Week 12 – No Ja’Marr Chase, no problem. The Bengals went to Pittsburgh on Sunday and threw it all at the Steelers defense, filling the box office with everyone from superstars like Tee Higgins to emergency tackles like Trenton Irwin. A couple of nice pressures and a pair of fumbled interceptions were the only things that held the way for the Bengals who dropped the Burger 50 as revenge for their Week 1 loss to the Steelers. Joe Borough and the Bengals looked as good as they’ve had all season against a solid Pittsburgh defense.
Even sweeter, the Bengals did it a little differently than they usually do. At their best, the Bengals are a team that runs across the ocean. They want throwing balls, quick snaps from the outside, and screens to their wide receivers. With a ball-winning player like Higgins and a YAC superstar like Chase (when he’s healthy), it’s no wonder Zach Taylor’s sluggish passing offense is around them. They have had unquestionable success being this type of offense, both last year and this, but the big offenses need engines and games as they count on change. Taylor and Burrow did just that against the Steelers with a series of throws over the middle middle portion of the field, largely from empty formations.
Taylor sprinkled some spice in the game plan early on. In the clip above, the Bengals blank with Joe Mixon as the weak side outside receiver (bottom). Nine times out of 10, a running back alignment will work at an obstacle or track, usually only as a means of freeing up the other receiver in the track group. Sometimes, good people tend, but that’s all there is to it. This applies to almost every team and back. The Bengals broke that trend on this play, running Mixon’s 12-yard touchdown run into the ripper on a high-low concept. Safety Terrell Edmonds (34) had no chance of driving on the ball as he darted through his back, perhaps expecting Mixon to stay upright, while linebacker Devin Bush (55) kept his eyes on the hole receiver without even a brief thought that Mixon would run behind him. Until Burrow’s hand advances.
Besides some nice one-off plays like that one, a healthy part of the Bengals’ success on the middle came with choosing the Steelers’ man coverage tendencies in clear passing. On third downs and long second downs, where a team like the Bengals are more inclined to throw than most, the Steelers regularly covered the man and dared a Chase-less Bengals receiving to beat them. Which they did. Many times.
For this third-and-average, the Bengals come out in a blank 4 by 1 formation, an uncommon appearance for any team. Instead of trying to get in the zone and sort out a strong four formation, which is always painful, the Steelers opt to field five and play Cover-1 behind it. There is beauty in simplicity sometimes, but when that simplicity trumps Edmunds in the third (third outside) with no help on the bottom or inside, things turn in favor of the offenders. Higgins steps on Edmonds with ease and the Bengals move the sticks without breaking much of a sweat.
On the next drive, the Steelers attempted to make amends. The Bengals came out on second-and-10 in a 3×1 formation, once again placing the majority of their receivers on the wide side of the field. Instead of being in personnel for the nickel as in the last clip, the Steelers are now in personnel for a dime (six defensive backs) with two high safeties, both opting for more coverage bodies and exchanging a fifth rusher for another safe in area coverage. Coverage-wise, Pittsburgh opts for something like the 1-Cross, a Cover-1 variant designed for the weak safety to sneak up on sticks and deflect any crossovers coming his way. Midway through the clip, it sounds like a great call for the Steelers as Minkah Fitzpatrick (39) drives downfield to take a Tyler Boyd crossing path. This is the exact path they wanted to take with these personnel and coverage. Unfortunately for them, the Bengals sent Higgins right behind Boyd to work the empty zone, a route Fitzpatrick had no chance of hitting from the starting spot.
Running a tackle behind a tackler is not at all new or innovative, but it’s a nice call considering how the Steelers like to play. Their favorite brand of Cover-1 is that 1-Cross call where Fitzpatrick can come off a corner and look to steal things away. It’s a better way to get an impact player in a position to play, than to have the linebacker play the middle slot or drop a safety before the snap to play middle. Credit to Taylor for picking one of the Steelers’ favorite callbacks.
The Bengals also continued to build on the idea of running the infield cutters one behind the other. In a blank again, the Bengals have a call fade slot at the bottom of the screen and a levels concept at the top. All three receivers on top of the screen run in cutouts at different depths, the deepest being the inner receiver and the shortest being the outer receiver. Not only is it an easy answer vs. covering a man because it’s as easy as running off your man, but it’s a simple concept for time-ending and progression. It’s easy for Burrow to flit from cutter to cutter because they’re all working in his vision to begin with, a process made easier with the Steelers fielding a fifth rather than having a low hole player.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bengals are still doing well outside the perimeter in this game, too. Higgins made a number of acrobatic catches on the sideline and Burrow was more than willing enough to feed Irwin on outfield cutters to get the Steelers to respect him. When paired with Burrow’s quick game operation and a couple of well-timed screens, like Samaje Perine’s first down, the Bengals were able to force their way all over the field.
This Sunday will be a completely different challenge. The Titans defensive line crushes the pocket like no one else while their secondary fingers tread carefully the line between sound coverage and creative calls to keep offense guessing. It’s hard to imagine they would be susceptible to being squashed in the middle the way the Steelers did. Still, the fact that the Bengals have proven this part of their game is a good sign as they cruise into the postseason, especially once Chase returns to the fold.