The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their eleventh regular season game of 2019 on the road Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals with a chance to get back to a game over .500. Below are seven key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game to come away with their sixth win of 2019 against the Bengals.
B-B-B-Benny gets some reps – Running back James Conner will miss Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury. However, the team will get rookie running back Benny Snell Jr. back on Sunday from his knee injury that caused him to miss the last three games and they better use him. while Snell hasn’t carried the football much this season, he’s impressed on a few runs. Snell might just be the team’s second-best running back and the best that Pittsburgh has on the field Sunday in Cincinnati. He’s an adequate and willing pass protector and the only running back to have great short-yardage success this season. The Steelers must get their running game going on Sunday and ‘Benny Snell Football’ might just be the thing that accomplishes that.
Make Mixon an average Joe – Bengals running back Joe Mixon has been one of the few bright spots this season for Cincinnati and on Sunday they will likely attempt to use him early and often. He has 14 runs pf 10 yards or longer this season and has average 100 yards rushing in the Bengals last two games. The last thing the Steelers defense wants on Sunday is for the Bengals offense to have a successful running game as that will help young quarterback Ryan Finley stay ahead of the chains. Mixon must be made to look average on Sunday so the Steelers defense can pin their collective ears back and get after the below-average Finley.
Watt a pass rusher with a lot of Hart – Sundays game against the Bengals sets up to be a monster one for Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who has 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and two forced fumbles over his last two games against the Bengals. Watt will line up against Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart for most of Sunday’s game and that’s proven to be a mismatch in the last few meetings between these two teams. Watt can change the game in one pass rush as he has a knack of not only getting to opposing quarterbacks but stripping the football away from them as well when he gets to them. If the Steelers defense can control the run and get Finley in third and long situations, Watt must make an impact a few times in those situations.
Fix those shorts – The Steelers have been miserable on both sides of the football this season in short yardage situations and especially on third and fourth downs when two or less yards or needed. Yes, even the defense has struggled in that area and in fact, worse than the team’s offense has. The defense has allowed a 78.3% conversion rate this season on 23 total plays while the offense has converted just 32.1% on 28 total plays. The Steelers offense will Snell back on Sunday and that should help in short-yardage situations. Most of the failures the Steelers defense has had in short yardage this season have come in the second halves of games and those need to be fixed.
Don’t miss the Easy Button – In the loss last Thursday night, Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph missed a lot of easy reads and a few on key chain moving downs. Additionally, Rudolph wasn’t accurate with the football on several of his throws and it cost his team. Sunday the Steelers will face a Bengals defense that just isn’t very good and even worse when these two teams met back in Week 4. Rudolph played in that Week 4 game and wasn’t bad at all, so he needs a repeat of that performance complete with taking and making the easy plays.
Bengals and Tylers and third downs, oh my – The Bengals are dealing with a lot banged up wide receivers this weekend as Auden Tate and Stanley Morgan Jr. both ended the week listed as questionable. Wide receivers A.J. Green and John Ross are also still sidelined so that leaves Cincinnati with Tyler Boyd and Alex Erickson to go along with the less-than-fully-healthy Tate and Morgan. Boyd will likely be the primary target of Finley on Sunday and especially on third downs as he’s caught 14 of the 59-total completed passes on that down this season. However, leading the Bengals in third down receptions this season is tight end Tyler Eifert as he has caught 16 passes on that down. Speaking of Finley and third downs, he’s converted just 5 of 20 dropbacks in his limited playing time this season. Of Finley’s eight completed third down passes, three went to Boyd and three went to Eifert.
Win the third phase ribbon – Sunday’s game could be close and one big play on special teams could wind up being the difference. The Steelers special teams units have been awful this season. However, we could see a new kick returner in running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. and maybe even a new punt returner if wide receiver Diontae Johnson isn’t allowed to be back deep with him coming off a concussion. The Bengals special teams units have been much, much better than Pittsburgh’s this year and especially in the punt and kickoff return department. Safety Brandon Wilson leads the NFL in kickoff return average with 35.0 yards on 14 opportunities and one of those he returned for a touchdown. Steelers special teams coordinator Danny Smith better have his coverage units on point Sunday or else the field will get flipped in a hurry and maybe even worse. As bad as the Steelers offense has been this season the special teams units might be even worse. Smith needs to make sure his units win the third phase on Sunday or the Steelers might lose the game if that doesn’t happen.