Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

03 Dec 2005

Game Previews: CIN-PIT, DEN-KC

by Aaron Schatz

There are no rematches in the NFL regular season except those involving division rivals, each familiar with the other's strategies and patterns. With seven AFC teams at 7-4 or better, a division title is the only way to guarantee a playoff spot, so rivalry rematches mean added pressure on head coaches to avoid the mistakes they made the first time around.

CINCINNATI BENGALS (8-3) AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS (7-4)

(Sunday, 1 p.m.)

Six weeks ago, the Steelers went into Cincinnati and humbled the Bengals 27-13. But they've scuffled along ever since and now need a repeat performance to keep their postseason hopes alive.

A Pittsburgh win means a tie atop the AFC North, with the tiebreaker advantage belonging to the Steelers. But if Cincinnati wins, the Steelers will be two games back with a harder schedule than the Bengals over the last four games. Their fifth loss in the AFC would be costly in terms of a wildcard tiebreaker, as Jacksonville and San Diego have just two AFC losses, Kansas City just three.

In the first meeting between the Steelers and Bengals, Pittsburgh's recipe for victory was simple: run. The Bengals have given up 4.7 yards per carry this year, which ranks 28th in the NFL, and they are particularly vulnerable up the middle. Three Pittsburgh running backs combined to run for 222 yards in the game, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger only had to throw 13 passes for 93 yards.

Still, Roethlisberger was able to exploit Cincinnati's other defensive weakness: covering the tight end. Over the past eight games, the Bengals have allowed an average of 81 yards to opposing tight ends, including 58 yards to Pittsburgh's Heath Miller. The ball-hawk Cincinnati defense has 23 interceptions on the season, seven more than any other team -- yet not a single one has come on a pass intended for a tight end.

In an odd quirk of scheduling, the Bengals and Steelers have each played two games against Baltimore and one against Indianapolis since their first game against each other. The Bengals stomped on the Ravens twice and played the Colts close; the Steelers beat the Ravens by a single point at home and were upset on the road, then went to Indianapolis and got outplayed in every single phase of the game -- including the ground game.

Before the game, it looked as if the undersized Colts defense would be as vulnerable against the Steelers as the undersized Bengals defense had been. But the Colts, determined to stop the run, played with eight defenders close to the line, daring Pittsburgh to pass. Roethlisberger looked quite rusty in his return from injury, and the Steelers have trouble depending on any receivers other than Miller and Hines Ward. And with injured left tackle Marvel Smith replaced by rookie Trai Essex, the Pittsburgh offensive line struggled to set up its pass protection and run blocking.

Cincinnati's pass rush pales in comparison to the Colts', which should help Essex block and Roethlisberger find receivers. Pittsburgh also gets the crowd on its side this time. But if the Bengals can learn from the Colts and fix their weakness against the run, their high-powered offense should have enough time on the field to win Cincinnati the game -- and the division.

DENVER BRONCOS (9-2) AT KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (7-4)

(Sunday, 4:15 p.m.)

The Broncos came into these teams' first meeting with a 1-1 record,having been trampled by a lowly Miami team and narrowly beating San Diego at home. But a 30-10 stomping of Kansas City began a run of dominance -- just one loss, by just one point -- that has most observers agreeing that the Broncos are second only to Indianapolis in this year's NFL hierarchy.

All season long, the Broncos have followed the template for winning they established in that game.The dynamic rushing duo of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell combined for 145 yards on 25 carries. Quarterback Jake Plummer was efficient but threw primarily to veteran Rod Smith, who had 80 yards and a touchdown. Second receiver Ashley Lelie was a disappointment, catching just one pass.

Denver's defense shut down the Chiefs' running game, holding Priest Holmes to 61 yards and Larry Johnson to just 13 yards on eight carries. Denver's pass defense has been vulnerable to wide receivers all season long, and Kansas City's Eddie Kennison had 112 receiving yards and a touchdown in Week 3. But Denver is one of the league's best defenses against tight ends, and they held future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez to just 29 yards on five catches.

But here's the odd thing about the first meeting of these teams: While it fits the pattern of how Denver has played all season, the same is not true for Kansas City. The Chiefs who played the Broncos that day were almost nothing like the Chiefs who have played everyone else.

Kansas City has long had one of the league's worst defenses against the run. That's no longer true, thanks to the arrival of outside linebackers Kendrell Bell and Derrick Johnson. No team has run for more than 103 yards on Kansas City all season -- except Denver, which gained 223 yards on the ground against them, including 56 yards on two end-arounds by Lelie.

Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham likes to play an aggressive blitzing scheme that usually forces a lot of incomplete passes, but gives up a lot of yardage. Kansas City allows a 58.1% completion percentage -- the eighth-best mark in the league -- but gives up 240 passing yards a game, which ranks 29th. Plummer completed 72% of his passes against the Chiefs, but tallied only 152 passing yards.

The biggest difference for Kansas City since Week 3 is Larry Johnson. In the four games since a spinal injury ended Holmes' season (and perhaps his career), Johnson has rushed for an average of 142 yards a game and 4.9 yards a carry. He isn't going to run against the Broncos the way he ran on Houston and Buffalo, but the Broncos won't be holding him to 13 yards, either.

Still, the Chiefs will need more than a 100-yard game from Johnson to make up that 20-point deficit from 10 weeks ago. They'll need the run defense that has played well against everybody else to show up against Denver as well.

This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun. And yes, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also both beat Green Bay between their first matchup and this week's rematch. I couldn't figure out how to toss that in without ruining the flow of the paragraph.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 03 Dec 2005

22 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2005, 5:37pm by Dan

Comments

1
by Kevo (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 2:29am

"And yes, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also both beat Green Bay between their first matchup and this week’s rematch"

Who didn't?

2
by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 4:11am

Re #1: Atlanta.

Re the article: I have trouble believing that the Chiefs are going to stop Denver's running game. I know that they're supposedly much improved in run defense, but they're the PERFECT kind of defense for Denver to run against. Young, fast, aggressive, and undersized.

3
by Tommy Boy (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 4:52am

I think it's interesting that 3 of the top 5 run defenses in yards/game are in the AFC West, AND 3 of the top 5 run offenses in yards/game are also in the AFC West. What's the implication there? That those 3 teams have been truly manhandling the teams outside of the division in the running game. One gets the feeling that if Oakland were in a different division, they might be 7-4 instead of 4-7.

On an interesting tangent, if the league were still using the old divisional alignment with 5 teams per division, Seattle would be in the AFC West right now with the 3rd best run offense, and 13th best run defense, AND the AFC West would then have 4 of the top 9 spots in Weighted DVOA! Boy, I bet the Seahawks are glad they aren't in THAT division anymore!

4
by Dr Ryan (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 7:39am

Pitt by 10 !! generic prediction to annoy all bungals

5
by Björn (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 9:47am

RE: #3

I hadn't thought about what it would be like if those Sh**hawks were still in our division! If they were, they would lose 3 out of 4 to Denver and San Diego though. So you're right, it must be nice to go from a perennial group of death to a group of life. Little 'futbol' reference there.

6
by luz (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 11:03am

i would argue that the steelers defense got the better of the colts offense. sure, if you look at the score it doesn't seem that way but the colts O only put up 10 points on the steelers D when they had to drive the length of the field. 7 of those points came on a 80 yd TD on a blown coverage. the other 16 pts came when the colts started at about the 50 due to 2 interceptions, a recovered onsides kick and a punt from the 6 that was returned to nearly the 50. so the colts O only needed 10-20 yds. to kick all those fieldgoals.

7
by Craig B (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 12:54pm

"“And yes, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also both beat Green Bay between their first matchup and this week’s rematch�

Who didn’t?"

I think you took this comment completely out of context. In the article, he talked about the teams Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have faced since they last met. He left out Green Bay because those two games had no meaning in his argument.

To answer your question, there are 27 teams who didn't beat the Packers between the first matchup and this week. The only four that have are Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Philadelphia.

8
by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 1:03pm

Actually, Craig, there's 28 NFL teams, if you include the Packers. And then there's UCLA, and Texas, and the mighty Golden Flashes of Kent State, and every other college team... and high school teams... and don't forget those pee-wee players...

9
by Fnor (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 1:54pm

I would argue the Packers beat themselves plenty of times between those two games.

10
by Björn (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 2:09pm

Well I don't know about you guys, but a couple weeks ago I went down to Lambeau and beat the life out of Green Bay in an informal game. All by myself. All I did was line up and snap the ball to myselfand run around. On defence, I hired a temp to come with me and cover Donald Driver, and we got 2 interceptions each. Samkon Gado also fumbled seven times, even though nobody ever tackled him. It was a blast.

11
by Steve Z (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 2:44pm

And with injured left tackle Marvel Smith replaced by rookie Trai Essex, the Pittsburgh offensive line struggled to set up its pass protection and run blocking.

Unfortunately, Essex was not the only source of the problems attributable to the Pittsburgh offensive line. The Pitt OL now (12.3) ranks a disappointing 17th and 25th respectively in run blocking and pass protection. It’s ranking has declined all season. Cowher recently responded to the problem by having another rookie offensive lineman work with the first team. It’s worth mentioning that Cowher is not prone to giving rookies much of a chance to play in games.

12
by Kevo (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 2:53pm

Re: 7

joke
n.

1. Something said or done to evoke laughter or amusement, especially an amusing story with a punch line.
2. A mischievous trick; a prank.
3. An amusing or ludicrous incident or situation.
4. Informal.
1. Something not to be taken seriously; a triviality: The accident was no joke.
2. An object of amusement or laughter; a laughingstock: His loud tie was the joke of the office.

13
by Israel (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 3:09pm

Their fifth loss in the AFC would be costly in terms of a wildcard tiebreaker, as Jacksonville and San Diego have just two AFC losses, Kansas City just three.

I have been thinking that there may(!) be something abit different regarding the AFC playoffs this year. Generally, the wild card teams have little chance of success because thay don't have a bye, have to play all their games on the road and because they are worse teams to begin with.

This year it looks like the AFC will require a 11-5 record to make the playoffs as a wild card - a record that is generally enough to get a bye. So although they still have the first two problems, they are not going to be just "above mediocre" teams and the "any given Sunday" phenomenon might be more relevant than ever.

I am thinking that this is particularly relevant to San Diego and maybe Jacksonville. I am thinking less so for the Steelers, who if they make the playoffs as a wild card team, will probably be 0-4 against the other five.

14
by Israel (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 3:15pm

will probably be 0-4 against the other five.

1-4, of course, having beaten the Bengals once.

15
by Kibbles (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 6:02pm

Re #13: I was just thinking the other day that if San Diego makes the playoffs as the #6 seed, it might be more of an advantage to be the #2 seed. I could see a scenario where New England and San Diego both won in the wildcard round, and Denver got New England at home while Indy was "rewarded" for their better record with San Diego. And even if New England lost in the wildcard round, it would probably be to Jacksonville, so the #2 seed would either draw New England or Jacksonville while the #1 gets San Diego.

16
by Israel (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 6:06pm

Kibbles, week 15 with SD and IND should be very interesting.

17
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 7:52pm

I miss the game discussion threads. No Sunday Ticket for me, and no Broncos game on TV here in RI. I'm watching the NFL.com scoreboard, and man, shootouts are scary.

If anyone is watching... how is the game looking? Why is Denver's pass defense getting eaten up like this? Is there no pressure from the front four?

If the Broncos can't stop KC, they have no chance of stopping the Colts. To me, this game is sort of a litmus test...

18
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 7:57pm

Got to love QB Bradlee Van Pelt's career stats at this point. No pass attempts, but 1 carry for 7 yards and a TD.

19
by dCalla (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 9:09pm

Kaveman

It may be late for this, but there is a game discussion thread. It has its own tab (in blue) on the home page under features.

20
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 11:00pm

When did this happen? Heh... thanks, dCalla.

21
by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 12/05/2005 - 3:46pm

Kibbles:

But... but... but... Belichick is unbeaten in the playoffs! Who wants to play some guy who's never been beaten?

And, I mean, Schottenheimer - his record is just terrible in the playoffs! That'd be an easy win! Right? Right?

22
by Dan (not verified) :: Mon, 12/05/2005 - 5:37pm

Good to see we've officially erased Belichick's tenure in Cleveland from the record books. I'm not sure if this makes me feel better, or worse.