The Pittsburgh Steelers have already clinched a playoff berth after beating the Kansas City Chiefs but they remain in the driver seat to win the AFC North when they take on the Cincinnati Bengals. A home playoff game and the third seed would be huge to the Steelers and the fan base after two straight years of 8-8. All that stands in their way are the pesky Bengals.
The Steelers were able to best the Bengals at home late last year and dealt them a crushing loss only three weeks ago at Paul Brown Stadium. What do the Steelers have to do to break the Bengals? Here are the three keys to victory against Cincinnati this week.
1st Key: Shut down the Bengals running backs. Much easier said than done. Alex Kozora highlighted how dangerous Bengals running back Jeremy Hill has been and how explosive runs have hurt the Steelers. Hill has been nothing short of incredible this season. He was expected to be the thunder to Gio Bernard‘s lightning but he has surpassed Bernard on the depth chart and become a true bell cow back. He’s got 295 yards and three touchdowns over the last two games and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. He only had eight carries against the Steelers the last time they played but he averaged 5.8 yards per carry. The Bengals run a mix of zone and power so the Steelers run defense will have to be on point to shut them down. While Bernard may not be the feature back anymore he has done some damage to the Steelers in the past and represents a real threat in the short passing game. If they can make this team one-dimensional there is no doubt Andy Dalton will force plays and give up turnovers. It’s science.
2nd Key: Establish the run. Seems pretty simple right? Stop their running game and establish the run. This might be a tough task. Le’Veon Bell ran roughshod on the Bengals in Cincinnati gaining 185 yards on the ground with a couple touchdowns for good measure. However, Le’Veon has only 110 yards over the last two games and is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry. But despite an extremely poor outing by Peyton Manning, the Bengals defense did allow Broncos running back C.J. Anderson to run for 83 yards and a TD. If the Steelers establish the run the Bengals defense (missing Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict) will bite on play action and open things up greatly for Martavis Bryant to burn them again. Additionally it will slow down the rush against Ben Roethlisberger from Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
3rd Key: Get the offense going early. If the Steelers score on the opening drive you might want to buy your tickets early for their first home playoff game in four years. It seems to be such a problem for this offense to score touchdowns early. Sometimes they seem out of sync for a quarter or more and then they’ll have an explosion of points or some costly turnovers that ultimately lose them the game. They have to score early and often so Hue Jackson and company will be forced to turn to the pass. Then Jason Worilds and James Harrison can pin their ears back and really get after Dalton. Andrew Whitworth is a solid blind side protector but Eric Winston‘s glory days are behind him. According to Pro Football Focus, Winston allowed nine sacks and 35 other pressures in 2013.
This game is far from a sure thing but it can be done and it needs to be done. The Steelers don’t need to put up 40 points or more in this game. They just need to stop the run, establish their own running game and score early. Big Ben, Harrison, Maurkice Pouncey, and other veterans on this team have shown in the past that the pressure and bright lights of a primetime game like this isn’t too much to handle. This Sunday they can break the Bengals and make magic happen again.