3TFO: Bengals @ Steelers, Week 15
In the unusual position of being all but eliminated from the playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the rare role of playoff spoiler as they host the Cincinnati Bengals and cling to their faint hopes of postseason play. The visitors in this one are still in the hunt for a playoff bye, though New England’s crazy comeback last week put a damper on those hopes.
After opening the year on a miserable four-game losing streak, the Steelers won five of their next seven before dropping two straight, and basically removed themselves from playoff contention. Their year has been rife with injuries especially along the offensive line where they’re using their third starting center of the year. Pittsburgh has been playing better football lately, especially in the passing game, but with players missing time, the cohesiveness and consistency just hasn’t been there on both sides of the ball.
The Bengals won at Heinz Field in 2012, but before that hadn’t won in Pittsburgh since sweeping the division in 2009. This year, the Bengals’ offense has generally gone as its quarterback goes. They hadn’t beaten Pittsburgh at home since ’09 either, their only home victory against the Steelers since an overtime victory in 2001. They’ll look to buck that trend while the Steelers play spoiler ball.
Brown vs. New Starters Jones and Kirkpatrick
If you haven’t read Pro Football Focus this season, you might not know how good Antonio Brown has been. With the Bengals playing sides with their cornerbacks, and Brown seeing time on both sides of the formation, he’ll face Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick — both of whom started the year as backups — with the league’s fourth-highest receiving grade. Quietly effective for much of the year, Brown’s 2.27 Yards Per Route Run is ninth-best, just behind A.J. Green’s 2.34 mark for the Bengals. Brown has picked up 7.45 yards per his 22 screen receptions this year, and has been efficient on ins, outs, and hitches, catching 26 of those 30 targets for 399 yards.
Jones has seen his fair share of top receivers this year, including Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, and Brandon Marshall. A Secret Superstar coming into the season, Jones had the sixth best coverage grade for any corner with at least 600 snaps in 2012. The consistency he displayed last year in his mostly part-time role as an outside corner in nickel and dime packages hasn’t been present this year, as Jones’ coverage grades are a bit bi-polar. Playing right cornerback almost exclusively, he’s missed six tackles in the last two weeks and gave up two touchdowns against the Colts, though he did sprinkle in a nice pass breakup.
On the other side, it sounds like Kirkpatrick will step into the starting role for the injured Terence Newman. Kirkpatrick has hardly seen the field since the Bengals made him their first draft pick in 2012. In 131 coverage snaps this year, he’s been targeted 18 times and allowed 13 catches for 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His interception against the Chargers was impressive work, ripping the ball out of Antonio Gates’ hands just as the San Diego tight end caught it. Outside of that spectacular play, he’s had his share of missed tackles and bad penalties that stand out against him. In his first potential full-game action as an outside corner, though, Kirkpatrick faces a tough test with Brown.
Giovani Bernard vs. Pittsburgh’s Linebackers
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is dealing with an illness, which could mean a heavier dose of rookie standout Giovani Bernard for the Steelers this weekend. Bernard, still in contention in the Race for Rookie of the Year, is tied with Danny Woodhead for second in our overall halfback rankings, is a major contributor in the passing game and carries a Top-6 blocking grade. A well-balanced back for the Bengals so far this year, Bernard’s Elusive Rating of 47.0 ranks in the Top 15, and he’s among the most elusive as a pass catcher out of the backfield on a per-catch basis.
With Andrew Whitworth’s move inside, the Bengals have been running the ball better in the last two weeks and Bernard will likely be a threat as a runner, too. Last week he thrashed the Colts on outside runs behind Whitworth and Andre Smith in space, averaging 8.5 yards on carries to either edge. It’s worth noting that in his two weeks at left guard, Whitworth has posted his two best games this year, mostly due to dominant run blocking efforts.
The return of Lamarr Woodley and recently improved play from Jason Worilds in his last four games could be the shot in the arm the Steelers’ defense needs. Worilds has been especially effective in run defense, with a +7.4 run defense grade in those games. Still, the challenge of wrapping up Bernard and fighting through run blocks could be challenging for this unit. Woodley’s 8.3 Tackling Efficiency in the running game ranks 19th for 3-4 outside backers. Interior man Lawrence Timmons sports a Run Stop Percentage of 11.3%, sixth in the league for inside backers, but he’s also missed seven tackles in the running game and ranks 28th in Tackle Efficiency against the run. This unit could have its hands full if the Bengals continue their dedication to the running game and getting Bernard out in space behind its suddenly effective run blocking line.
Will the Real Andy Dalton Please Stand Up?
We have a pretty good idea of who Andy Dalton is this season. That is to say, we have no idea who he’ll be on a week-to-week basis. He just sandwiched the worst four-game stretch of his career between the best two games of his career and has been markedly more up-and-down this year than he was in either of his last two seasons. Against the Steelers in Week 2, he played like a man confused, posting his worst marks against base pass rushes and no pressure, and actually grading out better when blitzed. In other weeks this year, he’s looked lost against the blitz. The one constant seems to be that when he’s not pressured, like most QBs, he performs very well.
Interestingly, Dalton has hardly attacked the intermediate part of the field since going 2-of-9 on passes there in Week 10 at Baltimore. The Bengals have become run-heavy in the last two weeks, and focused on a combination of a lot of quick passes mixed in with some bombs. Over the last three weeks only 13.2% of Dalton’s aimed passes went to the 10-19 yard part of the field, a sharp fall-off from the 20.2% observed prior.
The Steelers have generally done a good job against Dalton, who has just one positively graded game against them. They’ve been able to contain A.J. Green for the most part, but lately haven’t had the pressure grades needed to really disrupt Dalton consistently. It will be interesting to see whether the Steelers’ healthy combination of Woodley and Worilds can beat the solid offensive tackle tandem of Smith and Anthony Collins to get into Dalton’s space and make “Bad Andy” rear his head.
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