Baseball great and quote factory Yogi Berra once famously said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Such is the case when the Steelers begin their second of two annual trips through the AFC North, as they will today when they take on the Bengals in Cincinnati.
But this one is...different.
There are so many things that will be different from the first meeting between the two teams this season besides the venue. The headliner will be the presence of linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has developed a bit of a knack for causing significant injury to Steelers players. He was, as you likely know, suspended from the first three games of 2016 for a pattern of violent — not to mention illegal — hits, culminating with what can only be described as an attempted decapitation of wide receiver Antonio Brown in last season’s wildcard playoff round.
But we aren’t here to talk defense. We’re here to look at the Bengals’ offense, and there are some significant changes there, too.
In previewing the Bengals’ offense the first time around, we focused on receiver A.J. Green. Well, he won’t be out there today, so we won’t rehash that. But there are two more very significant differences. One is an addition, and the other is a subtraction.
Tight End Tyler Eifert did not play when the teams met in Week 2 due to an ankle injury and a previous surgery sustained in the Pro Bowl on January 31. When the teams played last year, though, he made several significant plays.
2015, Week 14, 1st Quarter, 6:20 Remaining, 3rd & 10
In 2015, Eifert showed a fluidity to his movements that is rare among even the most athletic of tight ends. Like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, he often moved more like a wide receiver. Here, the Bengals set up an excellent screen, but part of what was so impressive about this play was the way he broke a tackle at the 15-yard line. It wasn’t a tuck-and-drive power move, but rather a finesse spin.
Watching him in 2016, though, something just looks different.
2016, Week 14, 1st Quarter, 12:26 Remaining, 2nd & 4
While this is certainly a fine play — it scored a touchdown, after all — there is a crispness missing in his movements, and everything just seems a bit slower. Remember, those are linebackers he’s up against, and from the worst defense in the NFL, to boot.
When he breaks back to the outside, the turn isn’t as sudden as his cuts have been in the past, and he rounds the corner out significantly. His acceleration out of the break is slow and lumbering, as well. It’s understandable, as he’s seven months removed from ankle surgery, and his original return was delayed several weeks by a back injury during practice for Week 4.
Without A.J. Green, Eifert instantly becomes the Bengals’ best weapon. But if he’s hampered by lingering injury issues, he’s going to find it hard to get open against athletes like safety Sean Davis and Linebacker Ryan Shazier, especially with the expected high temperature below 30 degrees.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the Bengals, though, is that running back Giovanni Bernard is out for the remainder of the season.
Bernard is a smaller back who uses exceptional speed, quickness and agility to excel on outside runs and screen passes.
2015, Week 14, 4th Quarter, 13:15 Remaining, 3rd & 2
With the Bengals on the right hashmark, the Steelers defense looks primed to defend a run to the left, back toward the open side of the field. Instead, the Bengals run to the right, using Bernard’s agility and acceleration to explode through an enormous hole and into the second level. Most impressive is the quick cut back to the left almost immediately after he gets through the hole. That move likely added five to 10 yards to the end of the run before being dragged down by former Steelers safety Will Allen.
Now, compare that to Jeremy Hill, who has gotten the bulk of the carries since Bernard went down for the year.
2016, Week 14, 4th Quarter, 4:38 Remainin, 2nd & 9
First, it’s important to note that Bernard and Hill are very different backs. Bernard relies on agility and speed, while Hill is a north-south runner. While Bernard often stretches plays toward the sideline to make use of space to gain separation, Hill prefers to turn the ball upfield at the first opportunity. Hill relies on power, and commits to runs quickly.
This play demonstrates that difference perfectly. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Bernard would have continued toward the sideline in this exact situation, while Hill saw a pretty good-sized hole attempted to turn upfield. Two things played against Hill here, though. First, the field is cold and has some snow on it, limiting traction. Second, Hill simply lacks the agility to make this cut as cleanly as he attempted. The lack of traction and agility carries him too wide and slows him down too much, giving the defender time and space to make a play.
The Bengals’ offense will look very different from the one the Steelers saw in Week 2, and most of these changes aren’t for the better. And the Bengals are catching the Steelers’ defense right when they’re truly getting hot and primed for a late-season push to the finish line. If the Steelers are able to get a couple of scores early, the Bengals may simply lack the firepower to keep up the rest of the way.