Last week was disappointing but not disheartening. Among the mental mistakes and self-destructive snafus that riddled the Bengals' chances was a host of encouraging signs that should provide at least some optimism for the remaining games to come.
Most notably of those was the perceived development of the offense. As a unit, they looked more capable of an impact, more dangerous. The last two years, there were always concerns that this offense would not be able to keep up with those teams that easily put up a multitude of points. The performance displayed last week, however, instilled a lot of confidence that this team can move the ball downfield, and once corrections of ball security and focus are made, they should be able to score plenty of points to keep up with the league's juggernauts.
Defensively, they were a little less stout than what we Bengal fans are used to seeing from the Zim Clan, but Chicago played well and Jay Cutler looked armchair-comfortable in Marc Trestman's offense.
All in all, this team's talent is immediately evident and if it can learn to win, it can be as good as any other in the league.
This week, a familiar foe arrives by tour bus to Paul Brown Stadium. Yet, despite the familiarity, the Pittsburgh Steelers don't quite look like themselves.
Those who suffered through watching the Titans at Steelers saw two teams struggle mightily to score points. The Pittsburgh offensive line looked terrible, unable to clear any rushing lanes and allowed five sacks. There are no quick fixes for Mike Tomlin regarding his protection for Ben Roethlisberger and all the coaching staff can do is adjust its play-calling in order to address this glaring inadequacy.
The Titans defensive front is more talented than a lot of people may realize, but I feel confident in claiming that Cincinnati's is even better. True they did not pressure Cutler into sacks and bad decisions, but there are simply too many quality players in the ranks to remain quiet forever. On Monday night, I see Big Ben going down hard in the pocket.
Of course, in the pocket is not where Ben has earned his legacy. He is a grand improviser of passing plays, masterfully resorting to backyard football tactics in order to frustrate the hell out of the opposition. He is a strong man who is hard to take down and his field vision is impeccable. This is not a new scouting report on the Will Farrell-like QB, and Zimmer has employed effective strategies on him in the past.
Previously, Zimmer has instructed his outside pass-rushers to travel further upfield in their pursuit compared to how he coaches them to attack other passers in the league. What this does is prevent Roethlisberger from easily escaping the pocket, trapping him in its interior. That is where the mighty Geno Atkins awaits him and feasts on the stationary and panic-stricken Steelers quarterback.
Even if the Bengals are once more not able to accrue sacks this week, the Steelers are left with very few worthwhile skill players to catch the ball and make a difference. Antonio Brown is a decent receiver, but he suited better to be second-fiddle to a higher caliber threat like Mike Wallace was. Defenses have to feel relieved about their assignment when Brown is the most threatening weapon on the opposing roster. Jericho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders are just okay and longtime tight end Heath Miller may or may not play this week, leaving only no-names to replace him.
Their running game looked meager at best last week as well. The run blocking was positively horrendous against Tennessee and they appeared to pushed around on a very regular basis. Even with a better showing in run blocking, there are no real home-run threats in this Steeler backfield. That being said, we have all seen the Bengals be hammered by lesser known backs than Isaac Redman, but nonetheless, this running attack scares no one at the moment.
The Steelers defense has been picked over and are left with far more recognizable names, but they still have the same man in charge as they did in more golden days and the group as a whole is still formidable. Lamaar Woodley is an effective edge rusher who will put the onus on Andre Smith to keep Andy Dalton clean and standing on his two feet, and Dick LeBeau will send other hounds Dalton's way on his classic weird blitzes. Future hall-of-famer, Troy Polamalu, is a legend for good reason, but in this latter portion of his career, he seems to be more a gambler than ever. While Troy can win the game by himself on one single play, he can also be baited into traps that can swing the pendulum the other way.
For the Bengals offense to be effective, they must run the ball better than they did last week. Giovani Bernard is an exciting player with lightning-quick feet, but was featured so sparingly against the Bears. Meanwhile, BenJarvus Green-Ellis was featured on a number of plays that resulted in short-yardage or even for losses, mainly because the coaching staff asked him to do something he isn't very good at: running to the outside. I don't mind the stretch play but I don't like using it with the Law Firm. He is a north-south runner, a short-yardage extraordinaire but he has never shown the ability to consistently turn the corner when running to the outside. Bernard on the other hand, is anatomically perfect for these kinds of runs and has the ability to break chunk yards on this type of play-call. Using these two men more sensibly by better matching personnel with play-calling should produce healthier results on the ground.
As for the Bengals passing game, I wouldn't change much. Offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, called last week Andy Dalton's best game and it's hard to argue with that. He looked poised and veteran, accurate with acceptable arm strength, and, perhaps more important than anything else, didn't appear shook at any point. If this is the Andy Dalton the Bengals get to enjoy all season, success will be had and all the worries about his development will subside.
I love the two tight-end sets and the multiple shots to A.J. Green. This is a recipe for success and takes a lot of the pressure off of the less-sure youngsters, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Jermaine Gresham continues to prove that physically he is a grown-ass man and now Tyler Eifert gives more for the defenses to think about.
The Bengals would be smart to continue to carry out their offensive plan on their own terms and not counter to whatever Dick LeBeau throws at them. In years past, this wasn't the case, but the offense has never been built this well since the middle part of the last decade. With the Steelers seemingly in what smells like a rebuilding phase, it's time for the Bengals to leave Pittsburgh scrambling to adjust.
Last week was self-destruction, this week is redemption. While I think a 7.5 point spread is a bit over-the-top, I do think Cincinnati follows through with a comfortable win on national television. The Steelers will put up a late score to cover the spread-probably through the air against soft prevent defense-but the victory will never be in question for the Bengals and we can all stop worrying so much. I would like to ask the Bengals fanbase to be respectful win gloating about a victory to Steelers fans even if the opposing side has not demonstrated the same amount of class in years past. We are a genuine and modest people who finally happen to have a superior football team. Let them cry themselves to sleep.
Bengals 26, Steelers 20