Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” Sunday’s showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals could be a bloody battle for the Pittsburgh Steelers as the two teams have a clear disdain for each other.
Add into the picture the fact that the Steelers defenders could be looking for some payback for the celebration by Vontaze Burfict following Le’Veon Bell’s season-ending knee injury.
Outside of that, this game has much at stake for both teams as the Bengals are fighting to lock up the AFC North division title and one of the top two spots in the AFC playoff picture, while the Steelers are fighting just to get into the playoffs.
With desperation aplenty heading into this one, Sunday’s game could be a classic matchup for football purists who love trench warfare and strong defense.
Like almost every game, this one will come down to a handful of individual matchups. Here are three matchups to zero in on.
Steelers interior OL vs. Bengals interior DL:
Over the last few weeks Geno Atkins has been a one-man wrecking ball in the middle of the Bengals defense, causing tons of disruptions for opposing offensive linemen. Based off of how he’s played throughout the last few weeks, there’s no sign indicating that will change, Sunday, against Pittsburgh.
Along with Atkins, Domata Peko has come on strong as the season has worn on. In the last two weeks the inside duo has combined for six tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks and five quarterback hits.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the interior trio of Cody Wallace, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster is exceptionally better than the trios that Cleveland and St. Louis put on the field each and every week.
For the Steelers offense to get going in this one, Foster, Wallace and Decastro have to handle Peko and Atkins up front, allowing DeAngelo Williams to get going on the ground while also providing Ben Roethlisberger with a clean pocket to step up into.
Should that happen the Steelers offense could get rolling quickly, much like they did against Indianapolis last week. If the offense struggles early, keep an eye on Atkins and Peko in the middle of the Bengals defense. Their disruptive tendencies could give the Steelers fits.
Will Allen vs. Tyler Eifert:
The last time these two teams met Will Allen sat out with an ankle injury.
At the time, there were plenty of concerns regarding the Steelers secondary and how they would slow down the Bengals passing attack outside of A.J. Green, namely Tyler Eifert.
In his third season out of Notre Dame, Eifert has emerged as one of the top three tight ends in all of football, providing the Bengals offense with yet another explosive weapon to help out Andy Dalton.
All Eifert has done in his third season is haul in 46 passes for 522 yards and an astounding 12 touchdowns.
Against Pittsburgh in Week 8, Eifert was nearly invisible hauling in just four passes for 39 yards on eight targets. Odds are the Bengals look to incorporate him more this week against the Steelers secondary, which has struggled against move tight ends this season for the most part.
That’s where Will Allen comes into play. The veteran safety was merely an afterthought prior to the season but has emerged as one of the most important pieces on defense this season for the black-and-gold.
Facing Cincinnati this time, Allen will likely be tasked with shadowing Eifert in coverage. While Eifert is slightly banged up heading into Sunday’s game with a neck injury, it shouldn’t affect his ability to get open or win one-on-one battles with the ball in the air. However, if Allen can stick with him and reduce him to a third or fourth option in the passing game, the Steelers stand a good chance of slowing down the Bengals offense once again.
Markus Wheaton vs. Leon Hall:
With the emergence of Markus Wheaton in the passing game over the last two weeks, the Steelers passing attack has reached new heights.
As long as Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant are firing on all cylinders, Pittsburgh’s offense is tough to stop. Add in Wheaton to that mix? Look out.
Against Cincinnati, Brown will likely draw extra attention — and rightfully so. However, with Bryant and Wheaton stepping up big time, the Steelers passing attack has so many ways to burn you. At this point, it’s almost as if opposing defenses have to pick their poison with the Steelers’ passing attack.
Leave Brown alone in one-on-one coverage? Have fun watching 84 run circles around you. Allow Bryant to face man-coverage? Good luck stopping back shoulder throws and deep bombs to the athletic freak out of Clemson. Now, with Wheaton, Pittsburgh has three strong options to go to on any given down and distance.
That doesn’t even factor in the ability of Heath Miller to get open in the middle of the field, or DeAngelo Williams to find running room after catching a check down.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, Leon Hall has lost a significant step or two — possibly even three — this season. The veteran cornerback will likely be tasked with following Wheaton around since he matches up in size and can bring some physicality. But with the chemistry that Roethlisberger has established with Wheaton recently, that could be an individual match-up that the veteran signal caller exploits as much as possible, Sunday.
Should the Steelers be able to win at least one — but hopefully two — of these individual matchups, they should be in good position to pull off the win on the road against the AFC North-leading Bengals.