If you are reading this article, surely I do not have to tell you how the Bengals got where they are. The Steelers are often penciled in at the top of the AFC North without much consideration.
Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown were cornerstones of this team for years, but with Big Ben’s injury, the last of the “Killer Bees” has fallen. The defense has also slipped in recent years which means that all that is left of the old Steelers is a talented offensive line, but even that could be changing as offensive line coach Mike Munchak has left to take the same job with the Denver Broncos.
In the past two weeks a lot has changed in Pittsburgh as the team traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick to shore up their needs in the defensive backfield and second year quarterback Mason Rudolph was thrust into the starting role.
Let’s take a look at what the Bengals are up against this week.
The clip above shows Rudolph completing a deep touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson. Johnson did a great job on his release and stacked the cornerback. Rudolph has a big time arm and showed it off here.
He can make things happen in an offense and is sure to progress as he gets more reps throughout the season and the Steelers start to tailor the offense to him.
At the moment however, the offense doesn’t seem to have much of an identity. They have him throwing a lot of screens to receivers and running backs. This may be to make him comfortable or it may be because the team is not comfortable with having him let it rip just yet.
That would be fair. He has thrown some long touchdown passes, but he has also thrown some interceptions.
And there you have it. The clip above shows Rudolph forcing the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster and the result is an interception.
If Rudolph would have continued with his progression he would have seen his college teammate James Washington coming open on the crossing route.
This is a youthful mistake and one that you would expect to see less and less of as Rudolph establishes himself as the Steelers trigger man. Still, it is not the only time it has happened this year.
Last week the Bengals faced a quarterback who was an expert creator in Bills quarterback Josh Allen; meaning that when a play breaks down and Allen gets outside of the pocket, all bets are off. That is not an issue this week.
In the clip above, Rudolph is flushed out of the pocket and desperately tries to get the ball to Smith-Schuster. Once again, the play results in an interception.
Not having to worry about the quarterback making plays outside of the pocket gives the Bengals more freedom in their pass rush. Containing the quarterback is not nearly as important as it was in earlier weeks, means that edge rushers can have more freedom to work to the inside to get to the quarterback.
Let me be clear about something. T.J. Watt is very good. I shouldn’t have to say that, but people don’t seem to appreciate just how good this guy is.
The above clip is a perfect example. He is on the right side of the screen and starts bending down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of the running back. Once he releases that it is a bootleg, he plants a foot in the ground and B-lines it for Jimmy Garoppolo. He leaps up into the air and rejects Garoppolo’s pass like he’s Dikembe Mutombo then shoves the quarterback to the ground.
Note to self:
Don’t run a boot and not block T.J. Watt.
Loyal Cincy Jungle readers will remember how I have gone off in recent weeks about the importance of holding the edge against the run. The clip above shows exactly what I am talking about.
It is a wide zone play to Watt’s side. He engages with the tight end who is tasked with blocking him and stays outside to hold the extended edge. When the running back cuts to the inside, Watt disregards the tight end’s block and comes inside to make the tackle.
This was a fantastic play by Watt. The Bengals have struggled to run the ball and Watt will not help their cause in Week 4.
So how will the Bengals run the ball? Perhaps they could take a page from the book of Kyle. Kyle Shanahan, that is.
We learned all too well in Week 2 that Shanahan is an expert play designer, and he took the Steelers to school the following week.
The clip above starts with a receiver motioning into the backfield, then continuing his motion as if he were going out for a swing pass. This gets one of the defense’s box players to extend outside of the box and run wide on the snap.
The tight end pass sets which influences Watt to run upfield and takes him out of the run play.
This leaves only two defensive players to the play side. The 49ers double-team the defensive tackle with their right tackle and right guard and pull their left guard around for the linebacker.
This is a great variation of 1-back Power and results in a nice pickup for the offense. The Bengals would be wise to run a similar play to address the Watt issue and open up holes for Joe Mixon.
As long as we are stealing things from Shanahan, let’s talk about the pass game. Fitzpatrick was a nice addition, but the Steelers still have some schematic and personnel issues in the secondary.
The Steelers are generally in a single-high look, but in the clip above they have two deep safeties who are aligned particularly wide. The 49ers are in a 2x2 formation and motion a back out of the backfield to the left. The only linebacker in the box motions out with the running back.
Offenses often refer to two deep safeties as MFO or middle of the field open. With the safeties spread wide and no linebacker in the box it is MFWO, which is a thing I just made up meaning middle of the field wide open.
The slot receiver at the top of the screen runs a dig route. He is being covered in man-to-man, but with no defenders providing help inside, it is easy for him to get open enough to make the catch.
The Steelers were vulnerable in the seams before bringing in Fitzpatrick and if they line up like this they will continue to be.
Empty backfields put pressure on defenses and can force them into situations they don’t want to be in, particularly when motion is used. The Bengals should use empty back sets to spread the defense out and create this sort of situation.
The running play mentioned earlier in this article had a motion that sent a player on a swing route, influencing the defense. The 49ers also ran a couple of pass plays that looked to take advantage of the defense playing the swing too aggressively.
In the clip above there are two receivers split out to the bottom of the screen and two backs in the backfield. The near back swings and the receivers run vertically. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is lined up as the slot receiver. When the defender lined up over him bites on the swing, Garoppolo throws the ball to Juszczyk for a nice gain.
Garoppolo didn’t even have to pump fake. This is an aggressive defense that can be manipulated. The Bengals should use similar scheme and the threat of John Ross III’s speed on the edge to open up other receivers.
In the clip above, the 49ers once again motion a second player into the backfield. On the snap, the left back swings out to the left. This gets the inside linebacker and safety on that side to extend.
George Kittle, the tight end, is on the right side of the formation and appears to be staying in to block. Seeing that Kittle has not released, linebacker Devin Bush widens. Once again, the middle of the field is wide open. Kittle releases on a delay and is wide open. Bush comes in to make the tackle after a short gain.
Once again, the 49ers used the threat of the swing pass to create space to get a player open.
As mentioned above, the Steelers are generally in a single-high look with Terrell Edmunds high and Fitzpatrick rocked down. Of course, just because the middle of the field is closed, doesn’t mean you can’t scheme a pass open in this area. It is all about influencing the deep middle field player.
A common way of attacking this is using play action to suck up the linebacker and then putting one receiver in front of the safety and one receiver behind him.
In the clip above, the safety comes up to play the dig by the receiver on the top of the screen and the receiver opposite on the bottom of the screen runs a post route behind him. The quarterback simply reads high/low and throws the ball to the post because the safety is playing the dig.
This clip also looks to influence the deep middle field player, but this time the receivers are both on the same side.
The play starts with a play-action. This sucks the linebackers up to the line of scrimmage. The slot receiver runs directly at the safety, commanding his attention, then bends in front of him. The outside receiver releases vertically, then cuts his route inside at about 15 yards.
The quarterback looks to the slot receiver, influencing the safety. The combination of this and the play action fake keeps the linebackers from dropping underneath the outside receiver's route and pushes the safety deep and away from the route.
The Bengals need to scheme to get their receivers open early and often to win this game.
The Steelers are very much a beatable team. If the Bengals can put together a full game and cut down on the mistakes they have been making, they have a great shot at getting their first win of the season on Monday night.