The Pittsburgh Steelers for the second season in a row will be playing at least 17 meaningful games, returning to the postseason after scraping by in the final week thanks to a loss by the Jets, earning them the sixth seed in the AFC.
Their opponents are a common one, whom they play twice every season in the Cincinnati Bengals, but the two have played just once in the postseason previously, a game that the Steelers won handily after the Bengals lost their quarterback, during the 2005 season.
That game, like this one, was in Cincinnati, and outside of that 2005 season, the Steelers have historically struggled as a road team in the playoffs. They will be looking for just their eighth franchise road postseason win in 18 games.
To accomplish that, they will have to fare without not just Le’Veon Bell, but also now DeAngelo Williams, whom the Steelers officially ruled out yesterday. At running back, they are left with just Fitzgerald Toussaint, Jordan Todman, and Will Johnson.
None of those names have a great deal of NFL experience, and combined they have just one true start between them in the league, but at the very least, they are all able-bodied young men who are well-versed in the Steelers’ system, and while they figure to be downgrades, they should be accountable and not be a risk of making costly mistakes.
Pass protection in particular will be key, and Toussaint did pretty well in that department in the season finale after Williams went down with a foot injury. Todman also has a background in pass protection from his years with the Jaguars.
Elsewhere, the Steelers will this time have to contend with Adam Jones at cornerback, who missed the last meeting between these two teams, and helped lead to a strong passing day, with four players gaining at least 49 yards through the air.
Williams that game rushed relatively well. Though his yardage was below four yards per carry, he rushed for two touchdowns, and right now the Steelers are somewhat lost when it comes to knowing what to do with situational running. In the season opener, they ran Johnson at the goal line, and quite frankly I hope they don’t try that again.
The Bengals tend to play a conservative game against the Steelers, unwilling to give up the deep ball, which often leads to big receiving games for Heath Miller, so expect the veteran tight end to be a key factor in the passing game today.
In the last game, the Steelers were able to force AJ McCarron into some mistakes, netting a pick six as a result that helped pad the scoring margin, but the young quarterback has grown over the past three weeks as he makes his first playoff start, and won’t be so easy to exploit this time.
What I will be most interested in seeing is how much the defense is willing to stick Antwon Blake on AJ Green, who had a big game the last time, going for 132 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown pass over Blake.
I expect the defense to be much more aggressive, blitzing more against the young quarterback than they did last time, and possibly to use some more dime, quarter, or big nickel defense to account for all of the Bengals’ receiving threats.