By Ryan Daly – Betting/Denver Broncos Writer
As the Pittsburgh Steelers introduce the four newest members of their Hall of Honour (Larry Brown, Bill Cowher, Elbie Nickel and Hines Ward) before Monday Night Football, we are reminded of the standard of greatness this organisation holds itself accountable to. The contrast to those who take the field tonight could not be starker as they prepare to host an equally deplorable 0-3 Bengals team.
Perhaps that demeaning indictment of these AFC North rivals is a little over the top, but through the first three weeks of the season, neither of these teams has provided their fan bases with much to get excited about. Tonight, quarterback Mason Rudolph must breathe life into the Steelers franchise and prove that I wasn’t a total moron in declaring the Oklahoma State product the future of the franchise! Rudolph didn’t come in and provide a Baker Mayfield-esque spark last week in San Francisco but he didn’t throw the game away either – that was running back James Conner, who fumbled deep in his own territory after Rudolph put the Steelers in position to win with a go-ahead strike to Diontae Johnson in the fourth quarter.
Steelers’ timid offense
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner drew up a conservative game plan last week against the 49ers, with Rudolph throwing just two passes past the line of scrimmage while passing for 174 yards, two touchdowns and an interception with an 81.4 rating. Through the two games that he’s played in, Rudolph has tried a pass of 30 or more air yards just twice out of 46 attempts. He particularly struggled to convert on third down – as you would expect if you’re not throwing the ball beyond the line of scrimmage – converting just three of 12. That’s not all on Rudolph, of course; the Steelers are currently 29th in the NFL on third-down conversion percentage.
Rough start for James Conner
Play calling has been an issue with this Steelers staff for a while. They have to get more aggressive and let Rudolph use the deep ball he was known for in college, otherwise teams will continue to stack the box and play press coverages like the 49ers did last week. James Conner has had an inauspicious start to the season. Last week’s 43 yards on 13 carries is actually his best effort this season, and he is averaging just 2.85 yards per carry this year. He also put the ball on the ground for the fifth time in his short NFL career, something that’s turning into a real problem. So much so that the Steelers’ running back coach is making them carry around waterlogged footballs during practices this week.
One of Conner’s better games last year came against the Bengals, where he totalled 111 yards on 19 carries, and if ever there was a time that this running game was going to spark into life, it is against this defense. In their last two games, the Bengals have surrendered 434 yards on the ground alone while 49ers and Bills running backs motored along at 5.56 yards a clip.
Up and down Bengals offense
The Bengals have also struggled to get their main running man going this year. Joe Mixon rushed for over 1,100 yards last year but through three games this year, he has 87 yards on the ground. A lot of that can be put down to the new pass-happy approach brought in by Head Coach Zac Taylor The Bengals currently rank 31st in the league in run play percentage at a mere 27.1%. Against a Steelers defense that allowed the 49ers to rack up 319 yards on the ground, it may pay dividends to try get Mixon rolling.
The passing offense has been the bright spot so far, ranking third in the league in passing yards per game (308.3). Zac Taylor has implemented a pass-heavy approach over the first three games; their 129 pass attempts currently ranks second in the league. Andy Dalton is currently on pace to beat his career-best of 4,293 passing yards from 2013, throwing for 979 yards, five TDs and three INTs. The Steelers haven’t exactly been watertight against the pass either, allowing teams to throw for 515 yards through three games and Pro Football Focus has the secondary ranked 28th in the league in coverage grade. The addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick should go some way to bolstering a struggling secondary and he had an interception in his first game last week.
So what’s the betting?
With both defenses struggling through the first three games, I was attracted to the over. However, the offenses are also struggling. Pittsburgh rank 30th in the league according to Football Outsider’s offensive DVOA rankings and the Bengals rank 31st. With this also being a hotly contested divisional game, I decided to stay clear of the total. I lean towards the Steelers on the spread but again, I didn’t get involved there. I think we see the Steelers loosen the reigns a bit on Mason Rudolph and we can take advantage of a decent line on JuJu Smith-Schuster’s receiving yards: 75.5 is available at 1.9 (Unibet) and I’ll be taking him to score at around even money also. No team has given up more receiving yards to running backs than the Steelers so Joe Mixon’s 18.5 receiving total (Bet365) has to be taken advantage of after he caught two-of-two last week for 34 yards. The Steelers have given up two TDs to Seattle tight end Will Dissly while 49ers TE George Kittle caught six passes for 57 yards. They look to be having problems with tight ends and the Bengals love to run two tight end sets so I’ll take a chance on Tyler Eiffert getting into the end zone.
JuJu over 75.5 rec yards (1.9)
JuJu TD (evs)
Joe Mixon over 18.5 rec yards (1.83)
Tyler Eiffert TD (5.0 @ Unibet)
(Feature Photo – Credit: Jason Bridge/USA TODAY Sports)