Most of the national media-types have picked the Steelers to beat the Bengals tomorrow. Who could blame them? The Steelers are at home, they won the last contest a few weeks ago, and well, they’re the Steelers. Winning is what they do. By hook or by crook.
And the Bengals are the Bengals after all. They might be having a better year than usual, and the future might be bright, but they aren’t ready. Not yet.
Picking Pittsburgh is the safe bet.
But the Bengals know they can win this game. They know what the media doesn’t: That this team is ready to take the next step. That Marvin Lewis’ teams always play well in Pittsburgh, and that they barely lost the last game.
So how do they do it tomorrow? Here are my keys to a Bengals win at Heinz field:
Spread ‘em out: The Bengals would be wise to spread the Steeler defense out with 3 receiver sets, or by multiple tight ends with Jermaine Gresham split out wide. Cincinnati can create match-up problems for the Steeler secondary and open up the run game by forcing Pittsburgh’s nickel packages to spend more time on the field.
Protect Dalton: The Bengal offensive line must keep Jerome Harrison and Lamar Woodley off of Andy Dalton long enough for him to find an open receiver. This means all of the linemen as well as Gresham and back-up TE Donald Lee.
Stretch the field: The game plan should include deep shots to AJ Green and Jerome Simpson and screen passes to Andrew Hawkins and Cedric Benson. These plays are meant to keep the Steeler safeties and linebackers off balance, forcing them to play more tentatively.
Stop the run: Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians would rather throw the ball than run it. What Mike Zimmer’s unit needs to do is accentuate that desire by shutting down Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman. Mendenhall is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, but he had 2 touchdowns in their first meeting. The Bengals want to force the Arians to abandon the run early and throw it often. Making them as one-dimensional as possible gives them the best chance to win. That brings us to step two:
Contain Roethlisberger: Sacking Big Ben is always a welcome sight, but keeping him inside the pocket is more important. Roethlisberger causes most of his damage when he is flushed from the pocket as defensive ends break containment. With his size and strength, Big Ben is a load to bring down and can easily break arm tackles to extend plays with his feet. The Bengal secondary cannot afford that. The Best answer is to contain him in the pocket. DE’s Robert Geathers, Frostee Rucker, and Michael Johnson must keep him contained while DT’s Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Jonathan Fanene bring pressure up the middle. If Roethlisberger simply runs out of room, he’ll be forced to take the sack or throw the ball within reasonable time constraints. This will serve to protect the secondary and force the Steelers to earn every yard.
Third Down: The Steelers are extremely good at converting third downs. They convert nearly 50% of them, which is unreal. For the Bengals to win the game, they need to force Pittsburgh into 3rd-and-long situations, and force Roethlisberger’s hand with blitzes up the middle and off the edge with Rey Maualuga and Chris Crocker.
Kevin Huber: Huber must bounce back from some bad kicks in recent weeks to have a good game Sunday. The Bengals will need every yard of field position they can get, and Huber’s ability to pin opponents inside the 20 will be needed.
Adam Jones: The Bengals should give Adam Jones an opportunity or two to return punts. Brandon Tate is steady and generally reliable, but he is no game-breaker. A big return from Jones, who is dynamic in the open field, would be huge.
Of course the Bengals should do what they can to establish the run game, eliminate turnovers, tackle surely, and limit penalties. These are keys to any game, but are as important as ever.
Karma-wise, you gotta think Bengals. They are due for a win over Pittsburgh and are in more a more tenuous situation having already lost to both Pittsburgh and Baltimore. That desperation should show in their intensity on the field. Additionally, it seems the Steelers might be underestimating them a bit.
These Bengals are different from previous versions in that they do not panic or crumble under the pressure. If the Steelers think they’ll be able to put the Bengals away early, they’ll be mistaken. No matter what happens, the game will come down to the wire. The only question is whether or not the Bengals will have enough to get the job done.
Bengals 27, Steelers 24.