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The MNF Matchups to Watch: Can the Steelers Get Back on Track?

By: Greg Gifford

Three weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were in the midst of a quest for an undefeated season. Now, they’re simply trying to right the ship.

Following a franchise-best 11-0 start, the AFC North leaders will try to avoid their third straight loss on Monday Night Football when they visit the 2-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers have won 11 straight against the Bengals. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

Pittsburgh has fallen 1.5 games back of the Kansas City Chiefs for the best record in the AFC and holds a half-game edge on the Buffalo Bills in the race for the No. 2 seed.

The Steelers have won 11 straight in this series, including an 18-16 victory at Cincinnati in the AFC Wild Card round on Jan. 9, 2016. However, each of the last five meetings in Cincy has been decided by seven points or less.

Since averaging 29.8 points over their first 10 games, the Steelers have put up 18.0 per game over their last three. Can they get back on track against a Bengals defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and points allowed?

Let’s take a deeper dive into tonight’s AFC North clash to find out:

WHEN PITTSBURGH HAS THE BALL

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense show up for every game ready to pass the ball. Based on our Expected Play Type model, Big Ben throws the ball a league-high 11.7% more often than the average quarterback (no other QB is above 9.0%).

Almost half of those throws come out of some type of quick pass concept, usually in the form of a 1- or 3-step drop with the ball designed to come out immediately. The Steelers are also well above average in screen and RPO usage, respectively. Considering about 62% of their passing plays fall under either the quick, screen or RPO designation, it’s not surprising that Ben’s average release time of 2.25 is the quickest in the NFL by almost a tenth of a second.

Chase Claypool celebrates one of his two TDs in the first meeting.(AP Photo/Justin Berl)

Roethlisberger had a field day with Cincy in the first meeting, throwing for 333 yards and four touchdowns without being sacked once. JuJu Smith-Schuster (9 catches, 77 yards, TD), Diontae Johnson (6 catches, 116 yards, TD) and Chase Claypool (4 catches, 56 yards, 2 TDs) were the beneficiaries in a 36-10 home win on Nov. 15.

When the Steelers do run the ball, they’ll employ a number of different concepts, making it hard to know what’s coming. In fact, they’re one of just six teams that use six or more basic run concepts more than 6% of the time. You can expect to see them pull (power, counter) or not pull (inside zone, duo) linemen, get the ball into space with sweep plays, or use their high pass expectancy to their advantage and surprise the defense with draw plays.

The Bengals are most likely to combat all of these quick passes with a single-high, man coverage defense or a cover 3 shell, with some quarters and Tampa 2 mixed in as well. They blitz about 30% of the time as a team, which is right around league average.

It is worth noting though that when they do blitz, they’re quite aggressive; only four teams bring six or more rushers more often than the Bengals.

WHEN CINCINNATI HAS THE BALL

With Joe Burrow out for the season, Ryan Finley will be making his first start of the season in a tough situation against one of the top defenses in the NFL.

It remains to be seen exactly how the Bengals offense will run tonight, but based on his 2019 season it seems likely the Bengals will run the ball much more than expected. That’s likely to lead to more touches for Gio Bernard, Semaje Perine and Trayveon Williams, primarily an inside zone run scheme. That trio combined for 100 yards on 5.0 per carry in the first meeting.

Tee Higgins was one of the few bright spots for the Bengals in the November matchup. (AP Photo/Justin Berl)

With their strong run defenders both on the interior and on the edge, the Steelers are allowing 3.9 yards per carry on inside zone – roughly half a yard better than average.

The Bengals will likely be forced into more drop-back passes than they would prefer, even with their tendency to run more than expected. Pittsburgh will have to keep an eye on rookie Tee Higgins, who had seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown in November. But this time, it will be Finley throwing to him. Finley’s ranked 43rd out of 45 QBs with at least 80 throws with a 67.5 Well Thrown% in 2019 and he was dead last in Pickable Passes at 10.8%.

The Steelers blitz more than any other defense in the league – 41% of the time. Most of those are of the man-blitz variety, with five rushers, man coverage and a single-high safety. They’ll also run a good amount of Cover 3 and Cover 2-man.

Their defensive backs are solid, if unspectacular, and they don’t really have any weak points. Combine that with Pittsburgh’s elite defensive line, and the Bengals might have a long night ahead of them.

 

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