The Steelers will return home on Sunday after righting the ship on a key three-game road trip. As they return home undefeated, the Steelers will hop back into divisional football as they welcome the Cincinnati Bengals and star rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. Burrow was the first overall draft pick in this past April’s NFL Draft and has proven to be worth it thus far for the Bengals. Despite owning a measly 2-5-1 record, the Bengals have shown life and promise in the 2020 season.
Head Coach Zac Taylor is a Sean McVay disciple, and as expected, runs an offense that is akin to that of McVay’s Los Angeles Rams. The Bengals have grown a West Coast and Zone-based running scheme that has lots of motion and movement pre-snap to keep defenders off-guard. Regardless of his influences, Taylor has had to get unique with the Bengals largely due to a poor offensive line. Some of what he is doing is akin to Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, but a lot of it weaponized Burrow’s mobility.
One of the ways the Bengals are overcoming their demons along the offensive line is by creating space and natural leverage for the lineman. By spreading the defense out, there are naturally more opportunities to create hot routes and exploit the coverage across the board. More importantly, is using rollouts and let Burrow use his legs to create a moving surface so dialed up blitzes are either thrown off or stalled by the moving wall of lineman. This is not a completion, but it is clear what the Bengals want to do from this look. They create a stacked look to create that traffic in man coverage and Burrow should theoretically be able to take advantage of it on a rollout to hit the quick out.
The mobility of Burrow is the ultimate weapon this Bengals offense has at its disposal. They have some nice pieces like rookie receiver Tee Higgins as well but make no mistake that the scheme is opened up by Burrow’s ability to make magic happen out of structure. Notice the Bengals are using a condensed bunch set tight to the line out of empty. Yet again, this is trying to create traffic against man coverage and create that spread action that the Steelers love to use when they are empty. They have a flexible running back in Giovanni Bernard outside who can come into the formation as well. That flexibility is something that the Bengals love out of this formation. Even still, despite those wrinkles, it is a great play by Burrow using his legs and Higgins making a fantastic catch that makes this work.
The running game is a mix of zone-oriented runs that the Bengals have started using less and less recently. Ever since Joe Mixon suffered a foot injury, the Bengals have been a pass-first offense. However, on the occasion they do run, it is usually out of the shotgun in a spread look. The Bengals run inside zone on this play and the H-Back is essentially trying to execute a wham block here. The running game is just all about creating a light box to gain some yards.
As far as the defense goes, the Bengals are all over the place right now. They have experimented in running more 4-3 fronts going back to last season, so this is not strictly just a 3-4 defense that operates similarly to the Steelers anymore. Generally, this is a defense that tries to get aggressive and get after the quarterback. However, they are lacking a true consistent pass rush and that has been a downfall of theirs this season. It is a sound scheme that thrives off disguising some coverages and working into heavy match man concepts. They seem more comfortable in man coverage thus far on the season.
Players to Watch
QB Joe Burrow
Make no mistake, Joe Burrow is the real deal. His hype machine is well underway thanks to a potential Rookie of the Year campaign building and it is clear to see why. The same things that made Burrow so great in his senior year at LSU are what is making him great in the NFL. Burrow is deadly outside the pocket and using his legs to extend plays. The consistent accuracy Burrow throws with is impressive for only a rookie, but he does all over the football field. As the biggest note for Burrow, he is as mentally advanced as a rookie quarterback can be. Now, he is prone to rookie mistakes still, but he is methodical, poised, and plays like an NFL veteran already.
WR Tyler Boyd
The former Pitt Panther receiver is the top receiver in this Bengals offense and for good reason. Boyd is a nuanced route runner with detailed releases off the line of scrimmage. Everything he does has a purpose to it and there is very little wasted movement in his routes. Usually operating out of the slot, Boyd’s dependable hands and ability to create easy separation have made him one of the league’s most underrated receivers.
FS Jessie Bates
He may not be getting talked about a lot, but Jessie Bates has quietly been one of the best safeties in football this season. Operating over top of the Bengals defense, Bates is one of the key factors in allowing the schematic flexibility for the Benglas on the back end of their defense. His range and ball skills mean he can make a play to turn the tide of a game any second. Even without any national attention, Bates should be someone that Steelers fans keep an eye out for on Sunday.
Matchups to Watch
Joe Burrow vs Steelers Pass Rush
This is by far the most pivotal matchup of the game. The Steelers have had lots of trouble keeping mobile quarterbacks condensed inside the pocket. Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and just last week, Garrett Gilbert, are some of the quarterbacks who have ravaged the Steelers defense this way. Burrow’s pocket movement and feel are fantastic and one of his best traits. The Steelers will have to stay disciplined and instead of trying to work upfield and around the arc, they must collapse the pocket around Burrow and keep him inside the pocket.
Steelers receivers vs Bengals secondary
In recent weeks, the Steelers have relied upon their receivers to bail them out of stagnant offenses and get the offense churning. That should be no different this week, as the Bengals are a battered and bruised secondary. Mackensie Alexander and William Jackson III will both be there, but the Bengals will have two practice squad call-ups backing them up. As a result, it is easy to see the Steelers potentially going into their empty set early to try and exploit these matchups. If they can do that, the offense should have a great day.