3 key matchups to watch during Bengals-Steelers
In what it likely to be one of the more heated Week 2 meetings, the Cincinnati Bengals travel to Heinz Field on Sunday to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both teams are 1-0, though the Steelers looked markedly more impressive in their victory on Monday night against Washington than the Bengals did against the Jets.
This game is actually stuffed full of interesting matchups to keep an eye on; here are three such key battles to watch.
DT Geno Atkins vs. RG David DeCastro
In 2012, Geno Atkins was the best defensive tackle in the game, but a knee injury derailed his career and it took until last season for us to see that same player back again at 100 percent. Since then, Rams DT Aaron Donald has come onto the scene, so even back to his best, Atkins might not be the best defensive tackle in football, but he’s certainly near the top, and is a very tough talent to block all game long.
Atkins will move between sides on the D-line, and in Week 1, split his time almost equally between the left and right side. Knowing this, Atkins will likely face LG Ramon Foster on plenty of snaps, too, but the marquee matchup will come when he squares off against Steelers RG David DeCastro.
DeCastro, a Stanford product, was a first-round pick back in 2012, and may not have ever fully developed into one of the league’s best, but his 2015 season was the peak of his career to date, ending with a PFF grade of 83.6—16th among guards, and sixth among right guards, specifically. He looks to have carried that form into the 2016 season, with a strong grade in his Monday night outing against Washington.
DeCastro was such a highly-touted prospect because there is very little to dislike about his game; he has no real major flaws, and grades well in all facets of play (pass protection, screen blocking, run blocking, and even penalty discipline). He has all the physical tools to be great, but just doesn’t seem to be able to apply them every snap in the way players like Ravens G Marshal Yanda can. Last season, Yanda allowed one sack, one hit, and 15 hurries for a total of 17 pressures over 16 games. DeCastro was just a little worse across the board, surrendering two sacks, three hits, and 23 hurries for 27 total pressures.
The story is the same in the run game, where DeCastro wasn’t beaten any more often than Yanda, and even has the same kind of frequency of dominant blocks, but the former just didn’t win as consistently as the Raven, who right now is the benchmark for guard play in the NFL.
That profile of not losing often, but not necessarily winning on blocks, is probably a good one to have when facing Atkins, because the DT’s blend of leverage and quickness will test a guard’s breaking point quickly. Last season, Atkins recorded 82 total pressures, more than any other defensive interior player not named J.J. Watt. (In truth, Watt has become more of an edge player anyway, not a true interior player, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Atkins made nine tackles for loss in the run game last season and seven more that gained 0 yards on the play. His game is about penetrating the line and disrupting plays in the backfield, and DeCastro will need to be at his best to limit that damage.
WR A.J. Green vs. Steelers cornerbacks
This game features an elite WR on either side, and an interesting matchup for both because neither defense uses corners to track top receivers, but instead usually elects to simply play sides of the field and stick with it. A.J. Green dominated Jets CB Darrelle Revis in Week 1, but Revis was tasked with following him all over the field, something the Steelers won’t do in Week 2.
Pittsburgh made a major upgrade in the secondary this offseason simply by moving Antwon Blake out of the starting lineup. Ross Cockrell, the man in his spot now, allowed four catches on six targets against Washington, but they went for only 34 yards, and the longest catch he surrendered was for 12 yards. Rookie Sean Davis looks to be the weakest link of the trio, giving up a catch on 83.3 percent of his targets versus the Redskins, surrendering a passer rating of 105.6 on throws into his coverage. If the Bengals see that, too, Green might get more time in the slot this week, having lined up inside on 20 of his 56 snaps against the Jets.
WR Antonio Brown vs. Bengals CBs
There is no more difficult player to cover in the game right now than Antonio Brown, and I’m not sure there’s anybody on the Bengals’ defense up to the task. Like Green, Brown will move around the offense and line up on both sides of the line, so he will likely match up with both Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick plenty of times, while probably also testing that impressive-looking set of coverage numbers Josh Shaw managed in Week 1 (ninth-highest coverage and overall grades among CBs).
The really concerning thing for the Bengals is that Jones had the team’s best grade amongst corners last season, at 83.3—not much better than the 81.3 mark Washington’s Bashaud Breeland earned in the same season. Breeland drew the assignment of covering Brown for much of Monday night’s game and surrendered seven catches on eight targets for 113 yards and two touchdowns. If Adam Jones can’t do any better than that, Brown is going to tear this secondary to ribbons, because Jones is the best CB Cincinnati can deploy.