If a play is there, it’s easy for the quarterback to see.
If nothing’s there, the quarterback has plenty of room to throw the ball away or scramble.
2. The “sure thing” receiver & other weapons
Wideout A.J. Green has been exactly what you’d expect a No. 4 overall pick to be in Year One. He’s averaging roughly five catches, 75 yards and a little more than half a touchdown per game. He’s clearly Dalton’s go-to guy, being targeted almost automatically when facing one-on-one coverage. Green has a wide catching radius thanks to uncommon body control and a great vertical leap. He’ll climb to the top echelon of receivers once he polishes his route running (he has a bad tendency to yield ground and inside positioning on downfield patterns).
The receiving weapons around Green have been solid. Jermaine Gresham can cause matchup problems in the flats. Veteran Donald Lee has filled in well in the wake of Gresham’s hamstring injury the past two weeks. Jerome Simpson has shown why the team did not discipline him harshly after police found Costco amounts of marijuana in his home this past September. To be blunt, Simpson’s quickness is too valuable to take off the field. He’s much more reliable than Andre Caldwell.
Surprisingly, the black-and-blue ground game that figured to define Cincy’s offense has been extremely average thus far (the statistics support this, as Cincy ranks 28th with 3.7 yards per carry). Cedric Benson is a methodical, patient runner who needs steady blocking in order to thrive. He has gotten that, but not at the level he did two years ago when he averaged nearly 100 yards per game.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, despite a poor outing last week, has played at a Pro Bowl level, and right tackle Andre Smith has flashed astonishing power a few times. But the interior line and ancillary blockers (such as a sixth offensive lineman/fullback/tight end) have been up-and-down.
3. Defensive Overview
The Bengals have a deep, active defensive line that’s extremely potent against the run but just so-so against the pass. Tackles Geno Atkins and Pat Sims both regularly win phone booth matchups in impressive fashion, and Domata Peko almost always punishes teams who try to block him one-on-one. If he’s not penetrating, he’s stalemating in a way that allows teammates to make plays.
None of these inside players are dominant pass-rushers, though. And there isn’t much firepower outside. End Michael Johnson uses his athleticism in myriad ways but is not a regular presence in the backfield. Intriguing second-year pro Carlos Dunlap replaces Robert Geathers on passing downs. Dunlap, with his unusual upright style and sinewy explosiveness, is certainly capable of reaching the quarterback, but he’s also capable of disappearing for long stretches.
An impotent pass-rush can put considerable pressure on a secondary. Leon Hall is an elite cover corner who does not command a lot of safety help over the top. Using him in isolated solo coverage is a double-edge sword that has stabbed opponents slightly more than it’s stabbed the Bengals this season. Safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker are hit-or-miss in coverage but capable of playing in space or the box. They give Mike Zimmer options.
Veteran Nate Clements has done a commendable job replacing Johnathan Joseph. Clements has been especially aggressive in short, underneath coverage. Helping in this facet is the fact that linebackers Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson both move well in the flats. It’s a little surprising that Lawson, who is replaced by Brandon Johnson in nickel (Johnson is the more comfortable of the two between the tackles), hasn’t been asked to put his hand in the dirt on passing downs.
4. Something to consider
This is a sharp, fundamentally sound defense that plays well as a unit in Mike Zimmer’s fairly aggressive scheme. But it’s also a defense that has yet to be tested. Look at the Bengals’ schedule thus far. They opened against Cleveland and Denver, two teams with major problems at wide receiver.
They faced San Francisco in Week 3, a good team but a very, very basic offense. They beat Buffalo in Week 4. Buffalo has a much-improved offense, but they’re not exactly Green Bay. Or even Dallas (never mind what the stats might say). After that it was Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Seattle, three teams with a total of zero proven quarterbacks. Last week the Bengals handled a Tennessee offense that’s respectable but nothing close to dynamic (especially through the air).
You couldn’t ask to face a more banal collection of offenses. This defense is fantastic against the run, but it remains to be seen how it will respond against a rhythmic, up-tempo passing attack.
5. Matchup with the Steelers
Pittsburgh does have an elite, formidable offense. Cincinnati’s ho-hum pass-rush is not ideal for defending Ben Roethlisberger’s late-in-the-down magic.
The Bengals at least catch a break with wideout Emmanuel Sanders being out (arthroscopic knee surgery). Sanders would have given the Steelers aerial attack third source of speed, which Zimmer’s nickel unit may not be equipped to combat. Instead, it will be either Hines Ward or Jericho Cotchery threatening to catch six-yard slants out of the slot.
On the other side, the only defense comparable to Pittsburgh’s that this Cincy offense has faced is San Francisco’s in Week 3. The Niners were physical in taking away the receivers’ quick routes. The result was eight points and a 1/10 third down success rate for the Bengals. However, Dalton’s game has expanded since then. If need be, it’s possible, though not probable, that he’ll be able to put the team on his back and open things up for the first time this season.
Unless there continues to be slews of the fortuitous field position breaks that this Bengals offense has frequently enjoyed this season, he’ll need to.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 10 games.
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