By Christopher DiMarino
After a colossal let down against the Tennessee Titans in Week 6, this game is more important than ever. A loss here would nearly erase all hope of a postseason adventure, while a win could provide the edge needed to turn the corner. With all the disappointment the Pittsburgh Steelers have suffered to date, you have to factor in that they are trying to improve their faults. With Washington at home next week (a rookie QB versus Dick LeBeau), this road game will set the precedent for the middle of the season. Will the Steelers get their elusive first road win, then maybe use a strong home showing against the Redskins next week to revitalize their season?
The Cincinnati Bengals make this game more tantalizing than it likely should have been because they’ve struggled as well. In fact, the entire AFC North has struggled this year, the difference is that Cleveland is struggling less than usual and Baltimore is still finding the way to get wins. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two playoff teams from only a season ago that have disappointed. For the Bengals, it has been a defensive story as their defense, which had overachieved for so many years is now struggling heavily. Make no mistake, the Bengals have been decimated by injuries just like the Steelers. The bright light for the Bengals remains quarterback Andy Dalton, who is exiting his conservative shell and putting up points, and wide receiver A.J. Green, who has all but established himself as one of the best receivers in the league.
You can reference my competition analysis to learn a little more about the competition below:
We have a pretty good idea of who the Steelers are and this area normally analyzes the opponents defense and how they will match up. But at this point, it’s tough to make any estimations due to the uncertainty in the backfield for the Steelers. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are out for the Sunday night game and let’s not forget the offensive line. Center Maurkice Pouncey, arguably the most important offensive lineman, is questionable, while the absence of tackle Marcus Gilbert will lead to rookie Mike Adams starting. That is a grizzly situation. The upside is that knowing Pouncey’s status early will allow Tomlin and company to prepare Doug Legursky. Also, Adams has been an able run blocker, but his pass blocking has been his major weakness.
The right side of this Bengals defensive line has been its breadwinner. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson currently combine for more than 50% of the teams sacks. That means that the elite players on this Bengals defense will be attacking the injury depleted areas of this Steelers defense. Protection will be an issue all day and you can bet running backs will spend a lot of time in the backfield to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger some additional time. The Bengals linebackers have been adequate so far, and rookie Vontaze Burfict has played extremely well for an undrafted free agent. This is a player who was at one time projected to go top 5 in the draft but dropped because of drug, off the field, and combine issues. The Bengals secondary has a lot of familiar names but the unit has yet to gel. The only glaring weakness would be Taylor Mays, who is a physical specimen, but has yet to make his mark in the NFL. Health has been an issue in their secondary, but with names like Nate Clements, Leon Hall, Terrence Newman, Jason Allen and rookie Dre Kirkpatrick, they have a lot of talent at the corner position.
The Steelers have the type of offense that won’t be stopped unless they face an elite defense. However, as the running game fails and the offensive line dwindles, the margin for error increases. This Bengals defense, which ranks 15th in total defense (21st against the run/17th against the pass), might be able to limit the Steelers. If their secondary comes back strong and their front can apply the pressure, the Steelers will be forced out of their comfort zone. Establishing some kind of running game will be important, but as we’ve seen this season, it’s easier said than done. I know there’s a plan in place for the season, and some failures or injuries shouldn’t change it, but maybe a shift from run first to pass first might keep defenses off beat and breathe some life into the running game.
Footballoutsiders.com shows that the Bengals defense is worse than the yard totals would have you believe. They are ranked 26th overall or 27th against the run and 24th against the pass. The Bengals are 2nd in the league in sacks with 20, but tied for 2nd last with the Steelers in interceptions with only 2. They rank in the middle of the league for touchdowns allowed and 40 plus yard plays against, but have allowed the 8th most plays of 20 plus yards. Cincinnati’s breakdown coverage numbers are absolutely abysmal. They rank 31st against #1 receivers, 26th against #2s and 21st against the rest. They are the worst in the league against opposing tight ends and 27th against backs out of the backfield.
To summarize, the Bengals defense is very similar to the Steelers in the fact that it hasn’t allowed a lot of yards, but it ranks poorly in detailed analysis. The Bengals will apply the pressure and probably end a few drives with big sacks. The key is that this defense is soft and has not been great at generating takeaways. Therefore, I would think some aggressive play calling could lead to big gains. Also, the Bengals prototypical run stopping linebackers are not polished in pass coverage and their safeties aren’t excellent in man coverage either. I think tight end Heath Miller will be able to cut up the Bengals defense and provide some drive lengthening first down catches. The wild card is that backs out of the backfield have been successful against the Bengals. Even though the Steelers will want to keep them home to protect, some trickery in the form of screens and chip routes might help stymie this aggressive pass rush.
The Bengals offense is interesting. Even though Green and Dalton are great playmakers, there isn’t a lot of talent elsewhere on this offense. That said, they are still able to put up points and successfully move the ball. Running back Benjarvis Green-Ellis might not be flashy, but he is consistent and gets the tough yards. I would say the biggest opportunity on this offense is the receivers not named Green. Armon Binns is the starting flanker opposite Green and most have never even heard of him (18recs, 210yds, 1TD). The speedy Andrew Hawkins (5’7, 180lbs) has emerged as a slot playmaker and is 2nd on the team in yards at 329. The Bengals also have a talented tight end in Jermaine Gresham. However, since being drafted in the 1st round in the 2010 draft, he has struggled to establish himself. He’s doing a decent job this season and has the height and speed to compete like the elite tight ends in the NFL. The Bengals are also starting to use Cedric Peerman as a 3rd down type back to compliment Green-Ellis after Bernard Scott suffered a season ending injury.
The biggest story of the Bengals offense is undoubtedly its offensive line. This unit was one of the top ranked entering the season before guard Travelle Wharton and center Kyle Cook suffered injuries. This offense line, which was light on depth to begin with, now relies on two young guards, rookie 1st round pick Kevin Zeitler and their 2011, 4th round draft pick Clint Boling. The Bengals are using Jeff Faine at center and the journeyman graded out as one of the worst starting centers, according to Pro Football Focus in 2011.
The Bengals are currently ranked 10th in the NFL in overall offense (21st in rushing/8th in passing). Their rushing attack has been average in most regards, but the lack of a homerun threat has limited its effectiveness. The main goal of their running game is to manage 3rd down lengths and try to catch the defense in run prevent play calls. The Steelers are still spinning over not being able to contain Titans running back Chris Johnson, but they need to rebound and shut down the Bengals running attack. They should be up to the task, but the consistent Bengals will likely get their average weekly output per usual.
The passing attack is the area of concern for Steelers fans. The pass defense has been poor all season. Generating enough pressure has been an issue and turnovers have been scarce. This Bengals offense does still have both starting tackles but they are allowing the 6th most sacks in the NFL. Dalton has sure played well so far this year despite the interceptions as he has the 9th highest completion percentage (66%), and limiting receptions has been a struggle for the Steelers. Dalton has passed for the 10th most yards and points. The key stat? Let’s look at 3rd down percentage. We all know how great Roethlisberger has been as he boasts a league leading 52% success rate. The Bengals on the other hand have a league worst 27% which is almost half of the Steelers rate.
It will be interesting to see what the Steelers do to stop Green. The Steelers defense ranks 12th against #1 receivers on footballoutsiders.com, which is huge against a team with such a pronounced #1 weapon. However, the 27th rank against other receivers and 30th rank against tight ends could be the area of attack for the Bengals. The Steelers have never been a team to make extreme efforts to shut down a specific weapon, so the success against Green rests on the ability of cornerback Ike Taylor. Last season, Green was big against the Steelers as he accumulated 123 yards and 2 touchdowns in the two games, with both touchdown catches being more than 35 yards. In fact, if he didn’t get injured in the first outing, those numbers would have likely been even larger. Shutting down Green is the key.
I think this game will be a shootout. Both defenses are struggling and the familiarity of a divisional rival will only exacerbate that. The Steelers have question marks surrounding their health at running back so the projections I chose for that position are arbitrary. With Mendenhall and Redman out, it doesn’t give me much confidence in the Steelers running game. The Bengals on the other hand will likely experience the same success that they do every week running. That is to say that they will get yards and open up the pass, but don’t have big play threats in that phase. The Steelers aim in the passing game will be to overload the Bengals secondary by relying on multiple targets. That will keep them off balance and hopefully decrease the amount of time Roethlisberger has to hold the ball in the pocket. The Bengals on the other hand will ground and pound until they can get the look they want out to Green. Shutting him down is the difference between winning and losing.
|QB||Ben Roethlisberger||300||3||0||1 FUMB||22|
|QB||Andy Dalton||275||2||0||1 INT||17|
The fantasy points projected below are educated guesses meant to be used with other inputs to influence your decision of who to start and what each player might be capable of. Unlike the statistical sites, I rounded each stat to clean up the numbers and avoided unrealistic divisions (like 0.2 TDs). There are players that will contribute in the game that I didn\’t cover, but these players aren\’t typically expected to do much.
The above point totals are based on the following scoring convention:
Quarterback – Yards: 25 = 1 pt TDs = 4pts Fumbles = -2pts INTs: 1 = -2pts
Rushing – Yards: 10 = 1 pt TDs = 6pts Fumbles = -2pts
Receiving – Yards: 10 = 1 pt TDs = 6pts Receptions = 0.5pts