A Pittsburgh Steelers regular season full of injuries, ups, downs and thrilling highlights comes down to Saturday’sshowdown at Paul Brown Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Wild Card matchup at 8:00 p.m.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, running back DeAngelo Williams has been ruled out for the Wild Card game at the Bengals, meaning the Steelers will have to go with an inexperienced backup running back for the second straight year in the first round of the playoffs.
Last year, Le’Veon Bell went down in Week 17 against Cincinnati on Sunday Night Football, forcing a combination of Josh Harris, Ben Tate and Dri Archer to try and pick up the slack in the backfield against the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card game.
Everyone knows how that one turned out, and I wouldn’t blame anyone if they felt similar disappointment/unease that I’ve feeling right now.
With that said, the Wild Card game will come down to some key matchups across the board, much like the Week 13 game did in Cincinnati.
Fitzgerald Toussaint/Jordan Todman vs. Cincinnati blitzers
Not only will the Steelers offense miss the running ability of Williams against the Bengals, they’ll miss his ability to stand strong in the pocket and pick up blitzers that come free into the backfield.
That’s Williams’ biggest strength that he brings to the team in my opinion. Outside of his great vision, speed and cutting ability, Williams can be counted on to hang tough around the pocket and pick off linebackers on blitzes, allowing Ben Roethlisberger plenty of time to throw.
Due to the injury, Williams won’t be able to provide Roethlisberger with the added protection in the passing game. That will likely force Heath Miller to stay in as an extra blocker at times, but if Toussaint and Todman can step up and fill in for Williams in any positive form, then the Steelers passing game should be just fine.
Martavis Bryant vs. Cincinnati secondary
Speaking of the Pittsburgh passing game, the Steelers desperately need Martavis Bryant to step up this week against the Bengals.
Roethlisberger was absolutely right in calling him out earlier this week, saying that he needs to, “toughen up.” He needs to do just that this week on the big stage.
Everyone knows that the Antonio Brown is going to get his numbers against the Bengals, but he alone won’t be enough to beat the Bengals and their secondary, which is relatively healthy heading into Wild Card weekend.
Bryant has to come through in the clutch and take some added pressure and attention off of Brown, allowing the All-Pro receiver to feast on one-on-one coverage.
If Bryant can pose the vertical threat once again and make some tough catches in traffic, it will force the Bengals to shift a defender his way, opening up the rest of the field.
If he continues to have mental lapses, run wrong routes and seem to generally look lost on the field, it could be a long day for the Steelers.
Steelers secondary vs. A.J. Green
It’s no secret that A.J. Green rolls up big numbers against the Steelers defense nearly every game he plays them over the past few years.
Through two games this season Green hauled in 17 passes for 250 yards and two scores, most of which came against Antwon Blake in coverage.
With Blake and Brandon Boykin rotating in coverage, it will be interesting to see who covers Green in this one.
If the secondary as a whole can team up to try and slow down Green, that will force A.J. McCarron — making his fourth consecutive start — to look elsewhere, which could lead to some key turnovers for the Steelers defense.
If Green gets loose again and takes control of the Bengals offensive game plan, the Steelers defense could have a tough time slowing down a high-powered offense with high-end talent all over the field.