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5 keys to beating the Steelers

Bounce-back season.

Cincinnati Bengals v Chicago Bears Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

In Week 10 of the 2020 NFL season, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler threw everything he had at Joe Burrow.

As a result, the rookie quarterback struggled, and he didn’t get much help from his pass-catchers either. The team lost by a wide margin, only scoring one touchdown on the night.

Overwhelming a young quarterback with looks they haven’t seen is an excellent strategy, but with a quarterback who processes like Burrow, it sets up the rematch nicely. You could see Burrow learning as that game went on, and you could tell things would be very different in Round 2.

Unfortunately, due to Burrow’s injury, he didn’t get a second shot at the Steelers’ defense in 2020.

What will he be able to do with a year of experience under his belt and an added weapon at wide receiver? That will come down to how the team does in these five areas.

Pass Protection

The Vikings, the Bears, and the Steelers...this is a rough stretch for a team looking to get things right on their offensive line. Even with the Steelers dealing with injuries, they have an excellent defensive scheme and a plethora of dangerous pass-rushers.

Last season, the Bengals’ protection issues came down to personnel. Jonah Williams and Trey Hopkins played well for the most part. Their breakdowns came from the same couple of players making the same mistakes again and again.

This year is different. They have had a variety of issues. It comes down to consistency and getting on the same page.

This isn’t a surprise with a new offensive line coach, but it needs to be fixed fast. The Steelers defense will send a lot of confusing pressures at the Bengals. Each offensive lineman must understand their role in each protection and how to adjust to twists, stunts, and blitzes. They cannot afford to have one breakdown, because one mistake is all it takes to make the play a failure.

If Xavier Su’a-Filo is out with his leg injury, this could be the first start for second-round pick Jackson Carman. Against the Steelers defense, he will be truly thrown into the fire. It’s risky, but sometimes that is the best way to see what you’ve got in a young player.

Get Out of Your Own Way

Last week, the Bengals turned the ball over four times in the second half, quickly turning a four-point deficit into a 17-point hole. Despite a valiant effort at a comeback, this resulted in a loss to the Chicago Bears.

In Week 1, a missed tackle on third and long set up the Minnesota Vikings’ first touchdown, and the offense’s failure to convert a fourth down in their own territory led to the Vikings’ second touchdown. This triggered a Vikings’ comeback that the Bengals narrowly survived.

That same week, the Steelers came out of halftime down 10-0. Their opponent, the Buffalo Bills, failed to convert two fourth downs. Then the Steelers blocked a punt, resulting in a special teams touchdown. Three possessions into the half, they lead 20-10.

This is the danger of the Steelers. They have a knack for making the key plays that they need to make in order to win a game, even if they are not as talented as their opponent.

The Bengals too often find ways to lose or let teams get back into the game. This is dangerous. They must get out of their own way and avoid these costly mistakes.

Create Scoring Opportunities with Defense and Special Teams

The other end of this is creating scoring opportunities, like the Steelers did by blocking a punt in Week 1.

A nice defensive call by Lou Anarumo did that last week, as Logan Wilson showed blitz, then unbeknownst to Justin Fields, dropped underneath the hot route for the interception. This gave the Bengals a chance at the comeback late in the game.

Wilson took a bit of criticism for not falling on a fumble earlier in the game, but he was trying to make something happen with a defensive score. You can’t blame him for that.

This team needs to create big plays on offense, defense, and special teams.

Go Long!

On offense, these big plays can take a few different forms, but we’ll start with the most obvious one: deep balls.

Ja’Marr Chase has been targeted on four deep passes. The result was two touchdowns and two touchdowns.

I like those odds.

They need to take more deep shots and bring the Burrow to Chase magic to Cincinnati.

Win Light Boxes

Completing a few deep balls will lead to lighter boxes, and that sets up the run game nicely. There is only one problem: The Bengals have been terrible running against light boxes this season.

In a recent article, Paul Dehner Jr. pointed out that Joe Mixon has success-rate of only 7.7% when running against these boxes. The NFL average is 43%. Furthermore, his longest run of the season against light boxes was a mere 8 yards. That’s not very threatening and gives defensive coordinators no reason to put an extra man in the box (opening up deep pass opportunities).

This is key to the entire offensive philosophy. If the box is light, you’ve got to be able to take advantage, consistently running for six or seven yards and popping a long run here and there. Sooner or later the defense will put an extra player in the box, that’s when you take advantage of the matchups your skilled receivers have on the outside.

So in the end, it comes back to where we started: the offensive line. They have got to make their blocks and get the run game going so the team can take advantage in this situation.