The Bengals ended their prime-time appearance on Sunday night with more questions than answers about this young and developing team. Offensively, a unit that has struggled to find an identity has even further buried itself in confusion.
Dalton has still continued to struggle against the zone blitz, and he often failed to check into plays and find his hot routes against the Steelers. Another struggle has been his inability to find throwing lanes. At 6-2 with a three-quarter delivery, he has been susceptible to tipped passes.
On his first tipped pass, he was throwing a crossing pattern to Andrew Hawkins that was screened by Casey Hampton. If Dalton had waited a split-second longer until Hawkins was in an open lane, that would have been an easy completion.
Dalton did recognize Lamar Woodley blocking his throwing lane late in the second quarter, but because of his late recognition he was unable to pull the ball back in and bounced it off Kevin Zeitler’s helmet and into Woodley’s arms.
Dalton did a better job with his pocket presence, however, until later in the game. Overall, the Steelers were able to concentrate on Dalton’s weaknesses and he was unable to adjust. It is still too early to write Dalton off yet, as he will hit bumps in the road as he navigates the learning curve, but eventually he will have to settle down and play more comfortably against complex defenses.
At the same time, the Bengals’ playcalling did not help his cause. A.J. Green was only sent on one deep shot off a play-action pass. The call itself was a good one: throughout the first half the Bengals only ran out of the I formation and only passed out of a spread look. On that play, they ran a play-action pass to throw for the first time all game out of the I formation, in the third quarter.
The only problem was that the Steelers were playing Cover 3 and were able to defend the post route. We will look at that play later in the week when the All-22 footage is available.
Losing Armon Binns to injury was also a plus for the Bengals, as they were able to see that Ryan Whalen and Mohamed Sanu are both looking like superior wide receivers. Neither is at the level of a sufficient number-two threat to take the pressure off of Green, but both are better than Binns and light years ahead of Brandon Tate, who should stick to returning kicks.
The brightest spot on offense was the continued emergence of Kevin Zeitler. The rookie guard delivered devastating blocks as the Bengals finally concentrated on the power running game, eschewing the stretch zone for all but one play.
Not only does the power-iso favor BenJarvus Green-Ellis’ running style, but he can follow the path that Zeitler and Andre Smith bulldoze for him. Zeitler repeatedly helped control Casey Hampton, who he then passed off to Jeff Faine or Trevor Robinson in the second half, then moved to the second level to block Lawrence Timmons. Some plays, including the fourth-down conversion, he manhandled Hampton one-on-one. He is quickly developing into a cornerstone of the Bengals’ offensive line.
If the Bengals re-sign Andre Smith at the end of the season, the right side of the offensive line could be a strength for years to come.
On the other side of the ball, the Bengals are hardly the first team to struggle to take down Roethlisberger as of late. After their Week 4 bye, the Steelers have only allowed one sack in the previous two games. The Bengals caused three sacks, but only Michael Johnson’s fourth-quarter sack was very timely.
The defensive line is still lacking the rotational quality that the featured last season with Jonathan Fanene, Frostee Rucker and Pat Sims. Sims will hopefully return soon, because he is needed on the interior.
Domata Peko is an adequate rotational player, but he can not shoulder the load at nose tackle. The Steelers’ running game was sputtering, entering the game with a dead last 2.97 R/YPA. Against theBengals, they ran for 5.76 YPA while missing their top two running backs. By the end of the game, Peko was being blown off the ball.
In fact, on one 3rd and 2 in the second half, the Bengals lined up with Robert Geathers at nose tackle and surrendered a 21-yard run to Jonathan Dwyer. Geathers at nose tackle is a great wrinkle for long third downs where a pass is inevitable, as his skills are suited to be an interior pass rusher, but an imposing nose tackle with fresh legs is needed in that situation.