Friday, December 21, 2012

Steelers Game 15 Preview - vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The Steelers are not really backed up against the wall. With a loss to the Cowboys last week the Steelers are now in playoff mode as one more loss and their season is over. They must get a huge division win over the Bengals and then beat the Browns next week. Interesting that the Steelers are one loss away from no playoffs but they control their own destiny getting in. That just highlights how important this game is and how important every play is going to be from here on out.

Let’s just get right into the preview:


The stats:


Last Week:

Dallas 27, Pittsburgh 24
Passing: Roethlisberger: 24-40, 339 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Rushing: Redman: 3 car., 30 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Wallace: 4 rec., 95 yards, 0 TD

Cincinnati 34, Philadelphia 13
Passing: Dalton: 13-27, 127 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Brown: 16 car., 34 yards, 0 TD
Receiving: Gresham: 6 rec., 63 yards, 0 TD


Offense (rank in NFL)

Total Offense
Pittsburgh: 345.1 yards/game (19th)
Cincinnati: 347.6 yards/game (18th)

Passing
Pittsburgh: 248.6 yards/game (10th)
Cincinnati: 227.4 yards/game (17th)

Rushing
Pittsburgh: 96.5 yards/game (26th)
Cincinnati: 120.3 yards/game (11th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 21.6 points/game (20th)
Cincinnati: 25.4 points/game (9th)


Defense

Total Defense
Pittsburgh: 273.3 yards/game (1st)
Cincinnati: 320.2 yards/game (6th)

Pass
Pittsburgh: 180.6 yards/game (1st)
Cincinnati: 219.2 yards/game (12th)

Rush
Pittsburgh: 92.7 yards/game (4th)
Cincinnati: 101.0 yards/game (9th)

Points
Pittsburgh: 20.8 points/game (8th)
Cincinnati: 20.9 points/game (10th)

All-Time Record vs. Cincinnati: 52-32 (1-0 Playoffs)

Last Five Meetings
October 21, 2012 – Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 17
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

Hit the jump for the rest of the preview



Quarterback



Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is really an interesting quarterback when you look at the bulk of his games and what he has been able to accomplish in his short time in the NFL. So far this season he has made very good strides in his game as he is going to surpass nearly every statistical high he set for himself as a rookie last year. Sure Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs in his first season but he was largely average. This year he has taken it upon himself to get better and put the team on his back a little more.

So far this season Dalton has passed for 3,313 yards which nearly surpassed his total from all of 2011 when he threw for 3,398 yards in 16 games. He has 26 touchdown passes compared to 20 last season and while he has improved his yard per attempt average to 7.02 (from 6.59) he has thrown one more interceptions this year (14) than last 13). Probably the biggest improvement is in his completion percentage as he is up to almost 63% this year after finishing last season at 58% which is below average for NFL quarterbacks. With two games left in the season Dalton is on pace to throw for over 3,700 yards and 30 touchdowns which would be a remarkably better season than last year. Hopefully he won't repeat the playoff bid as the Steelers can almost guarantee that with a win.

While Dalton is going to be putting up career numbers he still ranks out as an average quarterback according to the advanced statistics at Football Outsiders. He has a defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) number of 207 which gives the value of the players performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage and he ranks 19th in the league. He also has a defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA) of -4.8% 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 19th in DVOA. A little perspective on his numbers is that he grades out only one spot better than Joe Flacco in both DYAR and DVOA. Dalton also regarded as just a tad above league average according to is QBR which is a rating on a scale of 1-100 where 50 is considered league average that was created by ESPN Stats & Information. Some don't like it because it came from ESPN but I like it more than straight quarterback rating as it takes into account a "clutch" factor and things that come from the play by play that quarterback rating just doesn't do. With 50 being league average Dalton has a QBR of 53 so you can see why he might not be thought of as a guy who can take over games although he has been playing well of late.

When you look at all of Dalton's games you don't really see anything that jumps off the page at you. He has thrown for over 250 yards only four times this season and thrown for under 200 yards three times. Last week he had one of his performances of the season going 13-for-27 for only 127 yards and a touchdown and racked up a 19.4 QBR rating. Twice this season Dalton had a sub-20 QBR but in the same respect he's played three games with a QBR over 85.


As I said nothing really stands out about Dalton but what he has done has put up a pretty respectable line more often than not. He hasn't thrown more than one touchdown pass in any of the last three games but what he has done is led the Bengals on a streak of games where ether have won five of the last six where he has thrown 12 touchdowns to only three interceptions.

The last time the Steelers and Bengals met Dalton was held to probably his worst performance of the season. The Steelers baffled him and held him to only 105 yards on 14-of-28 passing and picked him off once. His QBR was 16.9 and after a solid start to the first quarter the Steelers gave him nothing.

In three career games against the Steelers Dalton has been pretty awful. He has a completion percentage under 50% (48.8%) and has lost all three while he has only four touchdowns and three interceptions and 410 yards passing. The Steelers know how to get to Dalton and if they can get into his head early then they are going to put themselves in a position to win the football game.

Running Back



The running game for the Bengals wasn't all that good the last time these two teams played and it really put a lot of the offensive burden on Dalton to make the offense roll. The Bengals ranked 22nd in the league with only 99 yards rushing per game and at that point of the season BenJarvus Green-Ellis only had 362 yards through five games and was only rushing for a 3.4 yard per carry average with one rush over 20 yards.

Since that time Green-Ellis has really upped his game and rushed for over 100 yard in four of his last five games which happens to be the only 100 yard games of the season for him. While he was once pretty below average he now is a 1,000 yard rusher with 1,080 yards and now has his yards per carry average up to 4.1. He has found the end zone six times and now has seven rushes of 20 yards or more. It is no coincidence that the Bengals winning ways started when the running game started to get going. While I don't think Dalton is good enough to win a ton of games just by himself I do think he is more than good enough to win games when he gets help from his running game. The Bengals are now 10th in the league in rushing yards per game at 120.3 and that is a vast improvement since the last matchup.

Green-Ellis ranks 15th in the league with a DYAR of 64 but hasn’t been as valuable as a typical running back in similar situations as he ranks 21st in the league with a -3.1% DVOA. Green-Ellis also has a moderate success rate of 50% which 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.

As I said above Green-Ellis really didn't have the greatest start to the year. It wasn't bad but it was great either. he was getting around 60 yards a game and getting an occasional touchdown but over the last five weeks he has really carried his part of the load for the Bengals. He is coming off a 25 carry, 106 yard effort last week against the Eagles and ran for a season-high 129 yards on 19 carries against the Raiders four games ago. The only game in the last five that he didn't go for 100 was against the Cowboys when he went for 89 yards on only 12 carries for a season-best 7.4 yard per carry average.

Outside of Green-Ellis the Bengals don't have much else to offer. Cedric Peerman is the team's second leading rusher but is lost to injury and even at that he only had 244 yards on the season despite playing until December. Dalton is the third leading rusher with 116 yards on 45 carries and while he isn't going to beat you with his legs he has found the end zone four different times on the ground.

The last time these two teams played the Steelers did a pretty nice job of shutting down the Bengals run game. They rushed for 80 yards on 21 carries with Green-Ellis getting 18 of those carries for 69 yards. He had a long of only 14 and most of that rushing total came early in the game. As the game wore on the Steelers really made Cincinnati one dimensional and you have to think that is the plan again this week.

Receivers



If there is a strength of this team it is going to be found at the receiving core. While they might not have the high end depth as teams like the Steelers do (in principle) they do have the top end guy that really makes the team run and can win games by himself without anyone having to contribute.

Obviously when I am talking about that one big time guy that is A.J. Green. The dude is one of the best in the game and watching him play you can see why the Bengals drafted him so highly. So far this season Green has dominated play with 85 catches for 1,208 yards and 11 touchdowns. That yardage ranks him seventh in the league and the touchdowns are second most which is only one behind the 12 that James Jones has from the Packers. Green is putting up some big numbers but he is doing it more in quantity than some of the other receivers. He ranks only 32nd in yards per catch at 14.2 which ranks behind Emmanual Sanders. He also has 14 catches of 20 yards or more which is top-15 in the league while his 343 yards after catch is 19th.

Earlier in the season Green ranked out as one of the most valuable receivers in the game but since the last Steelers game he has slipped a good bit. I will talk about this more in the next couple of paragraphs but his play hasn’t been as great as it was early in the year and it shows over at Football Outsiders. He ranks 23rd with a DYAR of 187 and is even worse with his DVOA as he is only at 4.7%. Obviously his yard per catch average isn’t great for a big play reciver and his catch rate of 59% isn’t great either when you consider the top receivers are catching 65%+ of their passes.

Green was an absolute monster at the beginning of the season as he recorded three 100 yard games in the first six and has only reached that barrier only one time since. Now it is true that he has been very close as he has four games since that have been 85 or more yards but over the last thre games he has been held in check for the most part. Last week he caught only six passes for 57 yards and a score. That score is the only time he has found the end zone in the last four games. Two weeks ago he only made three catches for 44 yards. Over his last three games his longest catch was 17 yards. He hasn’t had a 100 yard game since a November 25th win over the Raiders and that is his first, and only, 100 yard game since he caught seven passes for 135 yards in a loss to the Browns on October 14th. Make no mistake though he is as dangerous as anyone in the league not named Calvin Johnson.

The last time these two teams met you might not have known that Green played in the game if not for a second quarter eight yard touchdown which was his only catch of the game. Green was targeted six times in the game and made that lone catch while he was blanketed by Ike Taylor. Taylor is going to miss the game with a fractured leg so it probably will not be the same result but keeping Green in check is a huge task for Kennan Lewis or whoever else is going to be covering him.

While Green is a big time target the Bengals have a couple of other pass catch options that give them some depth. Those two guys are fellow receiver Andrew Hawkins and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Gresham is second on the team in receptions (61), targets (89), yards (699) and touchdowns (five) from his tight end position and gives the Bengals an athletic tight end that can create matchup problems for opposing teams. He has only one 100 yard game but is consistenyl catching between four and six passes for around 60 yards which is a pretty good day for the tight end. The Steelers did an outstanding job of locking him down for a season-low 19 yards on three catches.

Hawkins doesn’t give you much in terms of big plays as he only averages 10.8 yards per catch and only has five catches of 20 yards or more but has found the end zone four times.

Looking at the advanced stats for both of the secondary option guys you don’t really have anything special at all from Hawkins has he ranks 65th in DYAR (18) and 64th in DVOA (-9.2%) so he isn’t going to be anything special out of the number two spot for the Bengals. He does have a solid catch rate of 64% but something that I found interesting is that neither Hawkins or Green has forced a pass interference call on the defense.

Gresham ranks out as a fringe top-10 tight ends as he is 13th in DYAR at 75 but slipped a little bit ranking 22nd with a 2.3% DVOA. He does have a solid pair of hands with nearly a 70% catch rate and he is going to be a matchup problem for the Steelers secondary especially if Keenan Lewis can’t go.

Offensive Line



From left to right on the Bengals offensive line it reads Andrew Whitworth, Clint Boling, Trevor Robinson, Kevin Seitler and Andre Smith. It Is a very young line as the middle of the line is comprised of two rookies and a second year player. Zeitler and Robinson are first year players while Boling is in his second year and the long tooth in the line is Whitworth who is in his seventh year while Smith is in his fourth season.

Overall the Cincinnati offensive line has done an outstanding job this year in the running game to create holes and really jump start that part of the offense. They rank seventh in the league with an adjusted line yards of 4.35 and the running backs have an average yard per carry average of 4.39 so they are nothing to glaze over.

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, we 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.

In short yardage situations the Bengals are able to get the yardage needed and keep their running backs from getting dropped behind the line of scrimmage. They rank seventh in the league with a power success rate of 70% which is the percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. They also do a nice job of getting their backs a chance to get to the line of scrimmage with a stuffed rank of 16% which is fourth-best in the entire league. Stuffed rank is the Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Part of the reason for the Bengals success of late is forcing teams to pay more and more attention to the running game and when you are gaining positive yardage on most of your plays you are setting up your play action and passing game for some good things.
Cincinnati really does a nice job of running the ball up the middle and to the right side of their offensive line. They are the number one team in the league running up the middle or off the guards with an average ALY of 4.83 when running up the middle which far exceeds the league average of 4.10. What makes this even more impressive is that the Bengals run 55% of their running back carries either up the middle or off the guard and with how young that portion of the line is you have to really give them a lot of credit. The one thing that is really impressive to look at is how balanced they are in the rest of their running attack. Of the 328 running back carries they have they run 13% of those off each the left tackle, right tackle and right end. They are very good at running to the right tackle where they average an ALY of 4.45. They aren’t as successful in other places of the line as the next successful place is off the right end where they rank 19th in the league.

Where you can really confuse and expose the Bengals on the offensive line is in pass protection. As good as they are at running the football they are ranked only 24th in the league in adjusted sack rate where they post a 7.9% rating. Adjusted sack rate gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. The Bengals have given up 38 sacks on the year which is a decent amount and if the Steelers can get the pressure on Dalton they could possibly create a turnover to two which would be a nice change of pace.

Defense



The Cincinnati defense is a defense that has always been a little bit interesting over the last couple of years. They have some good young talent and they have been on the upswing but they never seemed to really click into that next gear and be a top notch defense. They have some big time playmakers including one of the best pass rushing defensive linemen in the league but they still show up as a league average defense when it is all said and done.

The Bengals defensive DVOA of 0.6% ranks them as the 15th best defense in the league according to Football Outsiders and that is only one spot better than the Steelers whose DVOA is right at the break-even point of 0.0%. Cincinnati is much better against the pass (11th, -0.4%) than they are against the run (24th, 1.9% DVOA). The Bengals defense has made a lot of headway since the last time these two teams met. When they met in week six the Bengals had the 26th ranked defense and they were equally bad against the pass (24th) as they were against the run (27th) but that is what a season of improvement will get you.

Interesting when looking over the numbers and what the Bengals have done this season you sort of see what you do with the Steelers. They have been a pretty inconsistent group as they rank 27th in the league with a -8.6 % variance which takes into account the week-by-week DVOA that the defense earns. Recently the defense has been better as they have given up over 13 points only once in the last six contests and that was in their lone loss during that stretch.

Against the pass the Bengals have improved a good bit from the beginning of the year but they are still around middle of the pack when you look a little deeper. They rank 15th in defending number one receivers with a -3.6% DVOA where those opposing number one receivers get almost eight pass attempts to a game and about 65 yards. They are just about the same against number two receivers where they rank 18th with a 1.5% DVOA with almost seven pass attempts and 50 yards. As I look at every week the Bengals are weakest against opposing tight ends. They give up an average eight pass attempts to tight ends per game and gives up about 60 yards. That ranks 25th in the league and with Heath Miller catching nearly everything around him and the team looking to get him the ball more this could work out really well for the Steelers.

While the numbers I just highlighted aren’t that great for the pass defense something that helps them, in a big way, is the way they can get after the passer. They rank tops in the league with an 8.5% adjusted sack rate and they also lead the league with 43 sacks. They are very good at getting after the quarterback and they have 13 players that have at least one full sack.

Against the run the Bengals aren’t very good just as they weren’t good in the earlier matchup. The Steelers are a team that loves to run up the middle and off the guards and even though they aren’t very successful at doing it that is the main place that they like to run the football. The Bengals rank 29th in the league giving up a 4.46 ALY on runs up the middle or off the guards, which is well above the league average of 4.09. The Bengals are also susceptible when you run to the offensive right guard where teams average a 4.26 ALY which is 23rd in the league. They are most successful when teams run to the offensive left tackle where they only give up a 3.41 ALY which is seventh-best in the league but teams are only running to that area of the Bengals defense only 11% of the time.

This team is really about three different guys defensively. When you look at the team you see the big sack numbers and most of that comes from defensive lineman Geno Atkins who has 10.5 sacks on the season. Atkins is a monster that is 6’1 and weighs in at 300 pounds and is still athletic enough to make the plays and get to the quarterback. He has been pretty consistent the entire year as he has at least a partial sack in nine games and has registered 3.5 sacks in the last five games. Last time out against the Steelers he had only two tackles but did get to Roethlisberger and drop him for a sack.

The other two guys that the defense revolves around are linebackers Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict. Maualuga is the team’s leader with 107 tackles and our passes defended. He isn’t someone that is going to go out there and give you the splash play but he is going to be in position to make plays. Burfict is an interesting player because by all accounts he has the talents to be a high draft pick but some character issues and some inconsistency he didn’t get drafted and he was picked up by the Bengals. After a slow start to the year he has really picked up the play as he has 101 total tackles which is second on the team and also has a sack. He had a monster game against the Steelers when he had 15 total tackles (13 solo) to really control the defense for the Bengals.

Michael Johnson is the other big name sack player on the defense as he has racked up 8.5 sacks this season while Carlos Dunlap has 4.5 sacks and Wallace Gilberry has five. There is no shortage of guys who can get after the quarterback and if the Steelers want to keep Ben upright and give him time they are going to need to have a big game from the offensive line in the passing game.

Game Thoughts:

-To say that this game is a big one would be an understatement. The Steelers are in must win situation if they want to make the playoffs. The Steelers need to defeat the Bengals and then defeat the Browns next week to make the playoffs and if they drop the game on Sunday the Steelers will almost assuredly lose out and have a .500 season at best and let a season that could have been great slip through their fingers. The Bengals are playing some really good football and even though they had a tough time against the Eagles they bounced back and used a defensive touchdown and some timely plays to win. I can pretty much say that the Bengals are going to be better than the first time around when the Steelers beat them in Cincinnati. The Steelers have really fumbled their way through the last six weeks but they can’t afford to do that anymore and if they do they might find themselves without something to do in three weeks.

-With Taylor out the big question is going to be how the Steelers are going to guard and defend Green. Green was shut down by Taylor in the first matchup for only one catch but with him out of the lineup it is going to fall on Keenan Lewis, if he is healthy. Lewis was banged up in Dallas and had some problems with his knee so it might be a little touch and go for Sunday. If he is unable to go then the burden would fall on Cortez Allen to watch Green. The secondary is still going to be really banged up and if Lewis can’t go it might pose a pretty big problem. Josh Victorian will be a major factor in the game and even Curtis Brown might get the call depending on how things go. The good thing is that Dalton isn’t as talented as a passer as Tony Romo in and aside from Green the Bengals don’t have the talent that the Cowboys have so it shouldn’t be as bad as it was this past weekend.

-Maybe the most important part of the game is going to be the turnover battle. The Steelers are -14 in the turnover battle and most of that has come recently. Last week the turnover by Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger killed the Steelers and the eight turnovers killed them in a loss to the Browns. On the other hand the Bengals have forced more turnovers than they have given up and if that happens this week the Steelers are going to have an impossible task to win, especially when the defense isn’t creating many turnovers itself. The last time these two teams played the Steelers won the turnover battle 2-1 and a LaMarr Woodley interception started the good play for the Steelers. Turnovers are key and while the defense isn’t creating many if they don’t turn it over themselves then I think they have a pretty good chance of winning.

-The Steelers run game has been pretty bad recently. Actually for much of the year it has been bad and there are a lot of reasons for it. They don’t have a back that can be “the guy” and the offensive line has been banged up with different line combinations all season. It is no secret that this is a passing team and with the ability of Roethlisberger it is hard to justify this team not throwing the ball a little more. If the receivers can hold on to the ball and make a few plays they might be best served to throw to set up the run. I know that is not ideal and what the Steelers fans want to hear but when this offense is working the passing game is making plays. The run game can still be there but it is never going to be what it used to be. With backs like Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman they can make it work but I don’t think it will ever be the force some think it can be.

-On the defensive side of the ball the Steelers are going to have to stop the run. The Bengals are really running the ball well and the Law Firm has found a groove. I said it above that if you give Dalton a decent running game he will be able to utilize the play action game to give him a little more time and if the running game is going the Steelers would have to stack the box and possibly leave Green or Gresham one-on-one where they can cause problems and give him much easier throws to make with simpler reads on his progressions. I feel like I say this all the time but when you make a team on dimensional you have a much better chance of winning the football game. The Cowboys didn’t run for a lot of yards last week but they averaged over four yards a carry and it gave them a definite advantage because there was a threat of them handing the ball off and the play action was giving guys like Miles Austin some gaps across the middle that they were able to take advantage of. So, yea, stop the run.

PREDICTION – I have no idea what to expect from this Steelers team. The last thing they are is consistent and to expect them to come out and do anything is pretty unrealistic considering the way they have been playing lately. The only thing that I can really take stock in from this game is that this is the game where the team’s backs are against the wall. I think to some extent they knew that last week’s game really didn’t mean all that much in terms of the playoffs and while they would never admit that it was the truth. As bad as some want to say the team was last week I don’t think they were terrible and I think they were miles better than when they played the Chargers. This is a playoff game and I think the team is going to respond in a really close game. Steelers 24, Bengals 23.

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