This week’s X-Factor, the player who isn’t the marquee name of this matchup but integral to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ success.
If you’ve followed me all week, you’re probably not shocked to see James be my selection. It’s less about his impact as a receiver as it is as a blocker. Said it before and it’s worth repeating because of the matchup versus the Cincinnati Bengals – the Steelers ask for more out of their tight ends than anyone in the league. They need to be the sixth offensive linemen as much, maybe more, than excelling as a target for Ben Roethlisberger.
The size, length, and athleticism the Bengals have at defensive end will test and stress James. This is his first game against them as “the guy.” The every down tight end, someone who played 100% of the Steelers’ snaps in the opener against Washington.
Which means a constant dose of Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt, and Will Clarke. Most often, he’ll see Dunlap and Hunt, not that those tasks are any easier. There is no “easy” target in that rotation. Both guys are remarkable athletes with a ton of length. Welcome to the NFL.
Sure, Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva will have their hands full too but least they’re battled tested against this unit. James, not nearly as much. Going to stress his technique and conditioning, repeatedly needing to be perfect if he wants to win.
And oh yeah, he’s gotta make some plays downfield against a Bengals’ defense that can be chaotic and make reads/sight adjustments difficult.
James’ blocking was only average, at best, a week ago, and he struggled to secure linebackers at the second level. Karlos Dansby is a crafty guy who isn’t often stuck on his blocks. It’ll be a struggle all day long and a game like this will really show – or expose – the type of blocker, and for Pittsburgh, the player they currently have.
If James can succeed, the Steelers are in a prime position to win because most likely, they’ve controlled the line of scrimmage. If not, it could be a difficult day of duress for Roethlisberger and friends.