On Sunday night the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals meet, with one team on a three-game win streak and polishing up their AFC North division crown, and the other trying to avoid the embarrassment of a losing season. It’s a typical late-season battle for these division foes with a twist.
The Bengals (9-4) have turned the tables on the winningest team in the AFC North and are the ones positioning for the playoffs. The once mighty Steelers (5-8) need the win to avoid their third loss in as many games, and a sub .500 season.
The Steelers lost to the Bengals 20-10 way back in Week 2 with the Bengals capitalizing on a struggling Steelers offense. The transformation from Week 2 to Week 15 has been a positive for the Steelers offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been carrying the offense with games of 217, 257 and 349 passing yards in his past three outings. He also has thrown seven touchdowns, no picks, and the injury plagued offensive line has given up just three sacks.
Antonio Brown wasn’t much of a factor in their first meeting – and he let his disappointment show during a sideline blow-up with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Brown has been nearly impossible to stop ever since. He will match up against first-time starter Dre Kirkpatrick who will replace veteran Terence Newman (knee) at cornerback. It’s a matchup the Steelers should win…repeatedly. Roethlisberger and Haley now recognize how important Brown is to this offense, and in getting a win against the Bengals.
A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, Mohamed Sanu, Giovani Bernard are making Andy Dalton‘s dreams come true. And they could be a Sunday nightmare for the Steelers defense. Cornerback Ike Taylor will again take on Green. He has been mostly successful in reigning in Green, who is one of the best receivers in the game. Eifert and Gresham were the recipients of extra attention on Green in the Week 2 matchup and Dalton will likely lean on their big men again this week.
Dalton has been greatly aided this season by the tough Bengals defense and a sneaky-good ground game. One player the Steelers defense has to be cautious about is the talented rookie running back Bernard. Bernard is averaging 100 total yards per game in his last three games played. Surprisingly, the Steelers rookie back Le’Veon Bell has been better: 111 total yard average over three games – even with Haley forgetting about him in the second half against Miami.
The Steelers’ defense has struggled against the run all season, as highlighted in last week’s loss to Miami. And thanks to the injuries to both Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel, the pressure is on Ziggy Hood, Al Woods and whoever else plays linebacker this week: Troy Polamalu or Vince Williams. With the talent the Bengals have at tight end, the Steelers may need Polamalu to return to safety.
Dalton didn’t get a chance to see much of the new stars on the Steelers defense – Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds – in their last meeting. Chances are there will be opportunities to introduce themselves Sunday. Pressure on Dalton is the key to victory.
Cincinnati rides into Pittsburgh favored to win. But the Steelers have the offense to hang with the high-scoring Bengals. If the Steelers’ defense can manage to frustrate Dalton into a few of his patented overthrows, a win for the may bring Christmas to Heinz Field early.
PREDICTION: Bengals win 30-28