ReFo: PIT @ CIN, Week 2
There has been talk of a changing of the guard in the AFC North, with Cincinnati coming to the fore this season — I even picked the Bengals to win the AFC North with the Ravens and Steelers on a downswing. However, if this was to be the Bengals’ first opportunity to take control of the division they didn’t do it with any sort of authority.
For an offense, and particularly a passing game, that has a lot of continuity in personnel there were an alarming number of disconnects between quarterback and receiver in this game. In combination with some inaccuracy from Andy Dalton this was a disappointing display in what could have been a statement game, even over a Pittsburgh team that many acknowledge is in for a down season, and is now off to a 0-2 start.
For the Steelers, there were few signs of how they might recover this season with the offense stuttering and the defense benefiting from those disconnects in the Cincinnati offense. However, there might be some encouragement that the Steelers could quickly recover their position in the pecking order ahead of the Bengals. However, that is in the long- and medium-term, for the short-term this is a team still in for growing pains and in need of new players to step up and support Ben Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
Stepping into Pouncey’s Shoes
After the freak injury that befell Maurkice Pouncey in Week 1, the Steelers started Fernando Velasco at center just a week after he was signed. On such little preparation Velasco acquitted himself well (+0.1) with a solid performance that saw him go as unnoticed as a player replacing Pouncey would hope to have been. He was driven back by Geno Atkins to surrender a pressure late in the fourth quarter, but, after a slow start that saw him give up a 1-yard tackle to Domata Peko on the second snap, Velasco performed solidly in the ground game. Having picked up the playbook for the first time only a week ago this was a solid outing, and based on his displays from last season the Steelers should see little, if any, drop off to Velasco over the course of the season.
Sanders Shows His Worth
This Pittsburgh receiving corps needs to find an identity, and needs the likes of Emmanuel Sanders (+1.3) to emerge and forge a connection with Roethlisberger. When he wasn’t being tackled for a loss on one of the Steelers’ many wide receiver screens, Sanders was making people miss in the open field and he came up agonizingly short of the end zone on his longest gain of the day just before the two minute warning of the first half. That 43-yard gain immediately followed up a 19-yard gain on 3rd-and-8 where he worked to the middle of the field for a conversion. Sanders forced three missed tackles as a receiver, two off slants, highlighting his ability to pick up yards after the catch, similar to Antonio Brown. Those three forced missed tackles were as many as Brown forced in the first 10 weeks of last season.
Building the Workload for Jones
A week after his NFL debut, the Steelers’ first-round selection Jarvis Jones saw his workload doubled from 30 snaps against the Titans to 60 snaps in his first divisional encounter with the Bengals. Jones also took over the start from Jason Worilds whose snap count dropped from 46 to 27 this week, and was backed-up with a similarly ineffective display (-1.1) to last week. In his first start, Jones was solid but lacked the really big play that could kick start his career in Pittsburgh. There were solid plays in both run and pass games, with tackles for no gain and good work standing up blockers to divert runners, along with a hit and a hurry. However, the volume and magnitude of the plays he was making wasn’t quite there yet. That said, with Worilds’ ineffective start to the season (0 pressures, -2.7 overall) there is little reason to keep Jones on the bench and make him “earn” the snaps, so we should continue to see more and more from him in the coming weeks. Jones also notched a special teams tackle for the second straight week.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
Whitworth Back with a Bang
After missing the season opener against the Bears, left tackle Andrew Whitworth was, to an extent, eased back in against the Steelers last night with Anthony Collins taking some drives away from him. What we saw from Whitworth in his 55 snaps was an indication that he is ready to return to his best in 2013. The three pressures surrendered is a down day by his own high standards in pass protection, but it was strong day run blocking that hinted of a return to the kind of run blocking (+4.1) form that we haven’t seen since 2010. Whether working on Brett Keisel at the line of scrimmage or moving up to linebackers like Lawrence Timmons, he was always in control and often dominant. If Whitworth can provide this sort of run blocking on the edge then his combination with livewire running back Giovani Bernard could lead to some much needed explosive plays from the Bengals’ running game.
Bernard Makes His Mark
Speaking of the Bengals’ rookie running back, we were treated to an NFL coming-out party that left us frustrated by the low workload afforded to him by Cincinnati. In spite of showing just about the only spark in the Bengals’ offense on the night, Bernard got fewer carries (8 to 22) and fewer snaps (29 to 50) than BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Looking on the bright side with anticipation for more to come, his touchdown featured a nice cut and a strong finish to drive into the end zone from 7 yards out, while his receiving touchdown highlighted his terrifying speed. When defenses mess up on angles you need to maximize those opportunities, and Bernard did just that by taking the space and running lane the Steelers afforded him after looping out of the backfield for what proved to be the winning score. In terms of passing downs, Bernard was close to Green-Ellis playing on 19 such downs compared to 25 for the veteran and staying in to pass protect (with no pressure surrendered) on a similar proportion (4/19 to 5/25). However, the fourth quarter saw a big disparity in overall snaps with the Bengals turning to Green-Ellis as they looked to close out the game. In the final stanza Bernard saw only six snaps, compared to 16 for Green-Ellis.
Johnson Makes the Most of His Matchup
Playing under the Bengals’ franchise tag this season, the pressure is on Michael Johnson to put in a strong and consistent year. After two weeks he is off to a strong start in that regard. He played well as a run defender (+2.9) in the season opener, but used his matchup against Mike Adams (-4.6) to get properly underway as a pass rusher. His nine total pressures last night (3 Ht, 6 Hu) mark a career high in a single outing, topping the eight (4 Sk, 4 Ht) he recorded against the Redskins in the game that made his season a year ago. Johnson predominantly worked his power moves against Adams, collecting six of his nine pressures (including one more which was nullified) either by way of bullrush or to the inside of the Steelers’ left tackle. After two weeks, Johnson’s +8.5 overall grade is bettered only by the fast starting Robert Quinn (+15.4), who has had two of the most favorable matchups a pass rusher is likely to profit from to start the campaign. These performances, and importantly for Johnson, maintaining them, will serve to build his free agent value — but for the time being Cincinnati fans will be eager to see them continue as Carlos Dunlap settles in with a starter’s workload on the opposite side of the defense.
– Andy Dalton had reasonable control on the short areas, but his radar and understanding of his receivers was off once he looked more than 10 yards downfield. On 17 passes targeted 10+ yards downfield Dalton was 3 of 17 for 88 yards.
– Things were better on the opposite sideline, with Roethlisberger solid on intermediate throws (6/9, 149 yards, 1 INT), but he struggled on the deep ball going 1 of 9 for 31 yards.
– Last year’s first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick notched his first two snaps of the season and managed a touchdown-saving tackle on the second of those. That takes Kirkpatrick’s career total to 45 snaps.
PFF Game Ball
In a game that was short of a spark, Giovani Bernard made his mark with a pair of touchdowns that will have left Bengals fans wanting to see more of the same, and more of Bernard, moving forward.
Follow Ben on Twitter @PFF_Ben