The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off their most lopsided performance of the season, securing a 45-10 prime time win last week over the Colts, but as it currently stands, they are sitting outside of the playoffs. Though they still control their own destiny with the ability to make it to the postseason by winning out, the focus must be one game at a time.
And the hardest game left may be this one in just a matter of hours against the 10-2 AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers were able to sweep them last season, a feat that including a crushing 27-17 victory in Cincinnati in the season finale that secured the division for the Steelers, knocking the home team into a wildcard slot.
Now they are looking to return the favor, having already notched a 16-10 victory over the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a game in with Ben Roethlisberger threw three interceptions in his first game back after missing four straight due to an MCL sprain and a bone bruise.
Health may end up being the biggest factor in this game, was Roethlisberger is in a groove after throwing for over 350 yards and four touchdown passes, while the Bengals have three fifths of their starting secondary banged up, with starting cornerback Adams Jones doubtful and two others listed as questionable.
The Bengals have been among the more fortunate teams in the league this year, accounting for the second-fewest games missed by starters. The Steelers are obviously on the opposite end of that spectrum, considering some of the prolonged and high profile injuries and suspensions that they have gone through in 2015.
The last time these two teams faced, the Steelers received a jolt from which they did not recover after they lost Le’Veon Bell for the season during the middle of the game. This time they will be riding DeAngelo Williams, who has been averaging nearly 100 rushing yards per start.
If there is one area in which there has been absolutely not drop off from Bell to Williams, it has been pass protection, where the veteran has yet to give up a pressure. He has put more defenders on their backs than allowed defenders to put Roethlisberger on his.
Beyond that, the receiving corps is primed and ready after coming off a game in which each of the primary targets caught at least touchdown pass. Heath Miller is also expected to return for the game.
Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva has also settle down substantially since the first matchup, which was just the second start of his career. The line as a whole is communicating better as the season has progressed.
Defensively, the Steelers are now using a rotation pretty much everywhere except at safety and the buck linebacker, with a very, very marginal rotation along the defensive line. The notable shift obviously has come at cornerback, with Brandon Boykin finally being inserted into the lineup as the primary passing downs slot cornerback, and his presence could help make a difference against the Bengals’ high-scoring offense.