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|
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 â€“ a daunting challenge but not an insurmountable one â€“ 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.