NFL Week 1 – The last time we saw the Cincinnati Bengals play a soccer game, their heads were hung in mourning for their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Their off-season plan was simple: Rework the offensive line. The front office of the Bengals went all out in an effort to protect Joe Borough, bringing in veteran businessmen Ted Karas, Alex Capa and Lyle Collins through free agency and rookie guard Cordell Foulson through the draft. In all, four new players were brought in to provide additional protection to Joe Burrow after being sacked 51 times in the league in 2021.
There is no better way to test this new-look offensive line than against Defensive Player of the Year TJ Watt and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. The score sounded all too familiar: the same 23-20 final score as the Super Bowl, the same amount of sacks (seven) that Burrow had taken, and the same score.
Same as it ever was.
The first game of the match set the tone for the Bengals attack and Steelers defense, at least in the first half. In a simple four-man dash, Cameron Hayward came home and fired a stooping Borough looking to extend the play. In the next moment, Watt almost made sacks in a row, forcing Burrow to quickly take the ball out to Tyler Boyd on the way back. That’s when Minka Fitzpatrick speeded up the pass and took it home for his first score of the match.
The Steelers put both Burrow and Cincinnati’s new offensive line to the test in this game, disguising both their cover and defensive fronts with their own advance move. Pittsburgh would line up with Fitzpatrick once again as the only safety again in a Cover-1 look, then drop two defensive backs into the Cover-2 at the jackpot while Fitzpatrick loomed over the middle of the field. The Steelers’ defensive front used similar levels of deception, constantly moving linebackers back and forth, pretending to pre-blown or delaying their impulses.
In Burrow’s first stumble in the game, Pittsburgh showed 4-2 in front with Terrell Edmunds (34) hanging 8 yards from the line of scrimmage. Edmunds slips into the line just before he blasts off to signal a safety attack, forcing Foulson (67) to engage him and giving Alex Highsmith (56) a solo mission against Jonah Williams (73). The Steelers then sent two extra linebackers on a delayed attack, sending in seven total assists. Burrow, who sees two midfield, safety, and defensive tackles making their way up front, is trying to make a play. He just doesn’t count Highsmith on his blind side, as he comes home to make the bar on Burrow’s outstretched arm.
Considering this game’s box points — seven sacks allowed, 12.2% adjusted sack rate, and five quarterbacks on loss — in most cases, it would be a fiasco for a team that shared the same off-season goals as the Bengals. While that’s not what the Bengals hope to get out of their focal point in the off-season, Cincinnati’s attacking streak hasn’t suffered from the complete regression it seems to show on paper. Burrow’s Next Generation stats clocked in with an average throw time of 2.7 seconds, a hundredth of a second improvement over last year. Against one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL in their first game together, the Bengals might consider this a minor victory.
Part of the numbers allowed in the offensive line are a result of who they have to protect in the middle. Burrow has a tendency to try to make the most of a play, for better or worse. In most cases, it’s what makes Burrow an outstanding midfield player, shining with the much-desired ability to make something out of nothing. However, in other cases, you get abnormal results such as: large bag totals and high turnover rates.
Where the Bengals’ offensive line really struggled in the running game. Cincinnati finished Sunday with 2.92 adjusted yards (31), packed average 32% (31), and 20% stuffed average. Success rate in rush attempts (32). Pittsburgh was able to close them with their forward standard seven, too. according to NFL Next Gen StatsJoe Mixon had his third-lowest average of eight or more defenders in the box in Week 1. He cleared his only break of 31 yards and finished with 26 lunges for 51 yards, which is good for 1.96 yards per carry.
I spent a lot of time talking about half of this game because the other side of the ball for Pittsburgh was pretty pedestrian. It’s a testament to their defense that Pittsburgh came out with 23 points and a win. Aside from the Fitzpatrick pick-six, Pittsburgh’s scoring campaigns began organizing at Cincinnati 34 yard-line, Pittsburgh 41, and Cincinnati 45. This last possession goes back to a 20-yard kick back by Gunner Olszewski, but for most Pittsburgh attacking chances served Scoring on a silver platter through their defense. The Steelers translated the first three turnovers of their defense to 17 out of 26 points. The longest offensive drive of the day was a 59-yard run that started from a TJ Watt interception near the midfield.
Speaking of which, losing Watts is a huge blow to this defense. The power multiplier caused by the presence of watts cannot be underestimated. It necessitates a second blocker, which opens opportunities for others in the Steelers’ defense line to wreak havoc. After completing the afternoon with a sack, three tackles for a loss, two playoff passes, and an interception, Watt picked up right where he left off his DPOY season. With Watt seeking alternative opinions about his elbow, his thoracic injury timeline ranges anywhere from one month to the rest of the season, explaining the difference between a big short-term drop and an early end to what would have been a top-five defense.
Mitchell Trubesky’s 5.1 yards per pass attempt was the third lowest average of any Continental player over the opening weekend, while his 55.3% completion rate was the fifth worst. Pittsburgh seems to have an exceptional receiving corps with Deontay Johnson, Chase Claypool and Pat Freymouth at the helm, but this team is led by its defense. Trubisky adds an element of hopping not seen in Pittsburgh since Ben Roethlisberger was young and energetic, but the end result was a handful of avoided bags and three shoves for 9 yards. If Trubisky is just a temporary hiatus at the start of the season as Kenny Beckett adjusts to the pros, so be it, but this team’s offensive capabilities hold off until a goalkeeper change occurs.
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No “Where the Game Swung” on our opening weekend, so we’re going straight to “By the VOA.”
The Bengals and Steelers’ offenses both ranked last 10th in offensive DVOA, but Cincinnati’s relegation was mostly driven by a shock first half. Cincinnati recorded a 78.9% VOA attack before the break, with four of its six engines finishing with a spin. The 4th Best Pittsburgh VOA Defensive pushes them into the top 10 of our team’s rankings by Total Voices of America.
Burrow finished the first week with the worst game of his career, at least from an efficiency perspective. His four interceptions and five turnovers are his career highs, and the -156 YAR is the lowest in his career so far.
Based on our site The expected winning formula has been upgraded after the matchWe expect Cincinnati to win this game 61% of the time. The Bengals may have had lower VOA totals, but they made more plays than the Steelers (94 to 59 not counting nails/kneeling) and the Steelers had more penalties (nine to five including disqualification and compensation).
That’s certainly not the result any Cincinnati Bengals fan was hoping for in the team’s first game since February, but I’m not ready to announce the start of the Super Bowl (appearance) Hangover. If anyone can talk to that, he’s a heavyweight fighter and a star Remnants Mike Tyson, who once wisely said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The first two quarters were the Steelers hitting Burrow en masse, the offensive line, and the Bengals’ offense in the mouth. For the rest of the match, Burrow was a pocket picky. There were certainly times, if Burrow had stayed in the pocket facing the oncoming pressure for another half a second, he could have played with an open receiver. The Burrow and Bengals offense found a way to get around the Steelers’ coverage by crossing roads. This pass below to Tee Higgins helped Cincinnati reach the goal range on his first points of the afternoon.
Not all of Borough’s interceptions were his fault, either. Pittsburgh did an excellent job of pressing Burrow to make mistakes, just as they did in Game Two of the game that led to the selection of six Fitzpatricks. However, others were out of Burrow’s hands. One of them was yanked from Boyd’s arms when he fell on the grass. Another mistake was less Burrow’s and Watt got more, who jumped over the right to tackle Collins to pick Burrow off the line.
Sometimes, things just don’t bounce your way. Just ask Evan McPherson. McPherson finished 52-for-54 with extra points in the junior season and never missed a field goal attempt within 40 yards. One of Cincinnati’s prodigy playoff champions both happened to hit back-to-back kicks in this game (in part due to struggles Reserve Long Snapper Mitchell Wilcox).
The Bengal team could have won this match on three separate occasions. Regardless of the two MacPherson mistakes, Cincinnati should have reviewed the landing grab by Ja’Marr Chase just over two minutes ago to go into regulation. In fact, the Bengals scrambled to line up for a playoff before a two-minute warning hurt them, missing the opportunity for officials to review the catch in their favour.
Being upset early with multiple chances to win doesn’t sound like a harbinger of things to come the way the Rams’ loss to Buffalo on Thursday night looks. It took five laps, seven sacks, and two winning kicks in the game to finish the Cincinnati team. Should there be modifications? Sure, but the Bengals’ defense ended up performing in a top-10 by VOA standards, and Burrow needed the worst efficiency game of his career to lose in overtime.
There’s no need to sound the alarm for Cincinnati just yet, but the Bengals have officially received a wake-up call that the rest of the AFC is ready to play this year.