Friday, October 19, 2012

Steelers Game Day 6 Preview - @ Cincinnati Bengals

The Steelers are playing a team that is supposed to be pretty good and they have been playing poorly. They typically have played well at Paul Brown Stadium in the recent past. The Bengals have lost to a couple of average to bad teams in the last two weeks. The Steelers on the other hand have beat a decent Eagles team and lost to a pair of really, really, bad teams in the Raiders and Titans. Should be a real barn burner!

Whatever.

Here is the preview:


The stats:


Last Week:

Tennessee 26, Pittsburgh 23
Passing: Roethlisberger: 24-40, 363 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Batch: 10 car., 22 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: Redman: 4 rec., 105 yards, 0 TD

Cleveland 34, Cincinnati 24
Passing: Dalton: 31-46, 381 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Green-Ellis: 16 car., 62 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Green: 7 rec., 135 yards, 2 TD


Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 360.6 yards/game (16th)
Cincinnati: 382.2 yards/game (10th)

Passing
Pittsburgh: 285.8 yards/game (7th)
Cincinnati: 282.8 yards/game (8th)

Rushing
Pittsburgh: 74.8 yards/game (31st)
Cincinnati: 99.3 yards/game (22nd)

Points
Pittsburgh: 23.2 points/game (17th)
Cincinnati: 24.8 points/game (13th)


Defense

Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 295.8 yards/game (5th)
Cincinnati: 344.8 yards/game (15th)

Pass
Pittsburgh: 200.8 yards/game (4th)
Cincinnati: 228.0 yards/game (17th)

Rush
Pittsburgh: 95.0 yards/game (10th)
Cincinnati: 116.8 yards/game (20th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 23.0 points/game (18th)
Cincinnati: 27.2 points/game (t22nd)

All-Time Record vs. Cincinnati: 51-32 (1-0 Playoffs)

Last Five Meetings
December 4, 2011 - Pittsburgh 35, Cincinnati 7
November 13, 2011 - Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 17
December 12, 2010 - Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 7
November 8, 2010 - Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 21
November 15, 2009 - Cincinnati 18, Pittsburgh 12

Hit the jump for the rest of the preview



Quarterback



After Carson Palmer (who beat the Steelers this year, sigh) decided that he wasn't going to play for the Bengals and would rather retire than do so the Bengals needed to find someone that was going to take over the play calling under center. They proceeded to select Andy Dalton in the 2011 draft and all he did was come in and lead the Bengals to the playoffs. Last season he completed 58% of his passes and tossed 20 touchdown passes and teamed up with A.J. Green to be a breakout tandem in the NFL.

So far this season Dalton is off to a decent start but hasn't really been great, per say, in leading the Bengals to an even 3-3 record, but hey, everyone else in the AFC is 3-3 so I guess he is doing alright. He has thrown 12 touchdowns through six games and has a very healthy 8.03 yard per attempt average while completing 66% of his passes. Not a bad start for the second year signal caller despite throwing nine interceptions and is coming off back-to-back losses.

Last week the Bengals lost to the Browns and although it was bad it wasn't all bad for Dalton. He threw three touchdowns and for 381 yards on 21 completions but also threw three interceptions. Over his last two games he has throw four touchdowns and five interceptions. The Bengals have lost both of those games to the Dolphins and Browns.

While Dalton has been good with the most basic stats but he ranks out as pretty average according to the advanced metrics that the boys over at Football Outsiders use. Dalton has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of 155 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage. That ranks him 16th among qualified quarterbacks. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -0.7% which represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player's performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense. The simple version of the two is that DYAR represents a player with more total value and DVOA represents a player with more value per play. Dalton also ranks 16th in terms of DVOA so really he is just giving the Bengals average quarterback play in both aspects.

Last year Dalton ranked a little better in both advanced categories as he put up a DYAR of 575 and a DVOA of 5.6% which ranked 12th and 13th, respectively. I think that is what you are going to expect with Dalton. We looked at Michael Vick a few weeks ago and it was pretty feast or famine with him but with Dalton you get the feeling that he can be good and he can be bad but it isn't a major swing when we talk about the extremes of his good and bad play.

Even thought it is a small sample size Dalton didn't perform well, at all, against the Steelers last season. In two game he completed only 48% of his passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns while throwing two interceptions. Not really that great of a couple performances but we are talking about a kid in his rookie year that was facing the Steelers for the first time ever. Not really sure what I expect form him. I haven't got to watch him too extensively this year but it seems as if he is progress as you can see a uptick in completion percentage and YPA so it will be interesting to see what he brings on Sunday night.

Running Back



Cedric Benson left the Bengals in the offseason and the Bengals really didn't have anything to turn to but they were able to grab the player known as the Law Firm. BenJarvus Green-Ellis came to the Bengals after spending the last four years with the New England Patriots where he has a big year in 2010 when he ran for 1,008 yards.

So far this season Ellis has gained 362 yards in 107 attempts for a 3.4 yards per carry average with a pair of touchdowns. Nothing really stands out much about BJGE this season other than the week one game against Baltimore when he went for 91 yards and a touchdown but that is starting to look a little less spectacular since everyone is running on the Ravens. Since that game one attack Ellis hasn't performance where he averaged more than four yards a carry.

BJGE might look like a pretty average back but advanced metrics have him as one of the worst in the game. He ranks 31st among qualified running backs (of which there are only 31) with a -78 DYAR and 28th with a -25.6% DVOA. He actually ranks in the range of Issac Redman and Shonn Greene in terms of DVOA to put his production into some sort of perspective.

Green-Ellis also ranks 26th in the league in success rate at 41% which is defined by Football Outsiders number represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays.

The Bengals don't really have much else in terms of running the football and that is evident by the Bengals 28th ranked rush offense stands in terms of DVOA. They rank at -17.9% on the DVOA scale on rush offense and that put them one spot above the Pittsburgh Steelers. Let that sink in for a moment. The Bengals run game is just as good as the Steelers run game. Now sit there and think how good the Steelers run game is. Yup.

Receivers



Where the Bengals really set themselves apart from most other teams they play is at the receiver position. Now, this really isn't because they have an overly talented group of pass catchers but it is truly all due to their top threat, A.J. Green. Green came to the Bengals with Andy Dalton and has just been a freak of nature on the field. Last season he made 65 catches but turned those into 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns. A lot of people talk about how receivers don't perform in their first years but Green literally laughed at that and became one of the best receivers in the game.

So far this season in only six games Green has 43 catches for a league-best 628 yards and six touchdowns. Green didn't start out the season so hot as he only gained 70 yards in a loss to Baltimore and then only 58 yards in a win over Cleveland. After that is was all Green all the time. He put up 183 yards on nine catches against Washington and then 117 yards on six catches against the Jags. Despite the loss last week he caught seven balls for 135 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He has been targeted 67 times which is 29 more times than anyone else on the team. Unreal.

Football Outsiders is weirdly indifferent about him. He ranks fourth in the league with a 133 DYAR but ranks a mere 24th in the league with a DVOA of only 11.7%. This doesn't mean that Green has been bad because DYAR is rally what you look for in the total value of a receiver whereas the DVOA gives you the value per play of a receiver. Obviously the overall view of Green is very high and the low DVOA could be a product of a mixture of things including quarterback play. Make no mistake, A.J. Green is one of the best in the game and the Steelers are going to be in MAJOR trouble if he gets going.

The receivers revolve around Green and that the way it should be but while he is the main target the Bengals still have a few other guys who can, you know, catch the football. Andrew Hawkins is the second leading receiver on the team with 25 catches for 329 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also has five catches of 20 yards or more so basically he is getting a big play once a game. Hawkins isn't going to be outstanding but he is going to be a good complimentary piece catching three to five passes a game for around 40-60 yards a game. Enough that the Steelers pay attention but not game breaking enough to worry all that much. Hawkins ranks 36th in the NFL with a 53 DYAR and 34th with an 8.4% DVOA. More than capable of not being terrible.

Jermaine Gresham is in his third year with the team getting better last season than he was in his rookie season in 2010. So far this season he is tied with Hawkins with 25 catches but is second on the team with 38 targets. He aslso has 306 yards receiving with is over half of all the yardage he had last season. Gresham has been successful this season ranking 10th among tight ends with a 41 DYAR and 21st in DVOA. Gresham is an athletic tight end that is big at 6'5 260 pounds. He relates to me much like Hawkins does. He is a nice complimentary piece that can do a lot of damage if you just disregard him. He hasn't had a big game this season but in the past two weeks he has caught at least 60 yards worth of passes and for a tight end in an offense that has Green that is pretty significant.

Offensive Line



As it is an accustom first line in the preview for the other team’s offensive line from left to right the Bengals read: Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling, Jeff Faine, Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith. This is a pretty young line all round. Faine is the elder statesman of the group with ten years of experience and Whitworth has seven years of experience but Boling is only in his second year and Zeitler is a rookie.
The Bengals have actually done a pretty nice job across the board according to the offensive line stats at Football Outsiders as they rank in the top-10 or right outside, in nearly every category offensively. The Bengals running backs have only put up a 3.94 yard per carry average but the Bengals have been able to outperform that with an adjusted line yards (ALY) of 4.09 which ranks 11th in the league.

ALY takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:

Losses: 120% value
0-4 Yards: 100% value
5-10 Yards: 50% value
11+ Yards: 0% value

These numbers are then adjusted based on down, distance, situation, opponent, and the difference in rushing average between shotgun compared to standard formations. Finally, they normalize the numbers so that the league average for Adjusted Line Yards per carry is the same as the league average for RB yards per carry.

While the running backs aren’t really rushing for a ton of yardage they are able to make the short yardage plays happen with a pretty good frequency. The Bengals have a power success rate of 74% which ranks fifth in the league which is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down that is two or less yards to go that result in a first down or a touchdown. A statistic that is closely related to that is stuffed percentage where the Bengals are sixth in the league at 14%. As you can expect that stuffed percentage is the number of times that the running back is hit and dropped at or behind the line of scrimmage. This ties into the good success rate for the simple fact that the Bengals just aren’t getting knocked down behind the line and the back, with the help of the offensive line, are able to at least get passed the line of scrimmage and thus picking up the necessary yardage on the short yardage situations.
The Bengals really have a lot of success running the football up the middle, which is defined as straight up the middle or off the guards, where the Bengals rank fourth in the league with an ALY of 4.78 which exceeds the league average of 4.09 ALY. To no surprise the Bengals have ran around 50% of their running plays up the middle or off the guard which is much more than any other portion of the line. They run more to the left side as they run 19% off the left tackle where they hold a 3.14 ALY which is actually pretty below league average (3.78).

In protecting Dalton the Bengals are actually pretty below par. They have given up 17 sacks this season and boast an adjusted sack rate of 8.4% which is 25th in the league. The adjusted sack rate gives sacks (which include intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance and opponent.

Defense



Over the past couple of years the Bengals defense has been thought of as an athletic group of players that were young and were pretty good. For one reason or another they have never really been able to be one of those top notch defenses that everyone talks about but they still more than held their own. While that might have been the case in the pass the defense hasn’t been very good this year as they rank as one of the worst in the NFL.

The Bengals hold a total defensive DVOA of 15.2% that ranks 26th in the entire league. Remember that just because that DVOA number is positive doesn’t mean it is good. When you are playing defense you want to have a negative DVOA as positive numbers favor the offense. The Bengals don’t really do any one thing on the defense well as they have a pass defense that ranks 24th against the pass and only 27th against the run with DVOA’s of 23.4% and 5.9%, respectively.

What is interesting about the defensive numbers is that the Bengals haven’t been very consistent at all. I guess you can probably assume that they would be like this will the roller coaster season they had but the Bengals own an 8.2% variance with their defense which ranks them 26th in the league. Variance measures the team’s difference of the team’s weekly DVOA. So this really should let you know that the Bengals just haven’t been terrible all season. They have been good at times and they have been bad at times. Obviously they have been pretty bad recently but when you look at another bad defense that the Steelers just played, Tennessee, they ranked third in the league in variance and the Steelers couldn’t get the job done against a consistently bad defense. No idea what they might do against an inconsistent defense that could show up and be good.

As I said the Bengals aren’t really good in any facet of the defensive game so when I say that the Bengals rank 27th in the league giving up an ALY of 4.37 to opposing ball carries you can see why they might be in a little bit of trouble. While their offensive line does a nice job converting in short yardage situations the defense has been the exact same in that they are allowing teams to convert those short yardage situations. The league average power success rate is 63% and the Bengals are giving up a power success rate of 75% which is good for 25th in the league. In the same breath the Bengals actually do a decent job at hitting ball carries at or behind the line of scrimmage making plays about 20% of the time which is good for 13th in the league.

The Bengals get exploited on the line where they are most successful and that is right up the middle. When teams are running up the middle or off the guards on the Bengals, which is 54% of all carries against the Bengals, they are worst in the league giving up an ALY of 4.77 which is well above the league average of 4.10. Cincinnati also ranks 28th in the league when teams run off the offensive right tackle giving up an ALY of 4.88 and they are 22nd when teams try to run off the left end. Not good times for the Bengals in stopping the run.

The biggest advantage that the Bengals have on defense is the ability to get to the quarterback. They lead the entire league with 21 sacks and also lead the league with a 9.8% adjusted sack rate. The Steelers have actually done a nice job on the offensive line only allowing only 10 sacks this season and having an adjusted sack rate of 6.6% which is around league average (6.5%). But, with the injury to Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey this could be a huge advantage to Cincinnati in a game that both teams desperately need to win.

A little on the defensive players themselves. Rey Maualuga lead the defense as he has for the past couple of years and has 50 total tackles which includes 26 solo from his linebacker position. He hasn’t been able to get to the quarterback but he is making some plays and is a pretty good cog in the middle of the defense.

Where the Steelers are going to have to worry is on the defensive line where they tandem of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson who have combined for 11 sacks between them. Atkins is in his third year out of Georgia and has been a monster form his defensive tackle position. He went without a sack last week but has four sacks in his last four games and has picked up a pair of sacks in two games this season. He isn’t going to make a lot of tackles but he has been able to get to the quarterback so if Pouncey can’t go then the Steelers line is going to have to step up. Johnson, a fourth year player from Georgia Tech, has been reaping the benefits of teams trying to get Atkins under control and has had a nice year almost equaling his sack total from all of last year (six) thought six games. When you look at Johnson’s play logs you see that his progress largely is fueled by a three sack performance against Washington but he is still going to be dangerous nonetheless.

Game Thoughts:

-To say this is a must win game is a little over the top but I think it is pretty safe to say that both of these seasons are in the balance with this game. The Bengals are already 0-2 in the division and going 0-3 would give them nearly zero chance of winning the division. On the other hand this is only the Steelers first division game and while losing it won’t be as bad for them going 2-4 would really put them behind the eight ball and give them a 1-4 conference record and probably force them to probably only be able to lose two more games the rest of the season. A win for the Steelers gets them back in the division hunt and puts a game in between them and Cincinnati. While the Steelers haven’t been good on the road they have been really good in Cincinnati and now would be a GREAT time to keep that streak going.

-While the Steelers haven’t been good in really any aspect of football for a consistent stretch they should be able to play well on offense. This goes without say but the Steelers should have rolled over the Titans but they didn’t. They still continued to struggle in the red zone despite continually having strong numbers on third down. I don’t know what it is but if the Steelers could settle for one less field goal a game and get that into the end zone it would be a whole different season.

-The defense needs to figure it out. I know that the raw stats say that the Steelers are a top-10 defense in terms of yardage allowed but they are middle of the back in giving up points and according to DVOA they rank 24th in the league with a 10.4% DVOA while they rank 22nd and 20th, respectively, against the pass and the run. Moreover they have been pretty consistently below average with a variance of 2.1% which is eighth in the league. We aren’t looking at a defense that just has been really bad in three games and really good in the others, they just haven’t been that great overall. Now, I think a little bit too much is being put on the defense. Last week against Tennessee the Titans scored 26 points but seven of those were set up by a blocked punt that the Titans started on the one yard line. In reality the defense gave up 19 points which should be enough to win football games. A few more turnovers would be nice. The Steelers only take away the ball an average of 1.2 times a game which ranks 23rd in the league. It was a problem last year and it is starting to become a problem this year.

-Ike Taylor needs to step up. This is by far his biggest test of the season when he goes against A.J. Green. Green is a monster, as I have noted above. Taylor has been off his game all season and while I think he still has the talent he just hasn’t been able to put it together. I think it would be pretty crazy for the Steelers not to give Taylor help over the top, even if he doesn’t want it, but that will be seen. If Ike can get the technique down like Rod Woodson seemed to think he needs to do then I think we might start to see the Ike Taylor of 2011 that nobody could throw on. Right now Ike is getting thrown on a lot and Ike is a man of a huge amount of pride. That is good in some instances but sometimes it hurts him and I think that is the point we are getting to this season.

-The Steelers are banged up. They need to tighten things up and get back to the basics with the plethora of players they have hurt. They will probably be going with two new lineman on the offensive side and with news that Ben tweaked his ankle in practice on Thursday makes things even more grey on how the offense will be able to perform. The defense will be getting a boost with LaMarr Woodley coming back which will be huge if he can stay healthy with James Harrison.

-The penalties can’t happen. Not with a defense that is struggling as I wrote about a few paragraphs before. The Steelers are still averaging 8.2 penalties per game and that is after only having four last week. They are giving teams a league-worst 79.2 free yards per game. You can’t win games like that. Just can’t do it.

-The Bengals are a team that likes to start fast. They rank sixth in the league with 14.7 points per game in the first half while they are 25th in the league in second half points per game. It is pretty standard to say for every game that you have to start out well in order to have a chance to win but when you are facing a team that hasn’t been good at scoring in the second half of games then getting that good first half or start of the game really gives you a good advantage. If the defense can step up and hold this Bengals offense in check (read: A.J. Green) then they can ramp up the pressure in the second half when the Bengals haven’t been as successful. Granted, the Steelers second half. The Steelers give up the 13th most points per game in the second half of games at 13.6 and while that is middle of the pack that is double the number of second half points per game they gave up last season (6.8).

PREDICTION – Well, I am 2-3 on the year in picking Steelers games. If you look at the math you can pretty much figure that I pick the Steelers every week. That will not change. Steelers 27, Bengals 24.

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