The Pittsburgh Steelers have already squared off with the NFL's best scoring offense and second best scoring offense this season, and this Sunday they prepare to face the third highest scoring offense in the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals' offense is led by a more balanced attack this year with an experienced Andy Dalton at quarterback who has thrown for 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions as Cincinnati has gone 6-0 so far this year.
AJ Green has been the Bengals' top weapon since he emerged in the league in 2011 as a rookie. In the past he has seen as many targets as 180 throughout a season, but this year he only has 50 targets at this point of the season; a pace much slower than before. Part of the reason Dalton targets him less these days is because of the maturation of the Bengals' other offensive weapons. The next most targeted player is their tight end, Tyler Eifert, whom has 40 targets and leads the team with six receiving touchdowns.
The ground game seems to switch its most dominant rusher season after season, with Giovani Bernard's impressive rookie campaign in 2013 followed by Jeremy Hill taking over the running duties more in 2014, and now in 2015 Bernard is the team's leading rusher again with 427 yards on 77 carries, a 5.5 yards per carry average. Hill only averages 3.1 yards per carry on only three less rushes for the season.
The Steelers will have to account for a number of weapons to beat the Bengals' offense, and it could be as tough a task as they have had all season. We take a look at where Cincinnati's offense could hurt the Steelers outside of their all-star wide receiver, AJ Green.
The Pittsburgh Steelers love to use cover 2, and they have also been hit up by tight ends this season for multiple scores in a single game twice. Look for the Bengals to utilize their former 1st round pick in Tyler Eifert as a big target deep down the middle of the Steelers' defense for big plays. The Steelers have given up the second most touchdowns to tight ends and the fourth most yards to the position so far in 2015. However, considering they've gone up against a hall of fame tight end in Antonio Gates, the best tight end in the NFL, Rob Gronkowski, and another tight end that is easily in the top five of the position in Travis Kelce, those numbers are skewed by their matchups. That won't be helped this week when they face Eifert.
The Steelers will sometimes vacate the middle of the field in an effort to get after the quarterback, so this is expected. Their zone blitz schemes are going to have to force Dalton from his launch point to disrupt his rhythm with the plays and force him to be a play maker after the snap and convert more difficult situations.
While part of that is one the pass rush, another way to take away Eifert and Dalton's receiving options will be jamming him at the line and disrupting the timing of plays. Notice Dalton's precision on this play to Eifert, but also notice how Eifert runs clean to the spot where he makes the catch. This was a pre-snap read by Dalton and these are the plays the Steelers can work to take away. Force Dalton to have to wait longer to see Eifert get to his spot or go through his progressions to find other receivers.
Dalton's passing game isn't alone, it's complemented by a running attacking that so far has been led by Giovani Bernard. Bernard is fast in space while his counterpart, Jeremy Hill, is a hard downhill runner. We covered the absence of Stephon Tuitt and the liability of Cam Thomas in our last film room episode, and with Stephon Tuitt out this week, we're scared we could see just what happens on this play.
The Bengals use a familiar scheme to all of us, the double pull run to the weak side. The Steelers' offense has had a lot of success doing this over the years, and Pittsburgh is going to plan against plays like this with the Bengals.
Notice how the Bengals' center takes a great reach step to stuff 95 on the Buffalo Bills and protect the pulling lanes for the two Bengals who become lead blockers on the attacking side of the play. Their right guard and tackle also do a solid job taking away attack lanes for defenders to cut through and stop Bernard from being able to turn up the field, all of which leads to a score.
The Steelers need to make the Bengals' offense as one-dimensional as possible. If they give up 120+ yards to a rusher like they did last week, we could see them give up 30+ points in a game for the first time in 2015.
Another thing which the Bengals are good at is creating mismatches for defenses to work against. Here you see Cincinnati motion Eifert out to the split end and get single coverage with a smaller defensive back. This is smart pre-snap football and gives Dalton a decent chance of tossing a touchdown. Eifert is 6' 6", 250 lbs. and considering the Steelers' largest defensive backs are safeties Will Allen and Mike Mitchell both at 6'1". The largest Steelers defenders off the line are Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree, Jones at 6'3" and Dupree at 6'4", but neither are viable cover options for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers can still plan to at least attack Eifert as he tries to get off the line of scrimmage should they see this play. Take away the easy inside throw that Dalton would prefer, and force him to put the ball over the defender and Eifert to make the big play. Count on seeing this play if the Bengals get inside the five yard line.
Ultimately the Steelers' defense has played well this season. They've been able to hold the two highest scoring offenses in the NFL to their lowest point totals of any game this season. They'll have to do that again against the Bengals, the third highest scoring offense in the NFL. They'll have help this week with the return of Ben Roethlisberger, but watch for these types of plays to be key points for the Steelers to win in key situations and keep the Bengals in check.