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The Steelers need a big game from their run defense to upset the Bengals in Week 1

The Pittsburgh Steelers will have their hands full with the Bengals run game in Week 1.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers open the 2022 season on Sunday in Cincinnati. While a road game at the defending AFC champion is daunting, it’s not an impossible task. Pittsburgh faced a similar challenge last season when they opened at Buffalo. The Bills were heavy favorites, but Pittsburgh stunned them by employing a creative game plan that kept Buffalo’s potent passing game in check in route to a 23-16 upset victory. For the Steelers to win on Sunday in Cincinnati, they will have to rely on their defense to deliver a similar performance.

The burden this time around falls as much on the run defense as it does the secondary. That may sound like an odd statement, considering the Bengals are led by one of the game’s best young quarterbacks in Joe Burrow and one of its most dynamic receivers in Ja’Marr Chase. But Cincinnati’s success on offense last season against Pittsburgh began with the run game, which they used to set up the pass. The Steelers must stop Cincinnati from running the football at will to have any chance of slowing the Bengals.

Here’s a preview of Sunday’s game, and why stopping the run is Pittsburgh’s key to victory.

Cincinnati hammered the Steelers twice last season. They won the first game in September 24-10 (it wasn’t that close), and the rematch in November 41-10 (also not that close). Burrow put up good numbers in both games. He went 14-18 for 172 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first one, and 20 of 24 for 190 yards with one touchdown in the second. Combined, his numbers were 34-42 for 362 yards with 4 TDs and 2 interceptions. Very good numbers, for sure. But in today’s NFL, they read more like the totals for one game, not two.

That’s because the Bengals didn’t lean heavily on Burrow. They threw when they got good looks from the defense, or when they found advantageous matchups. Mostly, though, they capitalized on the fact Pittsburgh played a lot of cover-6 with both safeties 10-12 yards deep by running the football. Tailback Joe Mixon ran 18 times for 90 yards in the first game, then gashed the Steelers for 165 yards in the rematch. Cincinnati totaled 294 combined rushing yards, an average of 147 per game.

The Bengals were especially effective running on 1st down. They had 31 rushes for 176 yards on 1st down plays, an average of nearly 6 yards per carry. Their 1st down rushing success set up manageable 2nd downs, where they were free to run or pass and could take what Pittsburgh’s defense was giving them.

The Steelers struggled against the run in general, so it was smart of Cincinnati to exploit that weakness. But Cincinnati did so in unorthodox fashion. The Bengals had the 2nd highest offensive DVOA in the league from 11 personnel last season, but against Pittsburgh they used 12 and 13 groupings to run the ball. By putting multiple tight ends on the field, they forced the Steelers to counter with their base 3-4, which, due to injuries up front, put players like Henry Mondeaux, Isaiahh Loudermilk and Chris Wormley on the field. Cincinnati had their way in these matchups, creating gaping holes for Mixon:

Even when the Steelers dropped their safeties, the Bengals ran effectively. Here, Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) is aligned just outside the tight end at the line of scrimmage to the left of the defense. The Bengals create a huge hole on a wide zone run, and Fitzpatrick is manhandled by the tight end as he falls inside to defend the cut back. Cincinnati often knocked the Steelers three or four yards off the ball regardless of personnel groupings or schemes. They were just better and more physical up front, which the results reflected accordingly.

Heading into Sunday, Pittsburgh is undoubtedly better on the defensive line and at inside linebacker than they were a year ago. Tyson Alualu is back from injury, and former Bengal Larry Ogunjobi adds beef and run-stopping pedigree to the interior. Myles Jack is also an upgrade over Joe Schobert at linebacker. So, from a talent perspective, the Steelers are in better position to stop the run.

Talent alone won’t make all the difference, however. The Steelers will have to get creative with their scheme, like they did in last season’s opener at Buffalo. That night, they didn’t play a single snap of base 3-4 the entire game. Instead, they frustrated Josh Allen and the Buffalo passing attack with a steady diet of nickel and dime looks, putting five or six defenders on the field. Buffalo obliged the Steelers by stubbornly refusing to run the ball. They dialed up 54 passes against 23 runs, which played to Pittsburgh’s strategy. The blanket coverage took away Allen’s ability to push the ball down the field. As a result, the Steelers held him to an average of less than 5 yards per pass.

With all summer to prepare, I’d expect the Steelers to be similarly creative on Sunday. Look for them to present Burrow something they haven’t shown him before. One look I was anticipating was a three-safety package that dropped Terrell Edmunds as a big nickel while Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee shuffled in and out of two-high looks. This would give them a bigger, better tackler in the box and an answer for Cincinnati’s tight end passing game while maintaining their coverage flexibility.

Kazee has been put on the injured list, however, which removes that option. The Steelers may still run some three-safety looks with Tre Norwood, who had a strong pre-season, in Kazee’s spot. Norwood is a solid slot player, too, so if they wanted to mix their looks by dropping Norwood at times, they have that option.

Another way the Steelers can attack Cincinnati is with an aggressive 1st down strategy. Sitting in a base defense and allowing the Bengals to run the ball for 5 or 6 yards a clip will leave Burrow in comfortable 2nd down situations. This was a recipe for disaster last season. To remedy this, I anticipate the Steelers will lean on Brian Flores. Flores was a masterful run-blitzer as a head coach in Miami. One of his signature moments came when the Dolphins shut down the vaunted Baltimore run game last season with heavy doses of his Blitz-0 concept, where he walked seven players to the line of scrimmage before the snap while playing cover-0 behind it. Baltimore rushed for just 94 yards in a 22-10 loss, as Miami kept the Ravens off-balance with looks like this, which confused Baltimore’s blockers by forcing them to diagnose which defenders were blitzing and which were falling off:

The Flores Blitz-0 concept, as used by Miami against the Ravens

Burrow’s ability to check hot and exploit man coverage, and the difficulty of covering Chase man-to-man, makes Cincinnati’s offense a different animal than Baltimore’s. So, the Steelers may not run these exact looks on Sunday. Instead, we may see more of their scramble package, which utilizes multiple twists, loops and slants in an effort to muddle blocking schemes. Here’s one from 2020 against Denver, which involves a gap-exchange stunt on the left side of the line and a pinch-and-fire stunt to the right:

On this stunt, Heyward and Alualu exchange gaps on the left while Tuitt, Bush and Watt pinch aggressively on the right

You can see below how Pittsburgh’s movement destroys the integrity of Denver’s gap-blocking scheme. Stephon Tuitt (91), who is aligned as a 4i inside Denver’s right tackle, pinches into the A-gap. Meanwhile, Cam Heyward, the 4i to Denver’s left, crashes inside as well. This causes both penetration and confusion, with Heyward driving the center into Tuitt’s blocker. This leaves Tuitt free to make the tackle:

With all summer to game plan, and Flores in the mix, I expect the Steelers to be both creative and aggressive with their approach, particularly on early downs, in an effort to put Cincinnati behind the chains.

The other thing the Steelers must do to stop the run is to play disciplined, gap-sound defense. Cincinnati loves the wide zone play, which gives Mixon the opportunity to use his vision and burst. Mixon is a good zone runner, as he adheres to the “slow to the hole, fast through it” mantra all zone backs are taught. This means he is patient in waiting for the creases and seams that zone schemes create, and then sudden in bursting through once he finds one.

Mixon is especially adept at finding backside cuts, which emerge when defenses over-pursue. Watch here, from the first meeting last September, how Devin Bush, who is the right linebacker just inside the hash at the 24-yard line, comes flying across as he reads run action to his left. Bush presses too fast and is picked up by the center, who washes him across the ball. Bush winds up almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Schobert, putting both linebackers on the front side of the run and no one in the backside A-gap. This, and the fact that backside run-fitter Melvin Ingram is late falling into the box from his off-alignment near Cincinnati’s slot receiver, provides a seam for Mixon, who hits it for a 27-yard gain. The Steelers can’t get gashed like this on simple zone runs if they expect to stop Cincinnati.

While there’s no question Burrow, Chase and the passing game remain a potent weapon for the Bengals, it was their rushing attack that doomed Pittsburgh in both meetings last season. The Steelers should be better up front this year with their off-season acquisitions, both on the field and in the coaching booth. They will have to use them to slow Cincinnati’s rushing attack, particularly on 1st downs. They may be able to accomplish this by showing the Bengals new looks like they did to Buffalo in last year’s opener, implementing a variety of run blitzes and front movements, and playing disciplined, gap-sound football to prevent Mixon from gashing them on zone runs.

Winning on Sunday will be a tall task for the Steelers, but if they can stop Cincinnati from running on them, they have a shot.