Tim Benz: Who is missed more: Antonio Brown or A.J. Green?
The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t good at much this year.
The Cincinnati Bengals may be good at even less.
But as these two 0-3 teams square off in a pathetic excuse for a primetime matchup Monday night at Heinz Field, Cincy has been better than the Steelers in one very important area.
The Bengals have done a much better job of replacing their absent star receiver than the Steelers.
And guess what? Their guy may actually come back.
Bengals coach Zac Taylor once again refused to put a timetable on A.J. Green’s return from an offseason ankle injury. But the franchise didn’t put Green on injured reserve. So they are apparently anticipating a return to action in the coming months for the seven-time Pro Bowl pass-catcher.
Meanwhile, despite the delusional suggestions of some, Antonio Brown is not returning to the Steelers.
He’s too busy alienating most of the NFL and writing English papers for his online courses at Central Michigan. Based on the quality of his tweet seeking help to get a good grade, good luck with that.
So the goals are different. The Bengals are just trying to get by until Green gets back, while the Steelers are trying to find their way in the post-A.B. era.
So far, the Steelers are having a harder time.
Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton has spent nine years earning the reputation of being a good, but not great, quarterback. He’s been good enough to produce 10-plus wins in four seasons and five playoff berths.
He’s never been good enough to win a single playoff game.
However, this year, despite the absence of his top target, Dalton and his remaining wide receivers have orchestrated the NFL’s third-best passing attack at 308 yards per game.
Through the first three weeks of action, only Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes netted a higher yards-per-game average (398.3) than Dalton (326).
Granted, some of those stats have been bloated due to the fact the Bengals have trailed for vast portions of all three games.
The Steelers have trailed a lot this season, too, though. Yet, the QB combination of Hall of Fame-bound Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph hasn’t even flirted with that kind of success in Brown’s absence.
The Steelers entered Week 4 at 205.3 passing yards per game, 26th in the NFL. Dalton is completing 62.8% of his passes. Steelers quarterbacks are at 56.5%.
Also, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Rudolph’s “expected completion percentage” (a passer’s completion probability on every play) is only 59.9%. Dalton’s jumps to 68.4%.
Furthermore, according to those numbers, Rudolph threw to receivers within 1 yard of coverage 33% of the time last week, more than any passer in Week 3.
So it appears Cincinnati’s wide receivers are doing a better job of making up for the loss of their team’s best target and getting themselves open for their quarterback than what we have seen from the Steelers.
Individual numbers suggest the same thing. John Ross III of Cincinnati began the week as the NFL’s fourth-leading receiver at 292 yards. Tyler Boyd’s 250 yards also get him in the top 20 at No. 19.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is a few slots back in 22nd place at 243. No other Pittsburgh pass-catcher has broken 100 yards.
As Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler pointed out, the Bengals are trying to utilize their wide receivers often in what he calls “Kings” formations: three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back. Butler said that’s a standard look from the Los Angeles Rams. Taylor used to coach quarterbacks and receivers in L.A. before taking over in Cincinnati during the offseason.
“Tyler Boyd is still there. He hasn’t gone anywhere,” Butler said of the former Pitt wide receiver. “Ross is a daggum speedster. So they got people. And Andy is still being Andy. He’s a good player. A.J. is gone, but we have got to play the same way. Nobody is crying for us. We’ve got to produce, and we’ve got to play.”
A third Bengals receiver, Auden Tate, led the club with six catches and 88 yards last week against the Buffalo Bills.
Cincinnati did play seven games without Green in 2018, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that may be aiding their adjustments this season.
“They were without A.J. Green a year ago,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “And I really think Tyler Boyd has done an awesome job of settling into his role as a lead dog. He did so a year ago and is continuing this year. I’m seeing some growth and development big time in terms of productivity from John Ross.”
Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Dionte Johnson and Donte Moncrief have yet to attain that kind of praise in Pittsburgh.
They better start earning it Monday night. If they don’t, and the Steelers sink to 0-4, realizing that they have dropped below the Bengals will be the harshest pill of many to swallow for this team in 2019.