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06 Dec 2005

Any Given Sunday: Bengals over Steelers

by Ned Macey

The Bengals' resume lacked a marquee win before Sunday. Their motto going into Sunday's victory over the Steelers was that to be the champ, you have to beat the champ. They flopped at home in their first attempt at the Steelers. The Steelers scored 27 points in that game and 31 on Sunday. But the Bengals improved from 13 points to 38, thanks to a no-huddle attack that has taken their offense to a new level.

The Steelers went 15-1 last season behind a strong defense, powerful running game, and timely play from the quarterback. That formula is the foundation of football in a tough town like Pittsburgh. But the Steelers currently lack an essential element of their method: an effective running game.

Cincinnati's offense rivals Indianapolis' as the most balanced attack in the league. It features a strong running game with Rudi Johnson. A powerful line provides holes for Johnson and gives time to Carson Palmer. It has Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson as well as excellent complements in T. J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. Running the offense is Palmer, who has been the most productive quarterback in football this year.

With so many options, the Bengals are uniquely suited to run the no-huddle offense. They implemented it during the bye week and are not yet able to maintain the no-huddle for an entire game. Still, the success of the scheme has been striking. In the past three games they have their three highest point totals of the season -- against Indianapolis, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, three above-average defenses including two who rank in the top 10.

Using our advanced metric DVOA (explained here), we can see how dominant the no-huddle offense has been. In the first half of the game over the past three weeks, the Cincinnati offense has a DVOA of 74.3 percent. In the second half when they use little no-huddle, their DVOA falls to 21.3 percent. On plays run out of the no-huddle, their DVOA is an astronomical 121.2 percent. This up-tempo offense is the most dangerous in the NFL.

Facing this high-powered offense, the Steelers ideally would have tried to control the game on the ground. That strategy had failed against the Colts the week before when the Colts continually brought a safety near the line of scrimmage. The Bengals had clearly seen the tape, and they spent the entire game with at least one safety playing the run.

The Steelers of a year ago would have run the ball anyway, and run it successfully. This year's Steelers have a rushing attack that ranks 20th in the league by DVOA. After stubbornly trying to pound the ball against the Colts, the Steelers realized that this year's rushing offense lacks the skill to beat a defense actively playing the run.

Early-season injuries to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis allowed for the emergence of Willie Parker, but contrary to the widespread belief that the Steelers have three quality backs, they really have none. Since his amazing success in the first two games of the season, Parker has had only one 100-yard game. In that time, he has carried 130 times for 516 yards, less than four yards a carry. By our advanced metrics, Parker is an average back even counting his stellar first two weeks. His DVOA of -4.1 percent ranks 25th out of the 46 running backs with the minimum 70 carries.

Last season, Bettis seemed to find the fountain of youth. The elixir appears to have worn off. The Bus has carried 67 times for 186 yards, a 2.8 average. He is frequently used in short yardage situations, but he has a total of only 18 first downs or touchdowns. DVOA (unlike yards per carry) rewards success in those situations, but it is unimpressed by Bettis' work this season, measuring him at -12.9 percent.

With Parker and Bettis struggling, calls have come for Duce Staley to start at tailback. So far this season, Staley has only played in four games as Bill Cowher has elected to lean on his other backs. For the season, he has only 38 carries. Apparently Staley's 76 yard performance against the mediocre Green Bay defense has Pittsburgh fans assuming he will bring back last year's glory.

Staley, however, is an average player who was not particularly productive a season ago. His DVOA for the season was only slightly above average at 1.9 percent, well behind the 12.1 percent posted by Bettis (not to mention the 29.2 percent by Verron Haynes and 36.2 percent by Parker in limited duty). Last season was sadly Staley's second-best in terms of DVOA. In Philadelphia, he was mostly a mediocre back whose best previous season had been when he was used as part of a three-headed backfield. The fact that Staley may be Pittsburgh's best option only shows how desperate the Steelers are for a consistent running attack.

As with most rushing problems, Pittsburgh's stem from a suspect offensive line. The Steelers turned over both starting spots on the right side of the line from a year ago: guard Kendall Simmons returned from a knee injury, and the team decided not to pay tackle Oliver Ross, replacing him with Max Starks. Interestingly, these changes appear to have been upgrades. A year ago, the only weakness on the line was in runs behind right tackle. This year, the line has been more effective running in that direction.

But the rest of the line has deteriorated. Injuries have limited left tackle Marvel Smith, and his replacement Trai Essex is not ready to contribute. The simple, albeit unscientific, explanation may be that the Steelers linemen played above their heads a year ago. Looking back over the past four years, the Steelers have frequently featured a mediocre line. Below are the rankings in terms of Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards statistic. One of these seasons is noticeably out of line with the rest.

Pittsburgh Adjusted Line Yards
Year Line Yds Rank
2002 3.96 23
2003 3.82 26
2004 4.56 4
2005 4.11 17

With an average offensive line, an unsettled running back situation, and the defense loading up to stop the run, the Steelers turned to their passing game on Sunday. As good as Ben Roethlisberger is, he is not quite ready to win a shoot-out. Roethlisberger's solid performance was all the more impressive because he was playing with a thumb that may be broken on his throwing hand.

No matter what his health status, he has a tendency to throw interceptions when asked to win the game on his own. In the AFC Championship game last year, he threw three. Last week against the Colts he threw two, and on Sunday he threw three more. All three interceptions set up the Bengals in Pittsburgh territory. They converted two of them into touchdowns -- a major swing in a close game.

In Roethlisberger's 23 career starts, which include the playoffs, the Steelers have allowed 24 or more points a total of four times. In those four games, Roethlisberger has thrown seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. In his other 19 starts, he has 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. On Sunday, his interceptions were not the result of a desperate attempt to play catch-up. All three occurred with the Steelers within atouchdown of the lead.

The Bengals defense feasts on turnovers, and they were ready when Roethlisberger made a couple of mistakes. On two of the interceptions, Roethlisberger misread coverage, and linebackers Brian Simmons and Odell Thurman picked him off. On his other interception, he went deep to a covered Hines Ward, and Deltha O'Neal made a good play on the ball. The three interceptions gave the Bengals a league-leading 26, 13 from O'Neal or Thurman. Only 11 other teams have more than 13 interceptions, and no other team has more than 18.

After Sunday's game, the national consensus is that the Bengals are a vastly better team than the Steelers. Our DVOA rankings support that conclusion, with Cincinnati ranked first and Pittsburgh tenth. Of course, only four weeks ago, Pittsburgh went into Cincinnati and made the Bengals look like the newest version of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

Rather than be satisfied with achieving their first winning season since Vanilla Ice ruled the charts, the Bengals keep improving. Their high-octane offense is becoming almost impossible to handle. The Bengals have three easy games upcoming against Cleveland, Detroit, and Buffalo, which will give them opportunities to further refine and expand their no-huddle offense. If the defense continues to force turnovers, a possible rematch with Indianapolis in the playoffs could prove treacherous for the juggernaut Colts.

Pittsburgh cannot afford to spend the rest of the season fine tuning for the playoffs; the Steelers will have a tough enough time just making them. Many have written off the Steelers in light of this loss and Kansas City's impressive win over Denver. That may be premature given Pittsburgh's remaining schedule, which is easier than Kansas City's or San Diego's. Also, the Steelers are 7-3 in games not started by Tommy Maddox. If the Steelers can win this weekend against Chicago – a daunting challenge but not an insurmountable one – they should finish no worse than 10-6 and could easily finish 11-5. Neither record guarantees a playoff berth, but the Steelers still have the opportunity to be a factor this season.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 06 Dec 2005

23 comments, Last at 11 Dec 2005, 8:22pm by J

Comments

1
by JMM (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 3:43pm

Well written. As a ling time Steeler fan, I agree. I am hopeful that Russ Grimm will get his head coaching slot this upcoming season, and a new position coach can come in and bring the line's performance up a bit.

If one were to look at DVOA per salary cap dollar (Pitts spends well above average for the O Line- see USA Today's salary data for positions and teams) the Steeler OLine has to be one of the worst buys in the league.

2
by TomS (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 3:47pm

boy, this must be a tough read for Adam, calig23 and all the others the love to heap desparaging remarks on the Bengals/Steelers lovers.

Not discounting the analysis and the numbers for which I am in awe, I would simply love to hear someone on ESPN, Fox, or NFL Network (especially Mora!) say "Holy Chrimminy, Batman, the Cincy and Indy Offenses sure are good to do that to those very good defenses!"

I would love to see a numbers comparison of Cincy/Indy now to the "Greatest Show on Turf" from a few years ago. Wha' da ya say, Aaron?

3
by B (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 4:55pm

Funny thing is, according to DVOA at least, neither Indy nor Cincy have the best offense this year, that belongs to San Deigo. None of those offense are as good as Indy was last year, which is still the gold standard offense in the DVOA era.

4
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 6:25pm

Big Ben is going to get tortured by Chicago on Sunday. Of course, Kyle Orton always gets tortured, so who knows who'll win? I guess I go with the Bears.

5
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 6:29pm

Again, this article is one of the reasons I keep coming back here. Well done!

6
by James, London (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 7:46pm

Another high-quality piece.

I'm also glad someone else noticed how well the Bengals O line is playing. I last saw them against the Colts, and with the time Palmer had in that game, I think I'd have completed 60% of my passes.

Levi Jones has been playing like the more famous Walter, and the RT Anderson has also been superb whenever I've seen them. It would seem that the 'Bungles' are no more.

7
by Vash (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 9:50pm

I think I'll take Roethlisberger and the #3 Pittsburgh defense over Orton and the #1 Chicago defense.

8
by calig23 (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 10:59pm

But the Bengals improved from 18 points to 38, thanks to a no-huddle attack that has taken their offense to a new level.

Actually it was 13 points, not 18.

As for Chicago-Pittsburgh, I'd say the outcome will largely depend on whether the Steelers' ST and Defense feel like tackling. If not, easy win for the Bears...

9
by Luz (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 11:39pm

i'd have to say that that if INTs and bad special teams didn't keep giving two of the best offenses in the league 50 yds or less to work with the scores in the PIT-IND and PIT-CIN game would have been a good ten pts lower.

10
by Hector, Paris, France (not verified) :: Wed, 12/07/2005 - 4:56am

Here is a quote from Sun Tzu :
The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

The coach who is skilled (has skilled players) in defense (Cowher) runs the ball a lot; he who is skilled in attack (has skilled players) in attack uses an aerial assault. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

I am re-reading the art of war of Sun Tzu and there are a lot to learn football-wise.

(Sorry, it just hitted me in the metro this morning...)

11
by Flux (not verified) :: Wed, 12/07/2005 - 6:48am

Early prediction: Pitts blows out Chi. 27-9 or something like that. And I say that as a Chargers fan with a long history of rooting against Pittsburgh. (Though 1994 AFC championship game memories still hold a warm place in my heart.)

Sunday, even with 4 turnovers and a QB with a broken thumb, Pitt scored quite a few points against the more than adequate Cin defense. And since it doesn't take more than 17 or so points to guarantee victory over Orton's Bears, if Pitt can avoid pulling an MNF Philly and giving up 2 or 3 return touchdowns, they should easily emerge victorious, further muddling the AFC wildcard race.

And no, I'm not willing to put even a single cent where my mouth is. I never bet on sports.

12
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Wed, 12/07/2005 - 10:26am

First, the Cincy defense is mostly smoke and mirrors. Think KC in 2003 when everyone was calling that defense "opportunistic" which is analyst speak for "they keep getting turnovers for no apparent reason".

Second, the Cincy defense got a pass rush when they don't have pass rushers. The Bears get a push every down with their base four guys. All I read on this board the last few weeks is that the Steelers O-line is in tatters. Did none of you see what Alex Brown and AO did to Tampa? To Green Bay? And Green Bay, for all of its issues, has two solid tackles in Clifton and Tauscher.

Finally, Ben isn't his usual mobile self. At least he doesn't look it to me. The combination of a gimpy QB, suspect line, and a very good defense playing at a fever pitch game in game out is not promising situation.

I haven't mentioned the Bears offense? What's to mention? I would like to think that Orton is likely playing for the rest of the season in this game. He knows he played awful last Sunday. His teammates certainly do. If he comes out with the same throw'em at the feet (or worse yet, interceptions) routine he knows that he will be forcing Lovie's hand in making a change.

I will point out that Green Bay did a pretty solid job of moving the ball against Chicago. Gado ran hard and their receivers got open down the middle with Harris out. The recipe is there to be copied if the Steelers can give Ben time.

I will point out that Mike Brown just isn't playing well this season. I won't state he looks slow but something isn't right. He was never the world beater folks would have others believe but he was solid. As the season has worn on he just isn't able to get to spots like he has in the past. I know it's heresy to some Bears fans to suggest the guy isn't All Pro but gotta be honest about these things.

13
by Countertorque (not verified) :: Wed, 12/07/2005 - 4:13pm

The stats on the site don't go back to 2001, but the Steeler Oline was very good that year too. If 2001 was included, 2004 would look less out of place.

Not that it would help them play better in 2005...

14
by Jerrod Sieberg (not verified) :: Wed, 12/07/2005 - 8:11pm

Well,
as a long time NFC "North" supporter I would love to say that Chicago will win. but how can they do it with a lackluster ofense? Thier defense is tops in the league and will probably get a very heavy work out against pittsburgh. I don't know, I feel like this may be the week that the truth comes out about the youg quaterback in Chicago and his "fubleitis"

Pittburgh wins 31-10

As for the Bengals the will be 14-2 and the colts will be 15-1 and they will meet in the AFC championship

Sorry all you Indy fans, I don't see Coach Dungy letting all of his stars play the rest of the games after this week if they beat Jacksonville. Remember the ultimate goal is a Ring with XL on it.

15
by Luz (not verified) :: Wed, 12/07/2005 - 9:45pm

not to (k)nit pick but the bengals already have 3 losses: pitt, jax and indy.

so going 14-2 would be quite a feat, all things considered.

16
by young curmudgeon (not verified) :: Thu, 12/08/2005 - 1:25am

I'm a Steelers fan, and I found this article to be very informative. I think Roethlisberger is a good qb for a second year player and shows many signs of developing into a very good qb--as far as "great" is concerned, let's see how circumstances play out--a lot of "greatness" is not totally in the hands of the individual. I agree wholeheartedly with the authors that the Steelers' running game is both crucial to their success and below par right now. I'm sort of hoping that, in all the Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart excitement, LenDale White is still available when the Steelers pick next draft day (kind of like when Lydell Mitchell got most of the publicity coming out of college, but Franco Harris didn't turn out too badly!) Or, if he's not available or I've overrated him, another guy who can shoulder the load as a rookie--Bettis is certainly going to retire; I think Staley and Parker can contribute, but this article points out that neither one is going to be the total answer. Sorry to ramble so much.

17
by Jerrod Sieberg (not verified) :: Thu, 12/08/2005 - 2:41pm

OK I forgot the loos to jax so they will go 13-3 regular season and Indy will go 15-1 and they will be #1 and #2 seed in the AFC with Denver taking # 3 and the Pats taking #4 (Weak Division meaning nothing of course) and Jacksonville and San Diego taking the wild card spots.

That is how I see it right now, so we will see

18
by J (not verified) :: Thu, 12/08/2005 - 7:21pm

Great Article. A few comments.

First, the Steelers Oline is more expensive than most...click my name for a more detailed looked.

2. The Oline play over the past few years has been a result of injuries. 2003, Faneca was playing LT. This year, the RT is a second year player and the LT is a rookie...not the best situation. RG Simmons seems not to have recovered from the knee injury; he had potential of being one of the best RGs in the game.

3. The key for the Steelers O is the Oline.

4. As much as I like Cowher (I do hope he is around for many more years), I do not understand why he has not run the ball more this year. Especially if the Oline is injured. To me, it is asking much more of a rookie or 2nd yr Tackle to pass protect than run block. Run blocking for an Olinemen is being aggresive; taking it to the defender. Pass blocking is much more technical...more defensive, more pressure.

I wish the Steelers would bring in a sixth Olinemen as a TE, and run the ball. Give the backs a chance to get going. Especially this week against the Bears.

As far as Cincin, I, for one, will not assume they win out. KC and Cleveland will give them a game, and Cincin always goes down in a ball of fire.

19
by Rash (not verified) :: Fri, 12/09/2005 - 2:36am

J, if Cincy this year was going to crash and burn, they would have done it after the loss to the Stillers. Marvin Lewis has completely changed the team chemistry and their losing ways. Every game is tough, and as they say, "on any given Sunday," but Carson Palmer should be able to shred a mediocre Cleveland defense and I see them winning out with the possible exception of K.C.

20
by Jerrod Sieberg (not verified) :: Fri, 12/09/2005 - 4:19pm

Clevland give cincy a game? with who? Trent Dilfer at the helm? that is alomst as bad if not worse than when Tommy "washed up and please throw the towel away" Maddox took over for Big Ben when he got hurt. I agree though that KC could give them a game but just like pittsburgh cincy will have to Run, Run, Run. because if they don't KC will manage the clock a lot better than they will. But if KC looks to win they have to beat SD first, so lets see what thier run stopping can do against the predominatly best running back this year in Ledaianian (sp?) Thomlinson

21
by Sid (not verified) :: Sun, 12/11/2005 - 2:28am

RE: 3

Indy is #1 according to weighted DVOA.

22
by Anthony Brancato (not verified) :: Sun, 12/11/2005 - 8:27am

To understand what the Bengals had to overcome, consider this fact:

When a team has lost the first meeting at home to a division rival, it usually goes on to lose the second meeting on the road: Going into Week 13 such teams were 21-51 straight up since 2002, and 60-142 dating back to 1997.

23
by J (not verified) :: Sun, 12/11/2005 - 8:22pm

20

With Frye.

19
I agree Lewis has done a great job, and their team chemistry is much better. Having said that, they are still quite young. I would be surprised to see them go 13-3. THey have the skill and coaching, but not the experience.

I do think they will be the team to beat for the next few years in the AFC North.