It kinda freaks me out when cheerleaders are photographed swinging their hair like that. Is the Medusa look supposed to be hot or something?
Anyway, if it seems like the Pittsburgh Steelers just played the Cincinnati Bengals, they did. A little less than three weeks ago, actually. Since we left up-and-coming Cincy, they’ve gone 1-1 with a key loss to the Baltimore Ravens (thanks for nuthin’, Bungles) and a frenzied last second victory against the hapless Cleveland Browns. If the playoffs were to begin today, the 7-4 Bengals would still hold the second AFC Wild Card slot by virtue of having one more win than several other teams.
When these teams met a few weeks back, the Steelers got out to a quick lead, then (as seems to be a disturbing pattern with them) the offense went into a coma leaving the defense to make a couple big plays which snuffed out the Bengals’ rally. In my first Know Thy Enemy, I mentioned rookie QB Andy Dalton was unflappable and he continues to prove it week after week. He didn’t get rattled against the Steelers and he didn’t get rattled when the Ratbirds got ahead early and he didn’t get rattled last week when the Browns built leads of 17-7 and 20-10. He calmly led his team on three late scoring drives, eventually setting up Mike Nugent for the game winner with thirty seconds left.
No wonder Ben Roethlisberger among others (like me!) are jumping aboard the Red Rifle For Rookie of the Year train.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BENGALS OFFENSE
I can’t say enough good things about Andy Dalton. The kid just has “It’ whatever “It” is. He threw for 373 yards on Baltimore (albeit with 3 picks) and tossed for another 270 last week. And its not like he’s surrounded by a wealth of talent. WR Andre Caldwell and TE Jermaine Gresham are good players but I don’t think either is packing for Honolulu quite yet. Fellow rookie AJ Green is a superstar in the making but a lot of young quarterbacks have been given one great receiver (ie: Stafford and Megatron, Kolb and LarryFitz) and failed to produce.
Yes, I have a man crush on the Red Rifle. I’ve always had a thing for redheads. Even though they have no souls.
Speaking of Green, a key moment in our first meeting was when Green made a spectacular leaping TD catch over both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. He came down awkwardly on his skinny little leg and was basically lost for the game. After missing the Ratbird game, Green returned with a vengeance last week (3 catches for 110 yards). The Steelers secondary continues to be the strength of the defense (file that under words I thought I’d never type) but truly elite receivers have a habit of finding a way to make big plays at big moments. Ike Taylor will have his hands full on Sunday.
LaMarr Woodley has been practicing so it looks like his bad hammy has finally healed up. If he plays, the Steelers will finally have him and James Harrison on the field at the same time for one of the few times this season. While the Steelers have the second ranked defense in the NFL, their struggles producing what Mike Tomlin calls “splash plays” – sacks and turnovers – has been well noted. I’ve spilled much digital ink on the turnover woes but equally alarming is the fact the team has only 24 team sacks, which puts them on pace for their lowest total since the 6-10 season of 2003.
Also expected to play is Troy Polamalu. He will have to pass a pre-game concussion test, or should that be “concussion-like test?” Having Troy would be a big boost because he’s the guy Dick LeBeau leans on to confuse young quarterbacks. If you remember the first handful of plays last Sunday, Troy was moving all over the field in an attempt to rattle and confuse Tyler Palko. Of course, Palko is not Andy Dalton.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BENGALS DEFENSE
Big Ben banged his hand on a teammate’s helmet in practice which did his broken thumb no favors. After icing it down, he gave the thumbs up (Ugh. That’s bad, even for me) as far as being good to go on Sunday. At this point, I don’t think anything short of a full amputation would keep Ben off the field on game days. Although if he is going to play, he has to play a whole helluva lot better than he has in recent weeks.
The Steeler offense has been an enigma as of late. They have moments where they’re clicking on all cylinders and look like an offensive juggernaut that can battle point-for-point with anybody in the league. Then they have long stretches where they’re absolutely inept, leading to quick three and outs which wear out the defense by putting them right back out on the field. There’s very little consistency and its slightly alarming, especially when you play a team that has shown they have the firepower to play catch-up.
Of course, a large part of the problem is the team’s continuing struggles in the running game. Rashard Mendenhall has played like absolute garbage this season. Last year, he was among the league’s leading rushers, this year he’s not even in the top 20. Backups and guys who didn’t begin starting until halfway through the season have lapped him in yardage. Every once in a while he rips off a good run or two but soon enough he falls back into his bad habits of tip-toeing and trying to bounce runs outside. Mewelde Moore getting a red zone carry in the FIRST QUARTER last week wasn’t an accident, even the coaches seem to be aware Mendy isn’t getting the job done. The problem is MM is best suited as a third down back and they don’t seem to hold Redzone Redman in high regard.
I hate to lay all the offensive woes on the running game but it really is a major handicap. How many times do the Steelers start off with a run on first down only to face a second and 10 or 12? The lack of running game also makes the team predictable, allowing teams to tee off on Big Ben. I’m all for the Flying Circus and Ben chucking it 30+ times a game but unless you have some semblance of a ground threat, you’re going to invariably struggle.
Manny Sanders‘ bad foot is acting up yet again (smart move putting him on kick returns, Tomlin) but I’m not too worried because that would just mean more playing time for Jerricho Cotchery. The Cotch Rocket, you’ll recall, had a great game against Cincy, scoring one TD and having another called back by penalty. On the opposite side, the Bengals lost their top corner, Leon Hall, for the season. DE Carlos Dunlap and DT Domata Peko, who gave the offensive line fits last game, are also hampered by injury although only Dunlap is expected to miss Sunday.
I can’t overstate the importance of this game. The 8-3 Steelers are currently one game ahead of Cincy in the Wild Card standings which is virtually two since they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. If Cincy wins, then they hold the tiebreaker because their AFC Conference record would be better and several teams (most notably Denver) would only be a game behind. On top of this, the Steelers are entering a brutal stretch where they play the Browns on Thursday then travel out to San Francisco for a Monday Nighter. If the Steelers take care of business on Sunday by sweeping the Bengals, it’ll all but ensure a playoff spot. If the Steelers were to lose, however, then the AFC playoff picture devolves into chaos. Crunch time is now.