Friday, September 13, 2013

Steelers Game 2 Preview - @ Cincinnati Bengals

There were two good things after week one for the Steelers. The first is that the Steelers were tied for first place since the rest of the division blew and the second is that it was only the first week of the season and there are 15 more weeks to get things on track.

This is going to be a pretty important game and when the schedule makers put this game on Monday Night Football I bet they didn't think both teams would come into the game 0-1. After one week of play I am not sure if this will get played up as big as one might have thought it would after the past few seasons but as a Steelers fans it is still fun to beat the Bengals and laugh at them. The problem now is that Marvin Lewis and the staff has put together a pretty good team and while the Bengals offense isn't anything to get overly excited about the defense has quietly been getting better every year and is pretty damn good going into this year.

I guess we should just get into the preview. There really isn't much more I want to say and I think I cover most things below. As it was last week here are some of the key terms I am going to use to break down the Bengals for your reference. All information came from Football Outsiders :

DVOA - DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.

DYAR - Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the player’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.

ALY - Adjusted Line Yards. Based on regression analysis , the Adjusted Line Yards formula 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.

Power Success - 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. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks.

Stuffed - Percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. Since being stuffed is bad, teams are ranked from stuffed least often (#1) to most often (#32).

Adjusted Sack Rate -  Gives sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.

Bengals Offense

In the 2012 season the Bengals were a largely average offense. They ranked 17th in the league with a -1.8% DVOA and that equaled their ranking from the 2011 season. In terms of passing offense they ranked 19th with a 5.0% DVOA and they ranked a little better (14th) in rushing offense with a below average (-1.4%) DVOA. In week one this season the Bengals racked up 340 yards and 21 points against the Bears albeit in a loss. In 2012 the Bengals scored 21 points per game that ranked tied for 20th in the league so it looks like they picked up where they left off.

Andy Dalton heads the Bengals for the third straight season. Last year Dalton led the Bengals to a playoff berth and beat the Steelers late in the season at Heinz Field (a game which I was able to attend) and really started to give him a little bit of respect among some fans and analysts. In the loss to the Bears Dalton still had a pretty nice game completing 26/33 passes for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Over his career Dalton completes passes at just over a 60% clip and set a new high last season with 27 touchdown passes and 3,669 yards. He has been fairly low in yards per attempt with a career average of 6.8 yards so I wouldn't expect his 8.6 average to hold up for any substantial amount of time.

I am mostly going to focus on Dalton's 2012 advanced numbers because there isn't enough to really dive into anything from this season. Dalton ranked as a below average quarterback last season despite tossing for a career high in yardage and a career high in touchdown passes. Among the 39 qualified quarterbacks he ranked 20th in DYAR (358) as well as finishing in 20th with a -5.9% DVOA. His QBR was 50.7 which was good for 22nd in the league and really is the break even point for quarterbacks in term of that statistic.

Last season Dalton faced the Steelers two times in the regular season and split the season series. In a 24-17 home loss in late October he was 14/28 for only 105 yards and a touchdown while throwing for a paltry 3.8 yard per attempt average. The second meeting really wasn't a great game for Dalton going 24/41 for 278 years and no touchdowns (two interceptions) but he kept his team in the game long enough to secure the win and propel them into the playoffs. I still don't think Dalton is a guy that can win a game on his own but he can do just enough to keep the Bengals in a good position to win.

The one thing that Dalton has in his favor is one of the best receivers in the game. A.J. Green is a straight up monster and can win a game all by himself if you let him. Last week he almost single handedly won the game for the Bengals with nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns. He is one of the best in the game and there isn't really much you can do most times. If the ball is in his area he is going to catch it and make you pay.

Last season Green caught 97 passes for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns. His yard per catch average was well below what you would like to see from him at 13.9 but he made a nice step from his first season. The advanced stats were a huge fan of Green last season as he ranked out as only the 22nd ranked receiver in terms of DYAR at 215 and he was even worse with a 4.1% DVOA that was only good enough for 33rd in the league among qualified receivers.

I am a pretty big believer in Green so I don't expect him to be looked at quite in that light this year and if week one was any clue then this could be that breakout year for the third year receiver. It was very hit and miss last season for Green. He caught only one pass (in six targets) in the first meeting for only eight yards (that was a touchdown) but in the second meeting he went off for 10 catches (18 targets) for 116 yards. I think we will probably see a little more of the latter than the former but Ike Taylor has been very, very good against top opposing receivers so we will see how he stacks up on Monday night.

Tyler Eifert is going to be really the unknown here for the Bengals. A lot of peopled love the talented tight end from Notre Dame, so much so that the Steelers had been linked to him for much of the weeks leading into the draft. Eifert has been described as having unreal hands that will catch anything within reach of him and with the Bengals also having Jermaine Gresham at the tight end spot it is going to create some real matchup problems for the Steelers.

Last season Gresham caught 64 passes for 737 yards and five touchdowns while ranking 18th in DYAR and 22nd in DVOA (3.2%). Those might not look like big numbers for a tight end that is supposed to be much better with a 6'5 260 pound body but with the addition of Eifert it will free up Gresham for some better one-on-one match ups if teams aren't careful.

Outside of the tight end and Green there isn't a whole ton for the Bengals in terms of pass catching. Mohamed Sanu is the number two receiver and is in his second year out of Rutgers. Last season Sanu caught only 16 passes for 154 yards and four touchdowns for a 9.6 yard per catch average. Brandon Tate and Marvin Jones are the other two receivers on the team and they have combined for 31 catches for 412 yards a year ago. So, yea, they're thin.

The Bengals have a nice little duo of running backs to head into the game with BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading the charge and up-and-coming youngster Giovani Bernard getting some carries also. Both of them did very little against the Bears but the Bengals didn't really commit to the run. Green-Ellis had only 25 yards on 14 carries while Bernard had 22 yards on four carries.

Last season Green-Ellis led the team with 1,094 yards on 278 carries which came out to a 3.9 yard per carry average and six touchdowns. He was serviceable but didn't really do a whole ton on his own. He finished the year 29th in the league in DYAR (6) and DVOA (-8.1%). He had a success rate of only 48% which ranked 21st in the league and lost three fumbles. In a couple of games last season against the Steelers he wasn't all that successful. In the first contest he ran for 69 yards on 18 carries before gaining 14 yards on 15 carries in the second contest and failed to find the end zone.

Bernard was the main running back at North Carolina where he gained 1,228 yards on 184 attempts for an impressive 6.7 yard per carry average and 12 touchdowns. He ran for over 100 yards in five of his last seven collegiate games which made him a second round pick for the Bengals. He is a guy that was getting a good bit of hype coming into the season and with Green-Ellis nothing really doing anything that makes him a must keep on the field you could see a good bit of Bernard as the season goes on. I doubt he gets a ton of carries this time around as it is only the second week but he is a back to keep your eye on.

I have said this a bunch of times but it is really hard to differentiate the difference between a bad running back and a decent back with a really bad offensive line. The offensive line really wasn't given much opportunity against the Bears as they ran the ball only 21 times for 63 yards (3.0 ypc) but while they weren't that great at blocking for Green-Ellis or any other back they did keep Andy Dalton clean as he was sacked only one time on the night.

In terms of the running game the Bengals line actually did a pretty good job in 2012. They ranked 11th in the league with a 4.15 ALY which was right in line with the running back average which was 4.17 on the season. That running back average was right around the league average (4.25) for last season. The Bengals were a top-five teams in the league in power success rate as they converted the short yardage situations at a pretty great 69% rate while they were excellent at not getting dropped at or behind the line of scrimmage with a stuffed ranking of 17% which was good for ninth in the league.

While Cincinnati was pretty good at running the football they were very one sided in doing so. When the Bengals ran to the left side of their offensive line they were one of the worst in the league. They ranked 31st when they ran off the left end for an ALY of 2.50 and they were 24th in the league when they ran off the left tackle for an ALY of only 3.58. When you look at the right side of the line you see where the team makes their money. In 2012 the Bengals ranked fourth in the league when running up the middle and off the guards for a 4.59 ALY which was well above the league average of 4.05. They are also above league average when running to the right tackle with a 4.12 ALY (12th) but have struggled a little ranking 19th in the league when running to the right end (3.86 ALY).

This shows you what the Bengals want to do. Last season they ran 55% of their running plays up the middle or off the guards and with his successful they were in that area you would be shocked if they didn't try to pound the rock there again this year.

Bengals Defense

The Bengals defense has really been the strong point of the team. It hasn't always been that way but with the youth movement they have steadily got better. In 2010 and 2011 they ranked 17th in the league in terms of defensive DVOA but last year the Bengals took a big step forward when they ranked 10th in the league with a -3.8% DVOA. They did much better against the pass with a very solid secondary with the ninth-best pass defense DVOA (-5.6%) but struggled against the run with a -1.4% DVOA. While they were better than average against the run that only ranked 23rd in the league.

Last season, in terms of raw numbers, the Bengals ranked sixth in the league giving up only 319.7 yards per game while ranking eighth in the league giving up exactly 20 points per game. The Steelers did their hit and miss with the Bengals last season as they gained 431 yards of total offense in the first matchup while in the second, and more deciding game, they were only able to rack up 280 yards per game. In that second meeting the Steelers gained only 15 first downs and were 2-of-14 on third down. I would much rather see the Steelers performed they way they did in that first matchup in 2012.

Last week the Bengals were pretty decent against the Bears when they nearly pulled out the win. They gave up 323 yards of total offense while holding the Bears rushing attack to 81 yards and giving up only 242 yards in the air. The Bengals forced three Bears turnovers including a pair of interceptions so despite the loss you really can't pin this one on the defense.

Vontaze Burfict returns as the main cog in the Bengals defense from his weak-side linebacker position where he led the team with 127 total tackles and a sack. Ray Maualuga complimented Burfict with 122 tackles and a sack and while he might not have been playing up to his potential his entire career he did a really nice job last year.

The real strength on the team came on the defensive line with the tandem of Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins. Those two paired up for 24 sacks in 2012 and made a living on getting in the quarterback's grill. Atkins led the team with 12.5 sacks which is really a large number to come from the nose tackle position and something you are more likely to see from an end spot where Johnson played and had nearly the identical amount of sacks (11.5).

Cincinnati did an outstanding job of getting to the quarterback as they had 51 sacks which was third most in the league while having an adjusted sack rate of 8.7% which co-led the entire league. The Steelers are done one offensive lineman and the rest of the line struggled bit time in week one so this really isn't all that appealing from my point of view.

Against the run the Bengals were just about average in the league. They have up an ALY of 4.04 while they let opposing running backs to run for a 4.05 average. In terms of short yardage situations the Bengals were dreadful. They ranked dead last in the league in power success rate as they let opposing teams covert the short yardage situations at an 82% clip which was 3% higher than any other team in the league. They Bengals also ranked 21st in stuffed percentage stopping opposing backs at the line or in the backfield only 18% of the time. I am not sure how the Steelers are going to figure into this since they are so dreadfully bad running the football that it might not matter how bad the Bengals were against the run last season.

If you are going to attack the Bengals defense you should start by running up the middle or off the guards. The Bengals ranked 20th in the league giving up an ALY of 4.23 up the gut which was worse than the league average of 4.05. They also were able to be beat when teams ran to the offensive right tackle has they gave up an ALY of 4.35 which was good for 27th in the league. Not having Maurkice Pouncey is going to hurt the Steelers so I can't imagine them being able to pound the rock up the gut and to be honest who knows is Isaac Redman can even hang onto the football long enough to make a difference. The Bengals were actually pretty decent when teams tried to run to the outside as they gave up an ALY of only 3.56 off the offensive right end and a 3.87 ALY off the offensive left end which were both below the league average.

Against the pass the Bengals were a little all over the board. Against the top receivers from the opposition they ranked ninth in the league with a -12.3% DVOA with only seven pass attempts going to top receivers per game and an average of 43 yards to those top targets. They really struggled against opposing teams #2 receivers and "other receivers" with DVOAs that ranked 22nd in the league in both spots.

The Bengals return three of their four defensive backs last year including both starting corners, Leon Hall and Terence Newman. Newman isn't very good and Hall is clearly the best that they have to throw out there. Along with those two Reggie Nelson is back at free safety after co-leading the team with four interceptions. Dre Kirkpatrick should give them a nice added player in backend of the defense after missing all but five games last season with an injury. Kirkpatrick is the tough corner from Alabama who was drafted two years ago and his development will a long way in determining how good the secondary can be at causing turnovers.

Bengals Special Teams

Mike Nugent kicks for the Bengals. He didn't make, or attempt, a field goal so far this season but he did convert all three of his extra point opportunities. Last season Nugent kicked in 12 games for the Bengals and hit 19-of-23 with six (in nine attempts) of those makes coming in the 40-49 yard range and hitting one (in two attempts) from beyond 50 yards. He was a perfect 35-for-35 in PAT attempts. He was all around pretty average as he hit on 82.6% of his field goal tries which put him 20th in the league and his career conversion rate is only around 81%.

Kevin Huber is punting for his fifth season, all with the Bengals, and he was pretty pretty decent in 2012. He averaged 46.6 yards per punt which was good for 14th in the league and had a net average of 42 yards which actually was fourth-best in the league. He was fifth in the league with 33 punts that landed inside the 20 and allowed only a 7.8 yard per return average which was sixth lowest in the league.

Brandon Tate is the kick returner and is partnered with Adam Jones on kickoff return duties. Jones is the primary punt returner as he was in 2012. Tate finished 13th in the league last season with a 24.8 yard per return average and had a long of 45 yards which obviously meant he didn't score on a return. When he did return punts he averaged 8.9 yards a return on 21 chances. Adam Jones finished the season seventh in the league with a 11.6 punt return average that included a long of 81 that was taken to the house for a touchdown in 26 returns.

Game Thoughts:

-The Steelers were brutally bad in their first game. I guess I should say they were brutally bad offensively. They gained only 194 total yards and only went 4-of-13 on third down conversions. They only scored points outside of an opening kickoff gaffe safety on their last drive and their other drive that seemed like they had any idea what they were doing was negated by a fumble by Isaac Redman inside the five yard line. It was bad. The Bengals have a pretty good defense and if the Steelers want to come out on top they are going to have to rely on Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was good but the offensive line isn't giving him much help so it is really hard to imagine what they are going to do this week.

-Injuries were a big concern for the Steelers. Out for the season is Maukice Pouncey, Larry Foote, and Larod Stephens-Howling. Those are two pretty significant players from each side of the ball and a complimentary back that was having a pretty nice game. The Steelers signed Fernando Velasco to eventually replace Pouncey but it is only rumored that he is going to start on Monday night. Velasco played the last four seasons for the Titans and was cut before the season so this is where we are. No idea what to expect and I guess if I expect the worst then I can only be happily surprised.

-The big matchup for me is the battle that will take place between Ike Taylor and A.J. Green. Green is a straight up monster but Taylor has been really good against opposing receivers for much of the past years. Last season the Steelers ranked third against opposing #1 recivers with a DVOA of -30%. Those top receivers were thrown to a good bit at 9.6 times per game (league average is 8.4 attempts) but they only averaged 50.3 yards per game which was well below the league average of 68 yards. Now we can't give all the credit to Taylor because he didn't exclusively follow the top receiver around the field but he had the vast majority of the snaps against them. If he can handle Green, even if it comes with some help, then the Steelers have a much better shot of winning this game.

-This is a pretty pivotal game to both teams. As you know the AFC North went 0-4 collectively last Sunday and one of these two teams are going to be 0-2 after the night. Teams that start out 0-2 have something like a 13% chance of making the playoffs. I am not sure if the Steelers are a playoff team but if they want to make a move in that direction getting a win in Cincinnati would be a really nice place to start.

-I think we are going to learn a little more about Roethlisberger on Monday night and going forward. I think the line is going to be really spotty all season and when it is good I am not sure if the Steelers have the running backs to take advantage of that. That means the Steelers are going to have to sling the ball and Roethlisberger is going to have to make the best of a bad situation. Last week he had a little rust but you expect that in the first game of the season. He was pretty good overall but in order to win he is going to need to be even better. His receivers are going to need to make plays and he is going to have to either extend the plays or buy in a little more to the Todd Haley three step drop and get rid of the football. It would be nice to get a little mix of that but who really knows what is in store for the offense.

-Oh yea, James Harrison plays for the Bengals. This is going to be a little weird to see. The Steelers cut Harrison loose in the offseason and he finally ended up signing with Cincinnati. I am not going to lie that it is going to be a little, OK a lot, weird to see him in another uniform but I am sure I will get over it. Harrison was a beast for the Steelers in his career with 64 sacks and some unreal memorable plays. In my mind he will always be a Steeler but for right now I hope he plays horrible. I don't think he is near close to what he was but I am sure he is going to use the Steelers cutting him as motivation and this will probably be the most excited he gets for a game all season. Hopefully the Steelers can use his aggressiveness against him when he is on the field and make them pay with some big plays. Ideally the Steelers can get Harrison in pass coverage and if they do Ben should throw in that direction 100% of the time.

-What are the Steelers going to do in the backfield? I have no idea. Redman is going to get the start on Monday night but after only gaining eight yards on seven carries and fumbling twice (losing one) in the season opener you have to think that Felix Jones and newly resigned Jonathan Dwyer are going to get their opportunities. To be honest I really don't care who gets the most carries I just want the guy on the field that is going to give the Steelers the best chance to win. As long as whatever back can be competent in pass protection, holds onto the football, and can catch a pass or two then I can't really complain. Wow, that sounds really positive. Damn.

PREDICTION - I don't feel particularly good about this game. The Steelers just haven't given me a good feeling all season (that dates back to the preseason) and with the injuries they suffered in the first week it doesn't make me want to give them the benefit of the doubt. The Bengals defense is really underrated in my opinion and while I don't think Andy Dalton can win the game by himself I think the Bengals can do enough on offense while the defense will give the Steelers fits. I don't want to do this, but I feel like I have to: Bengals 24, Steelers 13

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