It comes down to this…
I’ve done these previews all season and all season I’ve tried to avoid the ridiculous hype you read on blogs or that seemingly infests sports talk radio. I’ve called certain games key or mentioned a win was crucial for this reason or that but I’ve purposely avoided calling any game a “must-win.” Well, this week the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Cincinnati Bengals and it’s about a close to a must-win situation as you can get. No, a loss doesn’t eliminate them from playoff contention but it does deal their chances a critical blow.
Naturally, it comes down to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Cincy are the reigning and defending AFC North champs by default as last season was a rebuilding year for both the Steelers and Ravens. The Bengals were just competent enough to steal the division title before proceeding to get hammered in the playoffs. A bird gotta fly, a fish gotta swim, and the Bungles gotta bungle so naturally they responded to their QB turning in a totally inept post-season performance by handing Andy Dalton a long term $100+ million contract. It’s like they learned nothing from the Carson Palmer years.
The Red Rifle has rewarded Cincinnati’s generosity by posting another in a string of stunningly mediocre seasons. It’s like nobody in that front office watched game film and realized, “Hey, Tyler Palko could throw for 300 yards if he had AJ Green out there to make crazy catches and distract the defense.” While Dalton is their mistake to bear, it does us a great disservice in terms of when we try to extend Ben Roethlisberger what is he gonna ask for if unproven ass clowns like Red rate $115 million dollars. Having perfected the art of self-sabotage, I guess the Bengals decided to branch out.
Dalton’s passing offense currently ranks 24th in the NFL. To be fair, Green has been missing due to injury for a large chunk of the season but that’s little excuse for a 13/13 TD-INT ratio. In AJ’s absence, Mohammad Sanu has emerged as an excellent number two while tight end Jermaine Gresham is a solid if unspectacular presence at tight end. The running game led by the steady Jeremy Hill and the explosive big play ability of Giovani Bernard has been the backbone of an offense ranked in the middle of the pack in terms of points and yards.
Of course, we have no idea what Steeler defense is going to show up on Sunday. The last good game I remember Ike Taylor playing was against the Bengals last season, where he made some sort of Faustian bargain to more or less shut down Green. Since then, Ike has battled injury and old age culminating in last week’s return performance where he looked even worse than Cortez Allen. Perhaps there was an element of rust and perhaps his broken arm limited him but his level of play was nonetheless alarming. Brice McCain left Sunday’s game with a hamstring problem which is usually a bad sign, especially for a corner. However, he’s practiced all week so it seems he’ll give it a go against Cincy. I would certainly give him every chance to play before moving Ike or Antwon Blake into the starting line-up.
The other good news on the injury front is the impending return of Steve McClendon. I never really liked S-Mac but there’s no doubt the run D took a huge nose dive since he’s been gone. Daniel McCullers may be big as a moose but he plays like a squirrel. McClendon isn’t a patch on Casey Hampton but at least he understands the importance of gap control in Dick LeBeau‘s defense. That’ll be very important this week as Cleveland showed in their 24-3 mauling of Cincy on a Thursday night that stopping the run and leaving it up to Dalton is a sure fire key to victory.
Speaking of running games, the Bengals rank 25th at stopping the run, which should bode well for Le’Veon Bell. During the early part of the season I had to endure Yinzers on twitter whining about Ben being “held back” because they didn’t let him throw 55 passes per game. The past few weeks have shown why the Steelers can’t be a pass first, pass second, pass all the time Manning/Brady type offense. Ben is a great quarterback and certainly better than he’s shown the last few weeks but he needs the sort of balance a strong running game provides in order to make the plays through the air.
On Ben’s weekly radio show, he apologized for his piss poor performance last Sunday. He said he was healthy (What? No life-threatening hangnails? Unprecedented!) and was at a loss to explain what happened against the Saints. Watching the game in a bar full of diehard Stiller Fans, I’m right there with ya, Ben. Again, I’m not expecting 500 yards or six TDs but I do expect him to make plays the defense give him and most importantly not turn the ball over. The Bengals are 21st in yardage allowed but only 10th in points so they evidently do a good job of bending-but-not-breaking. For a Steeler team that week after week shows a frustrating inability to cap drives off with TDs instead of FGs, that does not bode well.
Then again, the pattern all season has been the Steelers excelling when the match-up looks like certain doom while crapping the bed when you think they have things well in hand. I’ve played this game over in my mind a few times and it can go in any number of different ways, none of which will really surprise me. We’re in the final month of the 2014 season and I literally have no idea what kind of team the Steelers are. Sadly, I don’t think they do either. Starting on Sunday, they have exactly four more weeks to figure it out.