Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
27 Oct 2005
by Michael David Smith
The Bengals aren't back. Cincinnati lost its biggest game since 1990, and while it would be inaccurate to label these the same old Bengals, the defensive line looks like something out of the David Shula era. Cincinnati is a better team right now than it was at any time in the decade before Marvin Lewis arrived. But Cincinnati hired Lewis for his ability to build a defense, and Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers shows that Cincinnati still has a lot of work to do on its defensive line before it can join the NFL elite.
Pittsburgh running backs Willie Parker, Jerome Bettis and Verron Haynes gashed Cincinnati for 220 yards on 42 carries, which led me to scrutinize the Bengals' line on every play as I watched the tape of Sunday's game to determine what, specifically, the problem is. Seven players logged time at defensive line for Cincinnati, and they're listed below in order of how well they played against the Steelers.
I liked how Clemons stayed at home against the run early in the game. Unlike his fellow Bengals ends, he didn't get sucked inside, which meant that on a first-and-10 run when Jerome Bettis took a handoff, couldn't find a hole, and tried to bounce outside, Clemons was there to stop him for two yards. But by the fourth quarter, Clemons looked like he was trying too hard to make a big play, and when Parker ran for 20 yards, he first ran to the left, then cut back to the right, past Clemons, who had overpursued and couldn't keep up with him.
Clemons is Cincinnati's best pass rusher. He sacked Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter, but it was the result of a blown blocking scheme by the Steelers and not anything special that Clemons did. Tight end Heath Miller lined up behind and just to the outside of tackle Marvel Smith, then motioned to the right. Smith obviously didn't realize that Miller had gone in motion because he looked to block to the inside and allowed Clemons to go unblocked to the outside. Clemons didn't do anything special on the play; he just happened to be there when the Steelers screwed up.
He needs to do a better job of reading and reacting on running plays. On a second-and-3, he lined up at left end and no one blocked him, but he just kind of got caught in traffic. He hesitated before crossing the line of scrimmage, and by the time he got into Pittsburgh's backfield, Willie Parker got past him for three yards and a first down. On the very next play, fullback Dan Kreider provided the lead block on Clemons as Parker ran to the right side for a 37-yard touchdown.
On most teams, Clemons, who was suspended for the first four games of this season, would be a situational pass-rusher. In Cincinnati, he should be on the field for every play.
Pollack, a rookie from Georgia, is listed as a linebacker, but he also logged a good deal of playing time at end in a three-point stance. At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Pollack is small for a lineman, but end was his college position and I think it's where he fits best.
Pollack did a fair job against Marvel Smith, shedding Smith's block and tackling Parker for a gain of a yard on second-and-6 in the first quarter. The big problem with Pollack is that at times he reacts too quickly. On a second-and-4, Pittsburgh faked a handoff up the middle, and Pollack bit on the fake. A defensive end can never let anyone get outside him, but Pollack crashed the inside, and when Hines Ward came on an end around, Pollack was beaten. Fortunately for Pollack, cornerback Tory James was ready for the play and stopped Ward for a four-yard gain.
I liked Pollack's his speed. Lined up at right defensive end, Pollack failed to keep outside contain when the Steelers ran a reverse with Verron Haynes taking the ball and running right, then handing off to Cedrick Wilson who ran around the left end. Pollack should have been there to stop Wilson, but he kept up with Wilson and forced him out of bounds after a 14-yard gain. Defensive ends aren't supposed to be able to stay stride for stride with wide receivers, but Pollack did. (The play was called back on a holding penalty.)
I didn't much care for Pollack when he played linebacker. He had a lot more trouble with fullback Dan Kreider than he did with Smith and didn't understand how a linebacker needs to fill a hole when a fullback comes at him. Cincinnati should switch Pollack to end full time.
Powell didn't really stand out with many good plays or many bad plays. And sometimes his good plays and his bad plays were the same play: On a second-and-7 in the second quarter, Powell lined up at tackle and did a beautiful job of knifing in between center Jeff Hartings and right guard Kendall Simmons. He had a perfect chance to nail Bettis behind the line of scrimmage, but he just missed him. He seemed to think Bettis was the kind of running back he could knock down with a quick shove on the shoulders. Bettis picked up 10 yards.
Powell could certainly stand to work on his tackling, but overall he's not a bad athlete. He'd probably be better off playing end than tackle, but tackle is where Cincinnati most desperately needs help.
Smith was known as a pass-rushing specialist when Cincinnati drafted him out of Missouri five years ago, and he doesn't look like he's learned much about stopping the run in the last five years. Pittsburgh rookie tight end Heath Miller embarrassed Smith on a Bettis run. Miller had a one-on-one block against Smith and knocked him off the ball, allowing Bettis to slip through the line right behind him. Defensive ends just aren't supposed to lose battles like that against tight ends, especially not rookie tight ends who were drafted primarily for their receiving skills. Smith was even more brutal against the run when Pittsburgh right tackle Max Starks blocked him. Starks had no trouble with him at all as Parker gained eight yards running right in front of Smith on a first-and-10 in the second quarter.
Smith did once bring Bettis down for no gain, and he deserves credit for the quick first step to the inside that allowed him to get past Starks on that play. But that was on a second-and-8 when he shot the gap, looking like he was planning a pass rush and happened to rush right where Bettis was getting a handoff.
On another second-and-8, Smith again met Bettis at the line of scrimmage, but this time Bettis dragged Smith for five yards before Smith finally brought him down.
Smith looked decent rushing Roethlisberger. Smith never actually brought Roethlisberger down, but in obvious passing situations he got close a couple of times. His best play came on a second-and-20 in the second quarter when he beat Starks to the inside and forced Roethlisberger to roll outside and hurry an incompletion.
Pittsburgh guard Kendall Simmons repeatedly stood Robinson up at the line of scrimmage. Even when Robinson made tackles, it was usually a few yards downfield, like a first-and-10 late in the first quarter, when Robinson got off Simmons' block and tackled Parker, but not until Willie Parker managed a four-yard gain. Robinson seemed to specialize in tackling Parker too late; he also brought Parker down after a three-yard run on second-and-3.
Robinson did have a nice pass rush, employing an outside-inside move that allowed him to get past Simmons and force Roethlisberger out of the pocket on an incomplete pass. Robinson was the only 300-pounder who suited up for the Bengals on Sunday, but he still looks small out there -- smaller now than he looked a few years ago in Chicago.
Thornton has always been known more for his quickness than his ability to clog running lanes, and he set the tone for the Bengals defensive line on Pittsburgh's first offensive play. Parker took a handoff and ran behind left guard Alan Faneca, who simply overpowered Thornton, shoving him five yards off the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh's play was the kind of up-the-middle run that's designed to pick up four yards if the offense does everything right. Parker gained seven.
It wasn't just Faneca who pushed Thornton around. On another first-and-10 in the first quarter, Thornton lined up at nose tackle and center Jeff Hartings drove him straight back. Parker gained six yards on the play. Thornton did have one play when he held his ground against Kendall Simmons, forcing Bettis to run into Simmons and go down after only two yards on first-and-10. But at 297 pounds, Thornton just doesn't look big or strong enough for the types of plays where he needs to hold his position at the point of attack.
Geathers usually plays right end, the position that is allegedly reserved for a team's best pass rusher, but he didn't impress at all. On a 20-yard Roethlisberger-to-Miller pass, Geathers lined up to the outside in a sprinter's stance, obviously ready to give an all-out rush. He never got close. Steelers left tackle Marvel Smith shut him out entirely and Roethlisberger didn't feel any pressure at all on the play.
On the Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Miller, Geathers completely bit on a play-fake. If he had realized Roethlisberger still had the ball he could have sacked him or at the very least forced a hurried pass. But he thought Roethlisberger had handed off up the middle and was left looking around for the ball as Miller scored.
And he was even worse against the run, taking some very bad pursuit angles: Smith shoved him inside on a Bettis gain of 10. Later, on a Bettis run on first-and-goal from the seven-yard line, Geathers lined up at left end and couldn't get inside right tackle Max Starks, so he tried to go to the outside. Bettis ran up the middle, so by the time Geathers got into the backfield Bettis was already through the line.
Geathers, a second-year player out of Georgia, got destroyed by left tackle Marvel Smith on a Bettis 16-yard run on third-and-2. He just wasn't able to stay in position at all and Smith had no trouble shoving him out of the way. On the basis of this game, I don't think he's strong enough to be an NFL defensive lineman.
If you saw Parker's 13-yard run on third-and-4, you might be able to let Geathers know exactly where on the field he left his jock after Parker juked him out of it. Geathers got into the backfield untouched, had a clear shot at Parker, and grabbed at air as Parker took a stutter step and ran past him.
Marvin Lewis doesn't need my advice on how to build a defense, but I do have one final thought about what the Bengals can do to improve, and it involves the defensive lineman who didn't play on Sunday.
Cincinnati must get a bigger pair of defensive tackles, like Lewis had in Baltimore with Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa. Cincinnati has one big defensive tackle, 320-pound tackle Shaun Smith. He was inactive for the Pittsburgh game, which doesn't make much sense. If there's ever a team you don't want to take on with an undersized defensive line, it's the Steelers. If Smith is worth a roster spot at all, he should have been on the field Sunday.
Cincinnati selected middle linebacker Odell Thurman in this year's draft. He's small and fast, which means he can pursue running backs but he can't fight off guards. To be effective in the Marvin Lewis defense, he has to have a couple of big tackles in front of him. There's not one player on this unit who can plug a gap and serve as an anchor in the middle of the line. Until there is, this Bengals defense will look less like Lewis's Ravens and more like Shula's Bengals.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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