It’s Steelers week! The undefeated Cincinnati Bengals travel to Pittsburgh to take on the 4-3 Steelers in a much-anticipated AFC North match. While the Steelers lack tallies in the win column, they’re expected to get Ben Roethlisberger back. Meanwhile, it’s a statement game for the Bengals, who look for their seventh win on the season. Cincy Jungle’s Kyle Phelps and Locker Room Update’s Alex Peterman get together to discuss the upcoming divisional contest. Of course, what better way to talk about a game than a good ole fashioned debate?
Kyle likes the Bengals this Sunday, and it’s hard to disagree with him. But in anticipation of the Steelers getting their star quarterback on the field again, I think Pittsburgh has a very real shot of sending the Bengals home on a sour note. So while Kyle plays hero (cue: cheers), I’ll take on the role of devil’s advocate (and I mean that almost literally) by vouching for the team that none of us really wants to. So without further ado…
Alex: Kyle, thanks for joining me. Let’s cut to the chase, you have the Bengals in this game. I’m going to start you out with a doozy at the podium. What is the Steelers single biggest weakness, and how can the Bengals most effectively exploit it this Sunday?
Kyle: Hey Alex, thanks for inviting me to do this. I think the Steelers have a lot of obvious weaknesses that the Bengals can exploit. How about their pass defense for starters? Sure they’ve generated a good pass rush but they’ve been giving up the sixth most passing yards per game in the NFL (276.9) and a fair amount of touchdowns in the air as well (11). Andy Dalton is currently the best quarterback in the NFL (statistically), and it has a lot to do with how much help he is getting from his offensive line and his receiving corps. That’s just going to be really hard for the Steelers to deal with.
There’s also their run defense, which gave up 4.8 yards per carry to the Chiefs’ rushing attack that, as you’ll recall, does not have Jamaal Charles. The Steelers’ linebackers are struggling lately, despite James Harrison continuing to play well. With Giovani Bernard currently in the top 10 backs in terms of rushing yards per game (71.2) and the always dangerous Jeremy Hill currently second only behind Devonta Freeman in terms of touchdowns scored by a running back (5), it could be a very long day for the Steelers trying to get anything at all done on defense.
But, of course, the most prominent and obvious answer here is the Steelers’ quarterback situation. Without Roethlisberger, the Steelers were winning despite sub-par play from their backup, Michael Vick. When they had finally had enough of it, they made the switch to Landry Jones who proceeded to throw for barely over 200 yards, capped off by a single touchdown and two interceptions. He only completed 55 percent of his passes, which isn’t exactly going to inspire a whole lot of people’s confidence. Ah, but Big Ben is all but confirmed to start on Sunday, correct? That’s probably better for the Bengals. Ben has been out since Week 3 and will need some time to readjust to his offense and the game.
Save for the Week 6 outing against Buffalo, the Bengals have done a great job of putting up points early, before the other team has a chance to put up points. So far this season, the Bengals have scored 68 total points before the opposition was able to get on the board. The Steelers might need some time for Ben to adjust, and the Bengals are one of the last teams that you want to have a slow start against.
I could point out a few more problems with the Steelers that the Bengals appear prepared to exploit, but I want to hear what you have to say. Focusing on just this one point, can the Steelers keep up with the Bengals enough to beat them?
Alex: Kyle, there’s not much I can disagree with there. Statistically, in virtually every category, it’s easy to imagine a Bengals victory in this game.
Now, most of your points centered around the Steelers expecting a long say dealing with all of the Bengals weapons — of which there are many. However, the biggest issue in determining whether or not the Steelers can score enough points may not be the Steelers strengths so much as the Bengals weaknesses.
Now, the defense this year for the Bengals has been a stark contrast to the defensive team that Andy Dalton leaned on in his first two years in the league. This is no longer a top five unit, far from it. In terms of yards allowed, Cincinnati is 22nd overall, 16th against the rush and 21st against the pass. Yes, the pass rush is running on all four cylinders right now with a healthy Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, and Carlos Dunlap. However, that’s perhaps the only reason why this defense isn’t ranked even lower.
The secondary is experiencing a youth movement and has clearly struggled to find its identity in 2015. Dre Kirkpatrick has explosive potential, but it seems to come at the cost of being hit-or-miss. That’s a scary thought considering the speed of these Pittsburgh receivers. I expect Ben to look that way early and often to avoid throwing at Pacman too much.
Now, Le’veon Bell has led this potent Steelers running game to 127.1 yards per game, which is about five yards higher than the Bengals. However, you have to take into consideration that he missed the first part of the season. He’s paid his due diligence on the field since then, and the Steelers will use him to set up the deep ball from Roethlisberger. Until then, expect a steady doe of quick passes and the running game. It’s a strategy that seems a bit two-dimensional, but Cincinnati’s defense has looked like swiss cheese when they get away from man coverage.
Don’t underestimate Ben’s health. If he’s out there, it means he feels he can play good enough to help this team win. The Steelers have home field advantage, and they need this win. Don’t forget what a team is capable of doing with its back against the wall, especially in an AFC North cage match. Can they score enough to keep up with the Bengals? Yes, I think they can. The Bengals like to employ their famous bend-but-don’t-break defense, but as a Bengals fan, that scares me. When you’re giving up so many yards, something’s not right. They’ll likely continue to make extensive use of zone to cover up their one-on-one weaknesses in the secondary, especially against Antonio Brown. There aren’t many quarterback I’d trust more to pick apart a zone defense.
Now, those were LONG responses. I think we both had to get our respective opening attorney statements out there. But while the jury takes a quick breather, let’s take it back a notch and look at this game on an individual level. Which Bengals player need to step up the most this Sunday?
Kyle: Alex, I think you hit the nail on the head there when you said that one of the biggest holes in the Bengals’ defense comes with Dre Kirkpatrick’s “hit or miss” potential. He’s definitely the player who the Bengals need to step up on Sunday. Why him? Ben extends plays. The Bengals’ defensive line will get into the backfield and make a mess of things on passing plays, no doubt, but Ben has forged his career on getting out of the pocket and making plays happen – eventually.
I think Bill Belichick said it best as the Patriots prepared to host the Steelers in the opening week, “He doesn’t have to step into the throw or have a clean pocket.” Therefore, Kirkpatrick is going to need to at least inhibit his assignment. It’s going to be a really tough one, as Antonio Brown is one of the best receivers in the game. But, if Kirkpatrick can slow him down a little bit, it should give the defensive line time to get control of Roethlisberger and at that point all they need to worry about is containing Bell.
Here’s where this debate gets fun. We’re all aware of Andy Dalton’s past history with inconsistency and some issues he’s had with really lighting it up on a consistent basis. But, he seems to have found something that just simply works for him this year. We could probably debate what that something is for hours on end, but what is the functional plan for the Steelers to stop him? It’s a pretty monumental task this year, and they likely won’t be able to win without doing that.
Alex: This is a tough question. And I know you know it’s a tough question. In fact, as a Bengals fan, I’m glad it’s a tough question — but here it goes. The Steelers rely heavily on their blitz packages under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler. In fact, they sent at least one extra man over 40 percent of the time.
This is actually not something I think the Bengals have to worry about too much. Cincinnati is armed with one of the best offensive lines in the game, and Dalton thrives on the quick passing game with his dynamic receivers.
I don’t think the Steelers can stop Dalton. Many signs point to this game being more of a shootout than some of us expect. Therefore, the objective becomes containing Dalton. By this, I mean that the Steelers have to limit the big plays that the Bengals have a propensity for. Now, in order to do this, I think the culture of the defensive play-calling needs to become a little more traditional than this group is used to under Butler. They simply can’t blitz as much as they have been. Cincinnati’s line is too good, and the key to blitzing is catching the opposing offense by surprise. So until he senses he can surprise the Bengals, Butler will need to give his secondary every opportunity to keep the chunk gains to a minimum.
Kyle, my last question for you revolves around the Bengals running game. The strength of the Steelers is in their rush defense, despite a poor performance against the Chiefs. They allow just under 100 yards a game. Giovani Bernard has been lights out this year, but Jeremy Hill has had his ups and downs. How do the Bengals find the right balance in the ground game against the Steelers?
Kyle: Well, if anything, Alex, I think last week shows the Steelers’ vulnerability to a well organized running game. That’s all the Chiefs really had without their prolific running back who has been such an integral part of their offense for years. Aside from the Chiefs, the Steelers have faced the Patriots, 49ers, Rams, Chargers, Ravens, and Cardinals. The most heavily used running backs those weeks against the Steelers were Dion Lewis, Carlos Hyde, Chris Givens, Melvin Ingram, Justin Forsett, and Chris Johnson.
Of those teams, only the Ravens were using a player who has been their established starter before this season (Justin Forsett). Forsett put up 150 yards on the Steelers, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Throughout the season (including that game), the Ravens have ranked near the bottom in nearly every major statistical rushing category, but if they can figure it out against the Steelers, why can’t the Bengals’ “Thunder and Lightning” tandem?
I think it really comes down to using the running backs in the right ways. Jeremy Hill hasn’t been great in normal rushing situations, but he has been excellent at finding the endzone, and vis-a-versa with Giovani Bernard. This is going to be about organizing the running game and sticking to it, because otherwise the Steelers will just pounce on the opportunity to focus on the quarterback like they have in all four of their wins. If anything, the Bengals might want to consider using the pass to set up the run, because that’s where they are the most dangerous. But, establishing the run is important. The Bengals will likely jump out to a fast start like they usually do, but they’ll need that run game to function properly when things start to slow down in the second and third quarter.
Alex, my final question for you centers around one of the less discussed areas of both teams: the Special Teams unit. The Steelers are the fourth best punt return team in the NFL in terms of average yards returned per punt (12.8). On the flip side, Kevin Huber is the fourth best punter in the NFL in terms of net average yards per punt (43.1). In terms of kick returning/defending, the Steelers are pretty average at returning and the Bengals are pretty average at defending. So, what gives? Do you think the Steelers can utilize their prolific punt return game against the Bengals’ prolific punting game? How much of an impact do you think special teams will have?
Alex: Kyle, I don’t think it would be a stretch to label Kevin Huber the most underrated player on the Bengals. He’s certainly in the conversation. Of course, Antonio Brown, apart from Big Ben, is the beating heart of this Steelers team. While Bell is used to set up the passing game, Brown is able to get this team down-field faster than you can blink. His special teams contributions are often overlooked.
I think this facet of the game carries intriguing matchups, and it could quietly make a huge difference. In the modern era of the NFL, fans want a quick-paced game, full of offense. That’s where all of the attention goes. However, it cannot be overstated how important field position is. It’s all about momentum. Switching the field, even without points, is one of the intangibles of a football game that shifts that momentum, and I think whichever team is able to keep an advantage in that area on Sunday has a much greater chance of winning.
It’s a difficult area to predict, because it may be an intentional stalemate. I doubt Huber will want to allow his punts to give Brown any room to run. Meanwhile, Pacman is always dangerous. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some directional kicks in order to take the return game out of the equation as much as possible. But, as always, I think the game of field position will be huge.
Alright, prediction time! Kyle, when Sunday’s game is over, what does the scoreboard read?
Kyle: Alex, I don’t want to come off as completely disregarding the Steelers as a threat here because they really are a dangerous team. As much as many of us would not like to admit it, it’s true. But, I think the Bengals’ offense is just going to be too fast-paced for the rusty Roethlisberger to keep up with. Anything can happen any given Sunday, and that’s doubly true for division games, but I see the Bengals winning this game fairly decisively, improving to 7-0, and taking a three and a half game lead in the division (with the tiebreaker).
Final Score: Bengals 35 Steelers 24
What say you? Have you come to your senses?
Alex: Me? Come to my senses? Never. But I see where you’re coming from. I just can’t see this game being as easy as some hope it will be. With home field advantage, I think this Pittsburgh team gets a big confidence boost from having Roethlisberger back on the field. You’re right, anything can happen on any given Sunday. This Sunday, the Steelers can shock the Cincinnati Bengals. While I’m not settled on the Bengals being handed their first loss of the season this week, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case.
Final score: Bengals 24, Steelers 27
We’ll leave the winner up to the readers, and ultimately, up to the scoreboard on Sunday.