It’s Steeler week!! Let’s hear your best WHODEY, people!!
Now the real test begins, as the Bengals play Pittsburgh and Baltimore 3 times in the next 4 games. Will they establish themselves as a legitimate team in 2011, or will they prove the They-Haven’t-Played-Anybody-Good-Yet scoffers right? (If you are one of the people spouting that lame argument, are you being consistent and saying the same thing about the Steelers? The six teams that the Bengals have beaten are a combined 18-33, but the six teams that the Steelers have beaten are a paltry 15-34 combined.)
As I began to write this post, I held the opinion that the Bengals come into this game at a bit of a disadvantage. The Steelers’ reputation will do that. But as I did my research, my opinion has shifted. I know this post is long, but I hope you will take a look at why and let me know if you agree.
Artrell Hawkins has made the point to talk show host Mo Egger on ESPN1530 that the Steelers have played big, emotionally charged games the last two weeks against the Patriots and the Ravens, and he has pointed out that it is hard for players to get themselves up for three big games in a row. Keep that in the back of your mind.
Now consider this. For all of the praise that the Steelers’ offense gets from media talking heads, did you know that the Steelers have scored just 1 more point than the Bengals this year? That’s right, the Steelers have scored 196 points this year, and the Bengals have scored 195 points. And the Bengals have only played eight games while the Steelers have played nine! The Steelers have been held to 20 points or less four times this year, but the Bengals been held under 20 only once!
When the Steelers have the ball…
The strength of the Steelers’ offense is its passing game. How unusual is that? The team that has defined the AFC North as the ground-and-pound division has forsaken its roots under Mike Tomlin to become a team that throws first. With their QB coupled with WRs Mike Wallace and the emerging Antonio Brown, it makes sense. But I question whether this change will remain successful. The Bengals tried to be the Big Air Show several years ago (although with not nearly as good of a defense), and the success was short lived. I cannot help but wonder if the Steelers will eventually suffer the same fate.
QB Ben Roethlisberger v. Mike Zimmer. I have so little respect for this guy, I don’t even like saying his name. He is arrogant, self-centered and ignorant. No wonder he connects with the Pittsburgh fan base so well!
He is on pace to throw for 4375 yds this year, a career high and an astounding number for a Pittsburgh QB. He clearly has a nose for finding the open man. The keys for Mike Zimmer to keep this guy from winning another game in Cincinnati are 1) to keep him in the pocket, 2) to force him to throw before he is ready, and 3) make as much contact with him as possible. The more sacks, hits and hurries the Bengals can log, the more they will slow him down.
The Steelers’ O-line began the year awfully. After reworking the lineup a few times, they seem to have found a combination that has somewhat stabilized things for their QB enough to get the passing game on track.
LT Max Starks v. RDEs Michael Johnson and Frostee Rucker. Starks has played a big role in settling down the offensive line for the Steelers. He successfully held Holati Ngata without a sack last week. But the Bengals hold the advantage of a strong rotation, which has more than once proven to be the difference late in the game.
RT Marcus Gilbert v. LDEs Robert Geathers and Carlos Dunlap. Gilbert, a rookie, is going to have his hands full this week. The winner of this matchup will do a lot to help his team win. In 2 of the Steelers 3 losses, the opponent has 4+ sacks. If the Bengals can get to 4 sacks, I like their chances of winning the game.
The Steelers’ passing threat gets most of the attention right now. Their running game may not be eye-popping, but it is just effective enough to demand attention. The Steelers have run more than they have thrown only twice this year, games against Seattle and Jacksonville where they got the lead early and then ran out the clock. I expect the Steelers will lean away from the run against the Bengals, calling about 40 pass plays to 20 running plays.
RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman v. LB Rey Maualuga. The Steelers running game looks very similar to the Bengals. Like Ced Benson, Mendenhall is having a decent year, averaging 3.9 yds/carry. Redman is the change-of-pace guy that gives the running game a little more punch, like Bernard Scott.
The key difference comes on defense. The Bengals leads the league in giving up only 3.3 yds/carry. Welcome to the Striped Curtain, Rashard. Opponents have only run on the Bengals 202 times. In the AFC, which is not as pass-happy at the NFC, only the Patriots (192) whose secondary is awful and the Texans (201) have fewer attempts against them.
The Steelers have always been defined by running and defense. But that has changed over the past few years. With the QB’s knack for extending plays until the coverage breaks down, Pittsburgh has become increasingly more pass-oriented.
WRs Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown v. CBs Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Adam Jones. This matchup concerns me the most because these two WRs are playing so well right now, especially Brown. In their last 3 games, Wallace has 14 recs for 256 yds (18.3 y/r) and Brown has 21 recs for 278 yds (13.2 y/r). [For perspective, A.J. Green has 16 recs for 197 yds (12.3 y/r) in his last 3 games.]
As I mentioned before, Pittsburgh has been held to 20 points or less 4 times this year, all coming against teams that rank in the top 10 in pass defense according to FO: Baltimore (#2) twice, Houston (#5), and Jacksonville (#7). They are 1-3 in those games. Their other 5 opponents have been poor pass defenders, with the best of the bunch being Seattle at #23. Keeping Pittsburgh in that 20-point range is crucial for the Bengals to win.
The Bengals rank #15 in pass defense. A key in this area will be Adam Jones, who has been unable to contribute in the secondary so far this year. If his hamstring will allow him to keep up with Brown and Wallace, he may be able to take just enough away from their passing game to keep things close. If he ends up being a spectator for most of the game, the QB has better odds of throwing all over them the way Tarvaris Jackson did.
TE Heath Miller v. LB Thomas Howard. Miller has long been a nemesis of the Bengals, and he once again is the highest rated TE that the Bengals have faced this year. The Bengals did a good job of limiting TE Jared Cook last week (including Clements strip and fumble recovery), and a repeat performance against Miller will go a long way toward denting the passing game.
Not surprisingly, 3 of Miller’s 4 best games have come against teams with poor defenses: NE (7 recs / 85 yds), Indy (5 recs / 71 yds) and Arizona (4 recs / 59 yds). Except for last week’s game against Baltimore, he has been held under 50 yds receiving by every team with a solid run defense, which the Bengals have. (Apparently it is difficult to catch the ball when your hands are full of linebacker.)
When the Bengals have the ball…
Only twice this year have the Steelers allowed an opponent to exceed 20 points (both were losses to the Ravens), so getting over the 20 point mark is a key for a Bengals win. Fortunately, as I noted at the start, the Bengals have been held below that mark only once this year, including scoring 27 against the 6th overall Browns defense and dropping 30 on the 5th overall Jaguars defense.
QB Andy Dalton v. Dick LeBeau. Only once has a rookie QB beaten the Steelers since LeBeau became the DC in 2004, that being Troy Smith in 2007. Then again, Dalton has not proven to be your average rookie. Balance between running/passing and accurate throws will again be the keys for Dalton.
FO rates the Steelers’ defense as very similar to the Browns’ defense, which Dalton handled well enough in his season debut. After facing some outstanding rush defenses and some solid pass defenses since then, Dalton will not be intimidated by Steeler swagger.
The Steelers are noted for their blitzing schemes. The continuity that the Bengals have had on the offensive line means that they have seen most of what the Steelers have to offer before. As I noted last week, the Bengals have faced some stout front lines this year. Seattle (#3), Denver (#6), SanFran (#8) and Jacksonville (#10) all rank in FO’s top 10 run defenses. That makes Pittsburgh look like just another team at this point.
RT Andre Smith v. LDE Ziggy Hood. Smith is the least experienced to the Bengals linemen, so look for LeBeau to try to overwhelm him at times with Hood and LaMarr Woodley.
C Kyle Cook v. NT Casey Hampton. Cook and Livings have to win their matchups to give the running game a chance. I think they will get it done and will give Benson some room to run.
I am still lobbying for a smidgen more balance between Benson and Scott. In Tennessee last week, Cedric got 20 carries to Scott’s 6. The production per carry was nearly identical, but I continue to believe that more variety between the two will force defenses to guess more.
RBs Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott v. LB Lawrence Timmons. OK, I was wrong last week about Cedric getting a 100-yard game against the Titans, and I should have known better. At his 3.9 yds/carry average, it would take 26 carries to get him over the century mark. I don’t see him getting the ball 26 times against the Steelers. But unless something goes horribly wrong and the Steelers go up big, he and Scott will combine for 26 touches (and more than 100 yards).
The Steelers’ secondary plays much like the Bengals’ secondary, good but prone to give up plays. I am looking forward to seeing them try to match the speed of Green and Simpson.
WRs A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson v. CBs Bryant McFadden and Ike Taylor. I generally expect the Steelers’ corners to be mediocre, just good enough to let the front 7 do their thing. Taylor and McFadden have been better than I expected though. But A.J. Green brings the deep threat of Chris Henry and the toughness of T.J. Houshmandzadeh. This is going to be a fun matchup to watch.
TE Jermaine Gresham v. LB LaMarr Woodley. Getting Gresham going again will make the passing game that much more potent. Green, Simpson, Caldwell and Gresham all running the field at the same time gives Andy Dalton more options than the Steelers can effectively cover.
P Daniel Sepulveda v. P Kevin Huber. Huber’s average is 4.5 yds more than Sepulveda’s, which plays well in the battle for field position.
K Shaun Suisham v. K Mike Nugent. Suisham has missed 5 of 20 attempts this year, so long field goals are hardly guaranteed. Nugent has missed only 1 of 17.
KR/PR Antonio Brown v. KR/PR Brandon Tate. Brown is a dangerous returner, slightly better than Tate. The coverage teams cannot let him get going downhill, something they have done pretty well since facing Joshua Cribbs in week 1.
As always, one of the big keys to this game will be field position. The Bengals (#4) have allowed only 301.2 yds/game to opponents, while the Steelers (#3) have allowed only 280.2 yds/game. So short fields will mean big chances for success. (That said, I think both teams’ offenses will exceed those numbers of yards allowed.)
While the Steelers will be viewed by almost every TV suit and newspaper writer in the country as the better team, but the numbers simply do not bear that out. Both defenses are strong, although the Steelers are a little stronger in the back while the Bengals are stronger up front. The Steelers’ offense leans heavily to the pass, which the Bengals are more balanced in their attack.
Conventional wisdom says that the rookie Andy Dalton will be the flaw for the Bengals, asserting the Steelers’ complex blitzes will confuse him. I don’t buy it. Dalton has remained calm and productive against better defensive fronts (SEA, JAX) this year. Instead I look at two other rookies as potential difference-makers. The first, obviously, is A.J. Green. The Steelers struggled to cover Chris Henry, and they will struggle to cover A.J. The other rookie, as I highlighted above, is Marcus Gilbert, who will be attempting to stop Carlos Dunlap (unless his hamstring limits him). If he is anywhere near himself, I would not be at all surprised for Dunlap to log 2 more sacks and chase the QB into Atkins for another one or two.
Finally, I keep coming back to Artrell Hawkins’ comments about the emotion for this game. After the past two huge games for the Steelers, this is a classic trap game, much like the Bills faced when they came into PBS. With the emotional tank low and with the Bengals having far more to prove and playing at home, the undercurrents are moving in the Bengals’ direction.
School House Rock taught me that “three is the magic number”, but for this game it is 20. The team that gets to 20 points first will have the inside track. I expect the Bengals to follow their typical pattern for this game: score early, let the lead slip away, trail at halftime (so don’t let that worry you), and then close out strong, allowing no more than 10 (likely 7 or even less) in the second half.
7-2 BABY!! WHODEY!!
Final Score: Pittsburgh 21. Cincinnati 24.