The Cincinnati Bengals are inching ever closer to taking the top spot in the AFC North, and they could do so this week with a little help from the Baltimore Ravens. But the only real way to get there is to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night.
Though the Steelers are 5-8 and reeling from a second consecutive disappointing season, the Bengals cannot overlook them. The Bengals haven't swept the Steelers since 2009, and their win in Pittsburgh last year was their first since then as well. On the road and in the national spotlight, the Bengals must seize this opportunity.
The focus will be on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in this game, understandably. Against the Steelers, Dalton has a completion percentage of 53 percent, with a 50 percent or worse completion percentage in three of his five games against them. Prime time, too, has not been kind to Dalton, with two wins and three losses in those five games, along with just three touchdowns to five interceptions.
Dalton's Bengals are also 2-3 in primetime in the same span.
Luckily for the Bengals, Dalton will have some help this week—the run game. The Bengals haven't had under 100 yards rushing since Week 9, and in the past two weeks, running the ball has directly helped them win. At the same time, Pittsburgh's defense has struggled to stop the run.
The Steelers defense gave up 181 rushing yards in their loss to the Miami Dolphins last week and they have given up 197 rushing yards twice this year. Their season lows in rushing yards allowed, 55 and 74 yards, were against the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens, respectively. Those two teams are among the worst rushing offenses in the league.
Against teams with good run games, the age and limitations of Pittsburgh's defense have been exposed. It's something the Bengals can and should exploit this Sunday.
Pittsburgh's defense ranks 24th against the run, giving up an average of 120.2 rushing yards per game and 114 rushing yards at home. Considering the Bengals put up 155 rushing yards against the 29th-ranked Indianapolis Colts last week and 164 against the 13th-ranked San Diego Chargers the game before that, there doesn't seem to be a reason why they couldn't repeat this success in Pittsburgh. All of a sudden, no defense can contain Cincinnati's two-headed rushing attack.
This is a credit to the Bengals' offensive game planning, to their duo of running backs and to their offensive line.
Game planning has been well thought-out as well as properly executed. Dalton can and has been erratic and streaky as a passer. More balance between the run and the pass give him easier throwing situations against defenses that don't know what to expect.
Further, offensive balance in general is always an asset. Last week the Bengals ran the ball 35 times and Dalton passed it 35 times. The result was a win, and with Dalton not asked to do too much, he didn't turn the ball over.
Their pair of running backs, in concert with a solid run-blocking offensive line, has made this goal of balance suddenly achievable. By themselves, running backs Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis would make a run game one-note. Together, however, they pack a powerful punch.
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Green-Ellis might not be the most dynamic runner, but he possesses power. He can go north-south and plow over defenders, netting his team 40 first downs this year. He's why the Bengals rank fourth in adjusted line yards in runs through the middle of the offensive line.
Bernard is the shifty, speedy outside runner—and the reason why Cincinnati ranks sixth in adjusted line yards on runs outside the right end and 14th outside the left. He can also catch passes out of the backfield, plays that operate like runs. Of Bernard's 1,026 yards from scrimmage this year, 406 have been on catches.
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Neither Bernard nor Green-Ellis would be having so much success as of late if it weren't for the offensive line making their jobs easier.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks Cincinnati's run-blocking as the 11th best in the league, and Andrew Whitworth's shift from left tackle to left guard has a lot to do with it. Already run-blocking well prior to Clint Boling's injury, which necessitated the change on the line, Whitworth has had his two best run-support grades of the season at left guard. Football Outsiders has even higher esteem for the Bengals offensive line's run-blocking, ranking them sixth in the league.
Their linebackers in particular have struggled against running backs this year, and their top performing run-stopper, nose tackle Steve McLendon, is questionable to play on Sunday, having re-aggravated his ankle sprain last week.
Considering 59 percent of Cincinnati's runs this year have come up the middle of the line, a replacement nose tackle paired up with two inside linebackers who are poor at defending the run means the potential for a nice week for Green-Ellis.
Bernard should also have success running outside to the right of his offensive line. The Steelers are 29th in the league on runs that come from their opponents' right end, allowing 4.78 adjusted line yards per carry on those attempts. Cincinnati's most successful runs line up with those the Steelers struggle to stop. There's no reason for them not to establish the run early and to lean on it in a balanced effort with the pass.
Running well also means that Dalton can attempt more play-action passes, especially deep shots to receiver A.J. Green that can exploit Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor's problems covering top wideouts this year.
Though Dalton doesn't employ play-action passing all that often—just 17.7 percent of all of his throws have come on play-action plays according to Pro Football Focus—he's completed 62 percent of those he's attempted, the same as his non-play-action throws.
If the run game performs as well as projected on Sunday, the play-action could buy Dalton enough time to target Green deep, especially in one-on-one situations with Taylor. The result could easily be multiple touchdowns.
Out of 111 cornerbacks ranked by Pro Football Focus, Taylor comes in at 108th. He's allowed 56 receptions on 88 targets so far this year, for 893 yards and 305 yards after the catch. He's given up six touchdowns and has no interceptions. Quarterbacks targeting his area of the field have a collective 120.1 passer rating.
Dalton must pick on Taylor in this game, and using the run to set that up can make these passing plays both easier to pull off and more successful.
Suddenly, the Bengals have realized and harnessed the power of their run game. Whether it happened on purpose, out of a need to have a backup plan for the offense when Dalton is down or accidentally, with the backs and the line finally on the same page and the game planning taking advantage of this new development, it's certainly working.
Cincinnati is averaging the seventh-most rushing yards in the league over its last three games and is taking that run game to Pittsburgh, where it should experience similar success. Leaning on the run is the Bengals' biggest key to a win this week, a win that gets them one step closer to the AFC North title and a playoff berth for the third straight season.