It just wouldn’t be the playoffs without a good old fashioned AFC North slobberknocker.
On Saturday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Cincinnati Bengals in the rubber match in the Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs. As with seemingly every season, the post season will once again feature a third game between AFC North rivals. And, as usual, the game promises to be a heated affair. The last time we played, Roger Goodell‘s piggybank was overflowing with $150,000 in total fines.
The first meeting between the two was won by the Bengals 16-10. Ben Roethlisberger returned from his sprained MCL only to see Le’Veon Bell go down after tearing his. Ben had a rough game and the Bengals escaped Pittsburgh with the win. In the rematch, it was the Bengals’ turn to get hit by the injury bug, losing TE Tyler Eifert to a concussion and QB Andy Dalton to a broken thumb. Back-up AJ McCarron acquitted himself admirably but his team still fell to the Black and Gold 33-20.
Barring some last minute miracle, McCarron will once again be behind center on Saturday. Dalton got his cast off earlier this week but after a light practice on Tuesday, he spent Wednesday watching practice in sweatpants. Forget starting, it’s questionable the Red Rifle even dresses for the game. Additionally, it’s not like Cincy hasn’t gotten good work from McCarron, who has passed for 832 yards and six touchdowns without a single pick in his three relief starts.
Saturday will be a major test for rookie defensive coordinator Keith Butler. Under Dick LeBeau, the Steelers were always tough against young quarterbacks and in third games against the same opponent. By now, Butler will have seen enough of McCarron and the Bengals to formulate a sound defensive strategy. The Steelers defense is average on a good day but hopefully whatever he comes up with mitigates some of the defense’s shortcomings.
They secondary will be tested early and often as Cincinnati has a wide array of weapons in the passing game. The player to watch will be Eifert, who was poised to have a big game in the last meeting before getting knocked out by Mike Mitchell. The Steelers have struggled mightily against athletic tight ends pretty much all season. Of course, there’s also the matter of dealing with our old nemesis AJ Green, who routinely torches our mediocre corners, and his partners in crime Marvin Jones and Mohamad Sanu.
If the Black and Gold hope to win, they need to find whatever offensive magic they had going back in November. They’ll have to do without much of a running game since DeAngelo Williams spent all week in a walking boot and doesn’t appear likely to be in uniform tomorrow. Fitzgerald Toussaint isn’t going to do much against a Bengals run defense ranked 7th during the regular season. It will be crucial for him to chip in with some short yardage runs and handling blitz pick ups, though.
What really needs to step up is the Steelers vaunted aerial attack. Big Ben made headlines calling out Martavis Bryant, who has been MIA the past two weeks. For his part, Bryant embraced his quarterback’s criticism, saying he appreciates Ben holding everybody accountable. Ben and Antonio Brown are one of the most lethal combinations in football. What takes the offense to the next level is when guys like Bryant and Markus Wheaton support them with big plays of their own.
The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since 2010. Their last two post season appearances were a forgettable loss to the Ravens and an unforgettable Tebowing by the Broncos. Other teams make the post season and are just happy to be there. We have higher expectations. After all, we live in Pittsburgh, we don’t live in Cincinnati.