The Pittsburgh Steelers will play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday Night Football. Well, sorta. Some guys wearing Black and Gold uniforms will take the field against our old rivals although many of the names will not be the ones we normally think of when we say “Steelers.”
I’m not sure what’s happening this season. The AFC is wide open. Only two teams have winning records. One of those two are the Baltimore Ravens, who may be getting Terrell Suggs back but lost Ray Lewis and their best CB for the season. They should win the AFC North but that’s far from a given even after starting the year at 5-1.
Then we have the Bengals. Last season, Cincy surprised everybody by riding a rookie quarterback and rookie wide receiver into a Wild Card playoff berth. That they got drubbed by the Texans was irrelevant. It was supposed to be the beginning of bigger and better things.
Like about half the AFC, they currently find themselves at .500. After getting hammered by the Ratbirds in week 1, they won three straight. Then they lost to a shockingly competent Miami team two weeks ago before being upset by the promising Browns for their first win of the year.
Which leaves us with Sunday night’s match-up. What many saw as two of the AFC’s top teams is now a battle between a couple of reeling teams riding two game skids.
STEELERS DEFENSE vs BENGALS OFFENSE
Andy Dalton is currently the fourth ranked passer in football. Let that sink in a moment. He’s already thrown for 1700 yards and 12 TDs. When Carson Palmer pulled his punk card and got himself ran out of town, many thought Cincy was done for. Turns out, they made out on the deal. Not only did they get a better QB than they had, they also got one of the best receivers in the game.
AJ Green is a beast. We saw it last year when he almost single-handedly beat the Steelers. He’s quickly becoming the most feared receiver in the league, already catching over 600 yards worth of passes and half of Dalton’s TDs. The thing is, Cincy’s receiving corps aren’t deep. Andrew Hawkins, the team’s #2, has only 328 yards so you know teams are keying on Green.
Doesn’t matter. You can’t stop him.
Which makes makes me extremely worried about this week. They say in MMA and boxing, styles make fights. Styles also make football games. Certain teams match-up better than others. Teams with mediocre QBs who try to dink and dunk on the Steelers (like the Jets) tend to struggle. Teams with big fast receivers (like Denver’s Denarious Thomas) do well. Meanwhile, when Cincy plays teams that can rush the QB, they tend to falter. When Dalton has time, they succeed.
The Steelers haven’t been very good at rushing the passer. And Cincy has perhaps the best big fast receiver in football. This is not a good match-up. In fact, on paper this is a fairly disastrous match-up. The only saving grace is the Bungles tend to be the Bungles, meaning no team is better at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Still, Ike Taylor has been absolutely brutal this season. While he spent the week bitching about the media, he should’ve been looking at game tape and figuring out how not to get embarrassed this week. The secondary used to have a field day against young QBs but without Troy Polamalu (who rumor has it being shut down until the last half/quarter of the season) a lot of their trickery goes out the window.
The good news is LaMarr Woodley is expected back. How long the Football Gods decide to allow both Woodley and Harrison on the field together is anybody’s guess. If they can stay reunited longer than Guns N Roses last tour, the Steelers MIGHT finally generate a pass rush. As I’ve mentioned many times, Dick LeBeau‘s defense has a very specific design where Person A has to do his job for Person B to succeed. Getting after Dalton will make the secondary look better almost by default.
And, really, at this point could it look any worse?
STEELERS OFFENSE vs BENGALS DEFENSE
The collective gulp you heard on Thursday was Steeler Nation after news broke that Ben Roethlisberger rolled his ankle at practice. He left the field, giving the rest of the first team snaps to Byron Leftwich. Word is he’ll be okay come game time but if there’s one person this team absolutely cannot afford to be without, it’s Big Ben. The season was effectively over when he broke his foot last year (the same ankle he injured, by the way) and 2012 will follow a similar pattern if Ben is significantly less than 100%.
Especially when you figure most of the offense will rest on his shoulders. Rashard Mendenhall is still experiencing problems with his ACL while Isaac Redman is fighting a banged up shoulder. One or both may miss Sunday’s game. The running game was atrocious without Mendy, subtract Mendy and iRed then throw in an offensive line missing at least one, possibly two, starters and I see 40+ passes in Ben’s future.
Maurkice Pouncey has said he is going to try to go on Sunday. I fully expect him to start just like I fully expect him to run to the sideline at the first twinge of pain. He’s a great player but he’s soft. Marcus Gilbert is expected to be out 2-4 weeks although I’m not sure Mike Adams is that much of a downgrade. He’s definitely not as good at run blocking but I thought he did okay in pass pro when pressed into duty last week.
And pass protection will be the name of the game on Sunday. The Bengals have a ferocious pass rush which has accumulated a whopping 20 sacks already. D-linemen Michael Johnson (5) and Geno Atkins (6) will be a handful. Again, I refer to this being a bad match-up. The Steelers O-line struggles against talented d-tackles and Cincy has two of the best. There are plays to be made against a mediocre secondary (1 INT) but not if Ben is flat on his back.
This will be only the Steelers sixth game of the season. It’s hard to make grand statements like “It’s over if they lose!” before you’ve even reached the halfway point. However, if they lose, falling to 2-4 with a 1-4 record in the AFC does not bode well. Especially with tough games against the Ravens (2x) and Giants ahead.