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Bengals Weekly Lineman: Analyzing why the Bengals’ pass rush couldn’t take down Big Ben

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The Bengals pass rush was non-existent against the Steelers...or was it?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Building the modern NFL team revolves around three crucial aspects: finding a quarterback, finding players to stop the quarterback from passing, and finding players to stop the quarterback’s passes. Finding a quarterback remains the most challenging and valuable task to accomplish, but the other two can vary depending on who you talk to.

On Sunday, the Bengals had two these aspects working for them against the Steelers, but the absence of one hurt them more than I previously thought.

The Bengals failed to sack quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on his 46 dropbacks. I was able to determine that number of dropbacks because Roethlisberger threw the ball 46 times and never scrambled. The thing was, he was pressured for a good portion of the game, yet the ball always found a way out of Big Ben’s hands.

What can’t be ignored was how porous the rotation of the defensive line throughout the game was. Andrew Billings, Josh Tupou and Michael Johnson all had more snaps than Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard. How little Lawson played before the game’s final drive was actually downright embarrassing:

The Bengals pass rushing unit is lead of course by Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, both of whom weren’t on the field any less than they usually are. Regardless, none of their pressures resulted in anything meaningful? Why was that?

The answer lies beyond the pass rush, and the relationship between the back seven and the work of the front four was in a bad place against the Steelers offense. These five first-down conversions for the Steelers offense really encapsulates this thesis.

(Unfortunately due to time constraints I was unable to provide audio with the videos this week, but next week the audio will return).

Late in the first quarter, the Steelers are on their way to scoring their first touchdown of the game. They roll out a 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) formation which allows the Bengals to remain in their base defense. But they end up using all three tight ends as options on the play.

Atkins, who’s aligned over the left guard’s outside shoulder, performs his usual bull rush and starts creating solid penetration towards Roethlisberger. After a slight pump fake towards his tight end running a drag route, Roethlisberger progresses towards his tight end Xavier Grimble running a hook route between linebackers Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict. The pump fake gets Rey to bite just a bit, and there’s a window for Roethlisberger.

Atkins is now just a foot away from Roethlisberger at this point and if Burfict can collapse on the hook route faster, Roethlisberger may have held onto the ball a bit longer for Atkins to finish the rush. Instead, Burfict stops his feet, Roethlisberger leads the ball towards Grimble’s left, converts a first down, and Atkins is just left with a quarterback hit instead of a sack.

Just a few plays later, the Steelers are back to almost the same exact spot after a holding penalty and a tackle for loss made by cornerback Darqueze Dennard. However, it’s Dennard who gets picked on for this big play, and the Bengals pass rush is once again negated.

Roethlisberger sends slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in motion to confirm that the Bengals are indeed in man coverage, which is perfect for what the Steelers end up running.

Smith-Schuster starts his route by planting his outside foot hard to pivot inside and sells the vertical stem against Dennard. At this point, Dennard is in his hip pocket, but because the Bengals are in man coverage, and field side safety Shawn Williams collapses towards the running back running the flat, Smith-Schuster has room to work with running the deep over. Dennard tries catch up by using the trail technique but Smith-Schuster has the step he needs.

While all this is happening, the Bengals are running a stunt with Atkins and Hubbard, and Lawson is working against left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Atkins is able to get a lane on Roethlisberger, but with the separation Smith-Schuster created, Roethlisberger is able to get the ball out just in time.

When Atkins wasn’t in the game, it was extremely noticeable, as seen by this next play.

Even with the outside pressure provided by Dunlap, the duo of Billings and Tupou fail to generate any kind of push to take advantage of Dunlap altering Roethlisberger’s positioning in the pocket. The pocket is still maintained in front of him and he can step into a throw to his tight end Vance McDonald.

And McDonald is so open running towards the flat because instead of picking up his route, Burfict just modestly chips McDonald and he’s left wide open for some serious yards after the catch. Even without their best player, the interior pass rush failed to capitalize on Roethlisberger holding onto the ball longer to allow his receiver to break open because of another lapse in judgement from Burfict.

Finally, let’s look at a couple plays from the game-winning drive for the Steelers. The Bengals defense kept their nickel defense on the field to best defend the Steelers efforts to air out the ball with just over a minute remaining, and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin offered a unique front to get pressure on Roethlisberger.

Using three down-lineman and Hubbard in a two-point stance, the Bengals rush four, but have Lawson attack the left guard head on. Lawson’s speed-to-power is quite impressive and like Atkins before him, he gets decent push on the pocket. But the theme of the game remained the same.

Roethlisberger targeted backup slot cornerback Tony McRae who maintained outside leverage on the slant route to keep things funneling back towards the middle of the field. Unfortunately for McRae, he has no help inside as Burfict is taken upfield by the tight end’s deep dig route. Easy separation is allowed, Lawson’s rep is mitigated, and the Steelers move the ball.

Six plays later, another crucial mistake is made in the Bengals secondary, and this time, the pass rush never stood a chance.

The Bengals appear to be playing Cover 2, with two high safeties and zone underneath them. Like they have been doing all game, the Steelers create space for the primary target, while the backups in the Bengals secondary playing for injured starters continued to play a bit too slow.

Smith-Schuster is basically running a skinny post from the slot, right into the soft spot of that coverage. Conventional wisdom says the MIKE linebacker in a Cover 2 zone has to maintain proper depth so the window for a throw in this area isn’t too wide. But the MIKE, which is Burfict, is occupied for the slightest of seconds by the running back releasing out of the backfield. Because of this, Smith-Schuster only has to worry about the safety over top of him crashing down on him, but that doesn’t happen in time.

Clayton Fejedelem backpedals way to far in fear of the double comeback route combination getting past him, and the space he vacates allows Smith-Schuster to catch the ball completely uncontested.

This time, the pass rush is completely handled by the offensive line, with no hope for the secondary that they’re going to rush a throw from Roethlisberger.

Is a defense’s pass coverage more valuable than its pass rush? This game certainly lead me to believe it so. Roethlisberger held onto the ball on average a decent period of time, but most of the time, he got the ball out quick enough to completely mitigate whatever the Bengals’ pass rush was doing. Had coverage held up better on just a few occasions, the Bengals would’ve gotten opportune moments to take Roethlisberger down rather than just kind of hurry him, and that seemed like the crux of the Bengals issues on defense.

And I don’t think this was the primary reason why the Bengals lost. But enough people claimed that the pass rush was the culprit to their demise and I wanted to confirm their suspicions. As it turns out, Roethlisberger just did what he always does in Paul Brown Stadium: he carved up their back seven, specifically their linebackers.

The injuries the Bengals suffered in the secondary only escalated these problems, and it was the fire that lit the molotov cocktail. The bad news is, things won’t get much better next week when they take on Patrick MahomesChiefs, who will no doubt attempt to do the same things as Roethlisberger did. The worse part: he’s even more capable of doing so.

Every pass rush depends on the players behind them to give them the milliseconds they need to translate their work into production. The two units just didn’t help each other out enough, and the entire defense suffered at the worst times because of it.