Misery loves company.
That was Bill Cowher’s famous rallying cry the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers were eliminated from playoff contention with weeks left in their season. The final game of Coach Cowher’s legendary Steelers career came against this week’s same opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. In that game, the Steelers had nothing to play for but Cincy needed a win in order to qualify for the post season. Thanks to an overtime touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes, the Chin walked off the field one final time as a winner.
The Steelers can’t knock the Bungles out of the playoffs on Sunday night. Cincy has the AFC North well in hand with an eye toward maybe even getting one of those first round byes. And the Steelers aren’t technically eliminated from the playoffs, although it would take a nearly miraculous series of events for them to back-door into the Wild Card game. However, it’s still Cincinnati-Pittsburgh so you know both sides are going to play hard.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BENGALS OFFENSE
What a weird series of twists and turns NFL seasons can take. Early in the year, the Black and Gold’s D did a mostly good job keeping opponents off the scoreboard and giving the team a chance to win only for the bumbling offense to keep putting them in bad situations. Then about mid-season, starting with the Patriots debacle, the tide turned and the offense began to click while the defense more often than not shit the bed. And it’ll be the defensive side of the ball the Steelers will have the most work to do this off-season if they hope to avoid a third straight playoff-less season.
The Bengals offense is having a fairly productive year, ranking 10th in the league in both yardage and points scored. Andy Dalton will have to prove himself in the playoffs as he’s not exactly setting the world on fire during the regular season. He’s on pace to throw for over 3,500 yards but his TD/INT ratio sits at an ugly 25/16. It’s easy to pile up the yardage when you have one of the game’s most explosive wide receivers in AJ Green. Green has already blown past 1,000 yards for the third time in his three year career, adding in 8 touchdowns to boot.
It’s the players behind Green that will have to step up if Cincy hopes to make a run into January. The team’s current second leading receiver is running back Giovani Bernard. While Bernard has established himself as the team’s best back and second best playmaker, you don’t usually want to see a RB that high up on the receptions chart. The tight end tandem of Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham will have to start getting involved more in the offense while second bananas Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will be counted on to make plays when Green draws the majority of attention from opposing defenses.
The first time these two teams played, Ike Taylor pitched a shut out of Green. Ike’s struggles echo what has happened to the entire defense. Early on, he was the shut down corner we all knew and loved. In recent weeks, however, he’s looked old and washed up. The Steelers probably can’t cut him because all his contract renegotiations basically mean he’d take up a huge chunk of cap space whether he’s here or not – and let’s face it, with how Cortez Allen and William Gay have played, it’s not like they have viable alternatives anyway. However, the secondary definitely has something to prove the rest of the year.
As does the rest of the defense. LaMarr Woodley has had yet another injury-filled unproductive campaign. Meanwhile, Jason Worilds has come out of nowhere to become the team’s best pass rusher. How they finish will go a long way to determining what the Steelers do over the off-season. Likewise, Cam Heyward has finally shown himself worthy of being a first round pick while the rest of the D-line has fallen apart. Brett Keisel hasn’t practiced this week as his Steeler career rapidly comes to an end while Steve McClendon may sit so the team can get a better look at Al Woods. McClendon has proven to be a poor replacement for Casey Hampton although he does play well as an end. In a lot of ways, all those guys will be playing jobs next season
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BENGALS DEFENSE
The Bengals vaunted defense has lived up to the hype this season. They currently rank in the top 10 in points allowed (6th), total yards allowed (8th), rushing yards allowed (5th), and passing yards allowed (7th). The linebacking tandem of Vontaze Burfict – who has been nursing an injury this week – and Rey Maualuga are fast becoming one of the league’s best. Cincy’s front four are already unquestionably that, even after losing their undisputed leader Geno Atkins at mid-season. The secondary, anchored by Terence Newman and Pacman Jones, continues to play inspired ball.
As mentioned, the Steelers offense has quietly sparked to life after a rough first half. I know Todd Haley is everybody’s favorite whipping boy and while the offense certainly plays better with Ben calling the plays, he hasn’t done nearly as bad a job as his detractors would like you think. It’s clear Ben doesn’t like him although I dare say Ben wouldn’t like anybody who replaced his bestest buddy in the whole wide world, Bruce Arians. I’m sure some hope Haley is a goner after the season even if I can’t imagine Art Rooney II backtracking on his first major decision after two seasons.
The Steelers offensive line gelled into a fairly respectable unit only to be felled by the twin losses of LT Kelvin Beachum and C Fernando Velasco. Velasco had no future here anyway as injury prone jackass Maurkice Pouncey will be back here next year (for probably 3 games before getting hurt again). The team is high on Beachum but he is not exactly your ideal franchise left tackle. If the Steelers finish with a top 10 draft pick, I’d imagine their top two targets would be either a shut down corner to take Ike’s place or a cornerstone left tackle to solidify the line.
Unlike the defense, the offense is pretty well set for next season. Antonio Brown clearly proved he’s a #1 receiver and the Steelers were right to sign him over Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders is another assclown who will be dropping passes for some other team next season. If the Steelers were smart, they’d minimize him from this point on and get rookie Markus Wheaton as many snaps as possible. Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller are steady veterans who will be back next season. Meanwhile, Le’Veon Bell overcame a rocky begin to his Black and Gold career to look like the featured back the team has been searching for since the Bus retired.
The Steelers and Bengals aren’t playing for the playoffs. They’re not playing for anything other than pride. I know I said I’d prefer the Steelers lose out so they can improve their draft slot. I still believe that. But let’s start that next week. Even if nothing is on the line, I still don’t want to lose to the Bengals.