The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their ninth regular season game of 2020 Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field against the Cincinnati Bengals as they look to notch their ninth consecutive win. Below are five key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game to come away with another home win against the Bengals and move to 9-0 on the season.
The Numbers Should All Go To At Least 11 – Have you looked at the Bengals cornerback depth chart this week? No? Well, allow me to fill you in. The Bengals will likely dress just four cornerbacks on Sunday against the Steelers with just two of them William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander, having experience worth talking about. The Bengals two other cornerbacks on Sunday should be Tony Brown and Jalen Davis, who was just elevated from the practice squad on Saturday. Davis has also only been with the team since the end of October. The Steelers need to play as much 11 or 01 personnel that they can on Sunday against the Bengals and that should force at least three cornerbacks onto the field. Alexander is likely to be the one playing in the slot when the Bengals defense has three cornerbacks on the field. That should produce a tasty matchup for Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and whatever other player is lined up across from Brown. If the Bengals play much man-to-man on Sunday, they will likely do so with two safeties deep most of the game. If they play cover-1 man, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could have a field day both short and deep. Even against the Bengals zone looks on Sunday, the Steelers passing game should be able to light up the Bengals secondary with their talented group of three or more wide receivers on the field at the same time.
Counter Power – The Steelers offense hasn’t done a great job of running the football the last two weeks and that’s a bit concerning. On Sunday against the Bengals, however, the Steelers offense will face a defense that not only has struggled against the run this season, but one that won’t have defensive tackle Geno Atkins, either. Sure, the Bengals will get defensive end Sam Hubbard back on Sunday, but he hasn’t played in weeks and thus he’s not going to play every down or close to it. Did I mention that defensive end Carlos Dunlap was recently traded as well? Did I mention that the Bengals will be lacking at cornerback on Sunday against the Steelers? This all sets up for the Steelers to run a lot of power and counter against the Bengals and quite honestly, in any direction they choose. They have two mobile guards in David DeCastro and Matt Feiler, and it seems likely that fullback Derek Watt will also finally be back on the field for 10 or so snaps as well. The Bengals have been hit hard by power and counter runs so far this season and as whole, the unit has allowed a successful run rate of 52.6% to opposing running backs this season. 150 rushing yards or bust and especially if the Steelers have a fourth quarter lead in this one. Run, James Conner, run!
Don’t Be Boyd To Death – The Bengals have a nice trio of wide receivers right now in Tyler Boyd, A.J. Green and rookie Tee Higgins. That said, Boyd is the one that really needs the most attention from the Steelers defense on Sunday. Boyd leads the NFL in catches from out of the slot with 46 and if the Steelers defense is without the services of cornerback Mike Hilton on Sunday, his replacement Cameron Sutton is likely going to have his hands full all afternoon at Heinz Field. Even if Hilton miraculously does play, he’ll need help with Boyd when possible. Boyd leads the Bengals in third down catches with 14 and 12 of them have moved the chains. He also has 13 of the team’s 49 receptions that have gained 15 yards or more this season and that’s tied for the team lead with Higgins. He and Higgins are also tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with three. The Steelers aren’t going to totally shut down Boyd on Sunday, but holding him to a stat-line such as six receptions for under 70 yards should do the trick and especially if he doesn’t register any explosive plays or touchdowns. If the Bengals offense wants to win through the air on Sunday, they must be made to do so without Boyd having a big part in it.
Blitz Burrow’s Ass Off – Bengals rookie cornerback Joe Burrow has had a great 2020 season to date. Even so, Burrow has yet to face a defense like the one he’ll face on Sunday at Heinz Field in the form of the Steelers. The Steelers usually do a great job at getting pressure with just four rushers. Even so, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler should think seriously about blitzing Burrow’s ass off on Sunday at Heinz Field. For starters, the more often the Steelers defense can get outside linebacker T.J. Watt singled-up on rookie right tackle Hakeem Adeniji the better. Sunday should mark Adeniji’s second career NFL start and his first at right tackle. Having to go against Watt won’t be a picnic and especially if there is blitzing on his side to have to decipher. On top of everything else, Burrow hasn’t been great against the blitz this season and he’s been even worse when under pressure.
Bungle The Run – Sunday needs to be a get-right game for the Steelers run defense after allowing 308 yards on 58 total carries to opposing running backs the last two games. Against the Bengals on Sunday, the Steelers defense won’t be tasked with stopping running back Joe Mixon as he’s officially been ruled out for the contest with an injury. Instead, running backs Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine will be the ones the Steelers defense will be tasked with shutting down. On top of that, the Bengals offensive line doesn’t have much cohesion entering Week 10. There’s even some talk that Quinton Spain might be asked to start at one of the two guard spots again. Jonah Williams should be back at left tackle, but he’s missed some time recently with injury and is not quite yet 100 percent. Adeniji at right tackle shouldn’t be much of battle for Watt on that side. Stopping the run early on Sunday is a must. Making Burrow drop back to throw on third and longs several times on Sunday is when things are likely to go wrong for the Bengals offense.