The Bengals beat the Browns on Sunday.
Shocking, I know.
There’s a reason why Cleveland is still winless this season, and it wouldn’t be right to extract much from that matchup. Facing the Steelers at home on Monday, what we can do is take a look at what Cincinnati will need to correct if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Pittsburgh has one of the most talented offenses in the league, led by Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. It’s hard to stop one of the two, and almost impossible to stop both altogether. Also, embattled wide receiver Martavis Bryant seems to be back in the mix, and rookie Juju Smith-Schuster looks legit.
They went off in their win over the Bengals in Week 7, gaining the third highest amount of yards on offense so far in their 2017 campaign and not turning the ball over once. What can a Bengals defense that surrendered more than 400 yards for the fourth time in the last six weeks do against this juggernaut?
Their defensive line must bring it on
Despite having the best back in the league in Bell, the Steelers love throwing the ball. The Bengals usually do a good job of limiting opposing wideouts, but that often results in tons of yards inside. Their front four must get to Ben Roethlisberger and prevent him from finding the soft spots in their zone coverage.
But even one of the worst - also the youngest, mind you, quarterbacks in the league, like DeShone Kizer, can find gaping holes in the middle if there’s no pressure up front. Imagine what Roethlisberger and Brown can do.
They’ll need more agressiveness in their running defense
The Bengals’ run defense is bad. Nothing new, I know. In only three games, they’ve limited opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground, and Bell was unstoppable in the second half of their previous matchup.
According to stats guru Rich Hribar, 82.1 percent of the rushing attempts against the Bengals have gained positive yardage, the second-highest rate in the league. Sunday’s game against the Browns was no different. They need to come up with something new because their vanilla scheme isn’t working.
They’ve been succesful sometimes when they’ve gone with a run blitz, but the only man that has any chance leading it is Vontaze Burfict.
The veteran linebacker is key, and he must be great if the Bengals want to have any chance to beat the Steelers on Monday. When he plays well, the defense is much better, but I don’t know what to expect because Pittsburgh knows they can get inside his head, and he had a few questionable plays against the Browns.
One example is this one in which he completely forgets about Kizer and appears to go straight to knock down a receiver without caring much for the football.
More aggression in the running defense doesn’t mean forgetting about gap discipline, and this is where the Bengals need to really be careful. When they’re constantly giving up yard after yard, linebackers and safeties get antsy and want to make a play, and Bell will torch them - looking at you, Kevin Minter.
What’s wrong with Nick Vigil?
We don’t know yet if the second-year linebacker will play, but coming into the season, he was going to be one of the featured players of this revamped defense. It hasn’t gone well, though. Opponent offenses have been able to run the ball at will, and more often than not they’ve had the lead, so they haven’t needed to pass that much.
But Vigil has shown signs of regression, and if he can’t tackle backs in the open space that’s a huge blow for this defense.
Has he been overexposed? Is he more of a role player than a three-down linebacker? Monday’s game should be a pretty good test for him if he’s able to suit up.
Maybe try to mix things up a little bit
I’m not talking about playing Josh Shaw at safety, but William Jackson had a heck of a game going up against Brown in Pittsburgh and Dre Kirkpatrick is getting burnt in man coverage.
The Bengals, for the most part, have two options under coordinator Paul Guenther. Vanilla zone defense in first and second downs, and double A-gap blitz looks on third downs. Sometimes they blitz, and sometimes they revert back to their vanilla looks.
What if they bring up the heat on second down in different ways?
I don’t know, do something.
The Steelers play differently on the road than at home, and often in past times, when the Bengals had a better offense, their defensive scheme fared surprisingly well against Pittsburgh because they took advantage of Roethlisberger getting greedy and going for the big play. That they don’t have to, because Bell can roll past Cincinnati’s front seven, changes everything.
If Marvin Lewis and company are just expecting their players to "play better," they are probably going to have a hard time. This is the game where the Bengals coaches must try to out-scheme the Steelers, or else.