by Andy Benoit
These division rivals have given us several well-fought games in recent years. Hence, the NFL put their first bout of 2012 on the Sunday Night stage. Here’s the five-point breakdown.
1. Bengals offense vs. Steelers defense
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden did a great job of playing to Andy Dalton’s strengths in his rookie season. Dalton is a smart, poised passer with only decent arm strength but better-than-average accuracy. His swift acclimation to the pro game has allowed Gruden to expand the Bengals’ passing attack in 2012. It's no longer based as heavily on half-field and either/or reads off play-action.
However, this could also have something to do with the decline of Cincinnati’s ground game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a methodical, dependable between-the-tackles back, but he’s not even as dynamic as Cedric Benson was in this zone scheme. The mediocrity of Green-Ellis’ 3.4 yards per carry has been magnified by the loss of shifty change-of-pace back Bernard Scott to a season-ending knee injury. The Steelers, over the past year and a half, have not been quite as stellar in run defense as we’re used to seeing -– especially against zone teams -– but they shouldn’t have much trouble with Cincy’s ground game.
The Bengals will have to try and win through the air. The loss of Jerome Simpson has left them with a hole at the No. 2 receiver slot. Replacement Armon Binns is a respectable blocker but lacks the explosiveness to consistently create separation. Brandon Tate continues to be a hit-or-miss downfield threat. Third-round rookie Mohamed Sanu hasn’t been able to earn regular snaps. To compensate, the Bengals have given their offense new dimension by upping the usage of darting second-year wideout Andrew Hawkins in the slot. Quite a few of Hawkins’ 25 receptions have come out of what amounts to inside smoke screens and short hitters in the flats. He’s averaging 54.8 yards receiving per game, 36.8 of which have been "run after catch."
The quick-paced Hawkins plays naturally alleviate the stress on Cincinnati’s over-sized pass-blockers. The Steelers’ pass-rush may be in slight decline -– LaMarr Woodley has continued to fight hamstring problems and James Harrison has declined –- but Dick LeBeau knows how to manufacture pressure with Fire-X blitzes. He has the AFC’s best inside blitzing linebacker in Lawrence Timmons. Expect LeBeau to be aggressive this Sunday, as Dalton was very over-reactive to pressure looks from the Browns last week. A great way for Gruden to discourage LeBeau from sending Timmons through the A-gaps could be to hit Hawkins quickly in the flats.
Saving the best for last, we spotlight the matchup of Ike Taylor on A.J. Green. The Bengals offense would be completely dormant if not for the downfield acrobatics of the burgeoning second-year receiver. The Steelers like to have Taylor shadow the opposing team’s No. 1 target, and last year, that certainly included Green, whom Taylor battled well. Last Thursday night, Taylor struggled in isolation coverage at Tennessee, but in Pittsburgh’s two wins, he was outstanding against speedy, slender receivers in Santonio Holmes and DeSean Jackson. Taylor’s lankiness and physicality matches up well to this type of receiver.
Green is a slender, fast type. He's also more dangerous than anyone Pittsburgh has faced, especially if Dalton continues to gradually improve his sub-par deep ball. Letting Taylor go one-on-one with no safety help this week would be a significant risk –- particularly with Troy Polamalu out of the lineup.
2. The Polamalu Factor
It’s no accident that Pittsburgh allows roughly seven more points per game when Polamalu is out of the lineup. Aside from maybe Darrelle Revis, the 10th-year safety is the most impactful defender in all of football. It’s not just his rare big-play skills –- it’s the chaos he creates before the snap. LeBeau gives Polamalu free reign to do his own thing. This not only maximizes the reward of Polamalu’s uncanny football IQ and athletic recovery skills, it minimizes the risks of his deficiencies in traditional one-on-one coverage. He disguises pre-snap looks in ways offenses simply never see from other teams. (Lining up in the A-gaps when he has two-deep coverage responsibilities over the top, for example.) And because his freedom is unchecked, those disguises have no patterns or tendencies. Without Polamalu’s randomization, Pittsburgh’s defense becomes stagnant and inherently softer on the back end.
This impact is felt most dramatically in run defense. Not only is Polamalu one of the league’s best at reading offensive tackles in order to sniff out run plays -- most safeties only know how to read ball carriers -- he’s rangy enough to allow safety Ryan Clark to consistently sit back in centerfield. That, among many things, makes Pittsburgh less vulnerable to play-action. Clark’s chemistry with Polamalu is the most underrated element of Pittsburgh’s defense. When that tandem is severed, Clark has to become more of a force player against the run, which means the Steelers get weaker at free safety.
3. Steelers run game
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Even though few believed Todd Haley would actually return the now pass-oriented Steelers to their ground-and-pound roots, it’s been a little surprising that this offense has struggled to reestablish its running identity. There have been bouts of confusion along the offensive line regarding basic run-blocking concepts. There’s been predictability to the rushing concepts, as Pittsburgh has consistently run to the heavy sides of overloaded surfaces or has kept everything between the tackles. The predictability was almost certainly a product of Rashard Mendenhall’s absence, as the heavy-footed Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer made for a lethargic one-two punch. Mendenhall is back now, but as good as he looked in his Week 5 return, he’s still somewhat of a question mark after sitting out most of Week 6 with a tight Achilles. Behind Mendenhall, at the back end of the rotation, the Steelers haven’t yet figured out how to incorporate rookie speed back Chris Rainey into their system.
All that said, this run game isn’t in serious trouble. If healthy, Mendenhall gives Pittsburgh the versatility that’s been missing. And with receivers like Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, the Steelers have already fully embraced the fact that their ground game is best used as a means of protecting leads that the passing game establishes. That’s what they were able to do in their victories over the Jets and Eagles.
For the Bengals, clogging nose tackle Domata Peko and the aggressive box-safety tactics that coordinator Mike Zimmer loves to employ can make for a tough run front. However, this season, Cincinnati’s linebackers have occasionally struggled with recognition and fundamental execution. That’s what you get with the athletic-yet-periodically-undisciplined Rey Maualuga. When he’s dialed in, he can be terrific. That goes double for undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict, who is hotheaded but also insanely athletic.
4. Through the air
With X-receiver Wallace taking the top off of defenses (he finally caught an 82-yard touchdown last week after a half-season drought on long bombs) and Z-receiver Brown being as proficient and instinctive a route runner as anyone in the league, Pittsburgh has big-play aerial potential on every down. The issue with them is pass protection.
Until injuries struck from all directions in Week 6, this line had been enjoying rare continuity. That doesn’t mean it was enjoying great success, though. Left tackle Max Starks tends to have trouble with edge-benders on the outside. Left guard Willie Colon, though good on the ground, has had trouble with lateral movement. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, is still developing.
Can the Bengals take advantage? They should inside, as they have the best all-around 4-3 defensive tackle in the game right now in Geno Atkins. Colon will need help against the third-year star. But even with Atkins, and even with Carlos Dunlap and his nimble burst on the outside, Cincinnati’s pass-rush has been eerily quiet the past few weeks. Zimmer is more than willing to compensate with safety blitzes -– even of the Cover-0 variety -- but that’s obviously a significant gamble against a sandlot magician like Ben Roethlisberger. If Roethlisberger extends the play, the Bengals are toast. While Cincy’s secondary has gotten decent zone play at cornerback despite a rash of injuries, it doesn’t have enough outside speed and quickness to sustain prolonged coverage against the likes of Wallace and Brown.
What’s more, something very few people talk about is that Roethlisberger, in his recent maturation, no longer has to rely on extending the play in order to beat teams through the air. The Bengals learned this last year, which brings us to...
5. Roethlisberger’s greatness
This was third-and-10 in the Steelers-Bengals Week 13 showdown last year. The Bengals wanted to make the Steelers throw short. Roethlisberger showed his new-found pre-snap awareness in identifying and beating Cincy’s aggressive, multidimensional blitz. This play encompassed a lot of what we love about football. It was a good defensive call and concept, and it was smart recognition and reaction by the offense. Both teams executed well. The result was a 22-yard completion to Brown. The difference on the play was simply the rare individual talent of Roethlisberger and his top receiver.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
With the Bengals showing double A-gap blitzers and walking safety Reggie Nelson to the line of scrimmage, Roethlisberger knew the Steelers would be short one blocker. After the snap, the numbers wound up tilting in Pittsburgh’s favor because it was a zone blitz, with Atkins and defensive end Robert Geathers dropping back. But with two A-gap blitzers, the Steelers couldn’t assume pre-snap that this would be the case. In response, they slid their protection to the right, which meant Redman had to pick up linebacker Brandon Johnson on the inside.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The blitz concept worked. With Atkins and Geathers dropping out, both Steelers guards initially became wasted bodies early in the play, as they stood around with no one to block. (For what it’s worth, they did a good job making themselves useful in recovery mode.) At the same time, Nelson still got a clean path to quarterback, while the pocket naturally collapsed as the rest of Pittsburgh’s line had to play on its heels.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
The result was still a 22-yard completion on a skinny deep post to Brown. Here’s why: not only did the Steelers benefit from the superior talent of Roethlisberger and Brown, they planned on benefiting from that superior talent. Normally in this scenario, an offense has the receiver run a hot route. Either an eight-yard slant or some type of quick hook –- anything that allows the quarterback to get the ball out on a three-step drop. The Bengals knew this: that’s why Atkins dropped into that short underneath realm.
The Steelers didn’t call a traditional hot route, though. They trusted that Brown, who had a clean release, would have the quickness and acceleration to get downfield even in a condensed time frame. And they trusted that Roethlisberger, who would have to hold the ball just a half-beat longer than on normal three-step timing, had enough strength and toughness to make a precise throw just before getting hit. Not many teams call plays where they know their quarterback will get hit.
Not only does Roethlisberger make throws off contact, he makes tight, eyes-downfield, precision-accuracy throws off contact. Few quarterbacks in history have been able to consistently do that. It’s exactly what Roethlisberger did on this play. Something else that’s great here: Roethlisberger drifted to his left ever so slightly during his three-step drop. That widened the gap between him and Nelson just enough to buy an extra micro-second of time. This sort of smart, fine-tuned quarterbacking tactic is something Roethlisberger has developed in the past year or two.
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Redskins offense vs. Giants defense
Pro football’s latest craze is the pistol formation, and no team runs it better than Washington. The condensed formation drives a lot of the read-options and play-action designs that make up the new Shanahan offense. Robert Griffin has the perfect skill set for the pistol. Not only does he have the legs to make defenses respect (even fear) the read option, but he has a quick, compact throwing motion, which enables him to exaggerate play-action fakes prior to his windup.
The Redskins killed Minnesota with a variety of quick slants and rolling pockets out of pistol action. When eyeing Griffin, the New York linebackers will have to be disciplined enough to stay home and trust that their defensive line can disrupt Washington’s zone-blocking. If they try to get aggressive against RG3, they’ll get burned.
Giants offense vs. Redskins defense
A dominant second half performance in San Francisco has us all believing in New York’s run game again. That run game faces another stern test this week. Washington’s defensive line is somewhat mundane, but has enough size to make it hard for guards Kevin Boothe and Chris Snee to do what they've done well this season: get to the second level. When he’s free from blockers (which is often), London Fletcher remains as good a run-stopper as anyone in the NFL. Fletcher made excellent halftime adjustments to help keep Adrian Peterson in check last week. Also worth mentioning is Jim Haslett’s willingness to infuse his run fronts with more speed by dropping a safety down near the line of scrimmage. Reed Doughty has been particularly stellar in this capacity. Eight-man boxes can be risky against Eli Manning and New York’s receivers, but Haslett loves taking risks.
Texans offense vs. Ravens defense
Someone finally slowed down Houston’s zone run attack. The Packers did it with interior penetration and stalwart edge-setting on the front side. Setting the edge was once something Baltimore did better than any team in the NFL, but Jarret Johnson’s departure in free agency and Terrell Suggs’ Achilles injury changed that. Consequently, the Ravens have been absolutely obliterated by zone-running games this season. Even though Ray Lewis had been struggling mightily, having him removed from the lineup should only make matters worse. Expect a big bounce-back game for Arian Foster and Houston’s offense this week.
Ravens offense vs. Texans defense
In their first post-Brian Cushing game, the Texans gave dime linebacker reps to Bradie James, Tim Dobbins, and Mister Alexander. This "try ‘em all" approach suggests they still have no idea how they’ll replace their injured Pro Bowl linebacker. Cushing’s absence from the pass defense this week may not be quite as significant given that Baltimore runs a lot of its offense out of base personnel. Expect it to be an issue moving forward, though, as the Texans have several pass-oriented opponents left on their schedule.
For this contest, an intriguing matchup to watch is on the offensive right side, where J.J. Watt will be facing tackle Kelechi Osemele. Many are smitten by the athleticism of Baltimore’s second-round rookie. Osemele has flashed stardom several times this year, but he’s also flashed predictable callowness. A bout against the league’s most dominant defender will lend a good gauge to where the Iowa State product currently stands.
Jets offense vs. Patriots defense
The Jets can’t expect to line up in run-heavy personnel every down against New England and pound the rock like they did a week ago. Indy’s front seven is full of undersized, inexperienced journeymen. New England’s is not. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are two of the best outside trench fighters in the game. Inside, Kyle Love is starting to consistently take advantage of the looks bestowed on him because he plays next to Vince Wilfork. Shonn Greene found his long-lost downhill burst last week because he had room to square his shoulders while approaching the second level. This week, he’ll have to create more of his own space -– something he’s never done well.
Can Mark Sanchez pick up the slack? Another year of tepid pass-rushing has made New England’s soft pass defense once again vulnerable to big plays. The Patriots have allowed 33 passes of 20 yards or more –- by far the most in football. The Jets threw just one pass over 20 yards downfield last week. Despite their deficiencies at wide receiver, they’ll likely want to be more aggressive this Sunday.
Patriots offense vs. Jets defense
In the 2010 Divisional Round, New York befuddled Tom Brady with a smorgasbord of different byzantine pre-snap looks. Brady routinely needed the entire play clock to read the field. We might see the tables turn Sunday, as the Patriots this season have been honing a breakneck-paced no-huddle offense. How can the Jets confuse the Pats with pre-snap disguises if the Pats don’t even take time to look at the disguises? Expect Brady to go up-tempo and involve his tight ends even more than usual. If he can force fast-attacking safety LaRon Landry to think and react to route combinations downfield, the Jets defense will inevitably become more vanilla.
Packers offense vs. Rams defense
The Packers were blessed last week to face a Texans pass rush that they knew their offensive line could not contain. Being forced to give extra help to struggling offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga and Marshall Newhouse, the Packers used fewer eligible receivers in their passing game and shortened a lot of their routes. This type of quicker, more condensed approach is what ultimately made their offense great in the first place.
It’s an approach that maximizes Aaron Rodgers’ pre-snap diagnostic intelligence and leads to high-velocity fastball. The Packers had drifted from it early in 2012 and Rodgers struggled to find his usual rhythm. That changed Sunday night. Hopefully for the Packers, it will stay changed, as this week they face a Rams defense that’s only as good as its pass rush. If the Packers can keep defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn at bay, they’ll win. Mike McCarthy would be wise to help Bulaga and Newhouse with chip-blocks and favorable play-calling again.
Rams offense vs. Packers defense
An injury that few have talked about this week is the season-ending ACL tear to Packers inside linebacker D.J. Smith. The second-year pro had been forced into the lineup because of a season-ending injury to Desmond Bishop. Smith, with his fluid speed and strength in traffic, quickly emerged as a key component in Dom Capers’ sub-package blitzes. His athleticism will be dearly missed.
The door now opens for A.J. Hawk, the former No. 5 overall pick who has never quite lived up to high expectations. Hawk has played faster than ever in 2012, showing new-found comfort in space. In the past, it’s his limitations in this realm that have kept him off the field on passing downs. He now has a chance to redefine his reputation and role as he’s likely to assume the full-time nickel and dime inside linebacker duties.
Stepping into this spot after Smith’s injury last week, Hawk responded by getting a sack off a well-called fire-X blitz (a Dom Capers staple). With Danny Amendola gone, the Rams receiving corps has all the explosiveness of a moist matchbook. You can bet Capers will be eager to mix things up in passing-down packages this week. Hawk must be ready.
Colts offense vs. Browns defense
Brandon Weeden is supposed to be the dithering rookie quarterback, but last week in New York, Andrew Luck wore that hat. To be fair, the Colts asked (and always ask) a lot more of Luck than the Browns asked of Weeden. Despite getting adequate blitz pickup from his pass protectors most of the afternoon, Luck struggled to connect with his receivers. He missed several on-the-move touch throws and was erratic in his downfield accuracy.
Part of this was due to quality man-coverage by the Jets. That’s something the Colts will see again this week, as the Browns have cover corner Joe Haden -– who was stellar in his return from suspension last week -– to shadow Reggie Wayne. T.J. Ward, who has been much-improved in pass coverage, will check Coby Fleener. What the Browns don’t have, however, is a four-man pass-rush. Luck’s patience in the pocket could pay huge dividends this Sunday.
Browns offense vs. Colts defense
Trent Richardson is expected to play after leaving last week’s contest with sore ribs. That means the Browns will likely have their offensive line use a lot of power-blocking techniques, as that suits Richardson’s style and presents problems for a Colts front seven that got destroyed by New York’s power run game. Interestingly, though, the Browns’ run game in Week 6 didn’t come alive until a banged-up Richardson got replaced by Montario Hardesty. When that happened, the Browns changed to some zone-blocking concepts. Given the difference in his blockers’ performance, Pat Shurmur may want to consider sprinkling more finesse into his ground approach this week, even if it’s the violent Richardson carrying the ball.