For the second time in three seasons the 8-3-1 Bengals have a shot to all but eliminate the 7-5 Steelers Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
When the Bengals dispatched them in 2012 two days before Christmas in Pittsburgh, it was done with the gift of defense in a grimy 13-10 victory where Cincinnati's only touchdown came on cornerback Leon Hall's pick-six. But the Bengals.com Media Roundtable projects the Bengals wining a much different game Sunday as Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton tries to take advantage of an aging Steelers defense prone to giving up the big play.
Before the roundtable convened this week, Ed Bouchette of* The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette* received a Paul Brown playbook in honor of his selection to the reporters' wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame by virtue of winning the Bob McCann Award. Then Bouchette, who has covered the Steelers from Bubby to Ben, picked the Bengals because of the Steelers' un-Canton defense.
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played against Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain of the '70s and called the "Blitzburgh," success of the '90s, notes the Bengals defense has been on a roll on the road and should get a boost at home.
The versatile Gerry Dulac, who has covered everyone from Tigers Woods to Carnell Lake to Jason Worilds in the topography of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, agrees with his colleague and gives the nod to the Bengals passing game.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports sees the Bengals starting to regain its defense of old, but just an old Steelers defense and picks Cincinnati.
Let's go around The Table, starting with the Hall-of-Famer:
The big issue for the Steelers, and it's a terrible issue going into this game, is they can't stop the run. Not like they used to do it. And they don't have a very good pass defense. That's a lethal combination going into this game. They don't get a lot of heat on the passer. Their secondary is struggling.
They've got old players and young players on defense, but the in between hasn't been good either. Rush backer James Harrison is one of their better defensive players. Defensive end Cam Heyward has played well. Inside backer Lawrence Timmons has been decent. They'll have a couple of young guys maybe come back and start playing, like linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones and those two guys haven't played. Jarvis played the first three games and got hurt and Shazier has played two in the last nine. They're just not very good on defense. They've had such a good defense for so long and they just all got old.
At times they're very good on offense. They weren't very good in Jacksonville, they weren't very good against the Jets, they weren't very good last week against the Saints until garbage time. They scored two TDs in the final 2:30. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first nine games was 22 TD passes and four interceptions and a 110.6 passer rating. In his last three, he's had four TDs, five interceptions, and a 79.3 passer rating and they lost two of those three and they had to come back in the fourth quarter from 11 points down in Tennessee. That's against three vulnerable teams.
THE EDGE: Bengals 34, Steelers 17. They've been giving up a lot of points and the Steelers offense hasn't been very good on the road. It's not like the old days when the Steelers have the Bengals number no matter what. We're long past that. The Bengals won the division last year. The Steelers haven't been to the playoffs the last two years. Maybe they split this year, but that won't be good enough for the Steelers.
The Steelers have to get back on track on offense even though they're No. 2 in the league. They have to be more consistent. The quarterback has to be more consistent than he has been the last couple of weeks. Running back Le'Veon Bell saved them in Tennessee and Ben made a couple of big throws in the fourth quarter, but it was basically Bell.
The Bengals are going to have to stop Bell and no team has been able to contain wide receiver Antonio Brown. They're trying everything. Bracketing. Whatever. If you look at his numbers, he has that streak of 28 straight with five catches for 50 yards. That just speaks to his consistency.
I think where the Bengals can hurt them is the Steelers don't do a great job of stopping the run. They give up big pass plays. They've given up 12 of 40 yards or more, fourth most in the league, and they've given up some of those in the last three games. I think the Bengals can pick their poison. If they can set up the run to set up the deep pass, I think they can hit on those plays. If the Steelers can't stop the run, they'll have trouble stopping the Bengals and it will be back on the offense to produce.
To me the biggest key in the game is stopping the Bengals run and then everything will fall into place after that. Or else it's going to be a shootout and for the most part the Bengals defense doesn't allow shootouts. They had that little hiccup about a month ago, but they've tightened things up.
Yet we've seen the Steelers put up a lot of points against highly-rated defenses. Indy and Baltimore, 51 and 43, respectively.
The Steelers defense is filled with young guys and new guys. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons is playing a new positon inside. They haven't solved the nose tackle position since Casey Hampton left. Outside zone teams with a cut-back runner gives them the most trouble. They're better off playing a power team. Even in the games they've allowed a lot of rushing yards, it's usually because the other team is passing it on them. But I say that and they continue to move up the rankings and they're 12th this week.
You don't see free safety Troy Polamalu in the middle of the field. If you do, it doesn't matter because he's a liability back there. He's playing near the line of scrimmage and they brought in another safety, Mike Mitchell, to play in coverage. But when you're playing with Troy Polamalu, you're gambling every play.
The deep middle of the field has been left open a lot because you're effectively operating with one less safety. To guard against that they play a lot of nickel defenses. Teams aren't passing for a lot yards against them. Last week Drew Brees had (257), but he had six pass plays of 20 yards or longer and three of 40 and longer and five TDs. I'm not comparing Dalton to Drew Brees, but I think he's that kind of quarterback where he has the ability to make those plays with the guy he has, the people he has. Play-action hurts the Steelers. They're aggressive, they try to run to the ball and in play action they get burned.
Cornerbacks William Gay and Brice McCain have been starting, but both of those guys are nickel backs and yet those are the guys that have the three pick sixes. They've actually played pretty well on the edge. They're not shut-down corners, they're maintenance corners. They've been more than serviceable, but Mike Mitchell has bit on some underneath routes and been out of position on other deep balls. It's not been one person, but it's been a recurring theme.
THE EDGE, Bengals, 30-20. You just don't know what Steelers team is going to show up. The Bengals are the type of team that likes to run the ball and use play action and they have enough big-play capability with A.J. that that's a pretty good prescription to set him up and their other outside receivers. Mohamed Sanu is a bigger guy. They won't put Ike on Green. They leave the corners on the same side after they got beat a few times last year by Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon. The Bengals have the ability to hit some big plays.
The Bengals need an exterminator for the Killer Bs. Ben, Bell, Brown. To me, Brown is the best in the league with the ball in his hands after the catch. They get him the ball in space, he splits guys. They'll turn a shallow cross into a big TD play. You can't give that guy a lot of space. You have to be around him at all times.
Bell is having an unbelievable year. He's the same type of runner as Jeremy Hill. They're patient, powerful. Whichever offensive line gives him more opportunity is going to decide it. I think one of the biggest signings the Steelers had in the offseason was adding Mike Munchak as their offensive line coach. Their line is playing better than it has in four, five years to my eye. And they've got three Pro Bowl players in Ben, Bell, and Brown.
You usually think it's going to be a slobber-knocker, but I don't know. The Steelers can score if they don't turn it over. If the Bengals defense can hold them to less than 20 points, that would be yeoman-like effort. They're going to have to score points to beat the Steelers in this one. I think it's going to be a more high scoring game than your normal AFC North game. It will still be a slobber-knocker, but it will be a high-scoring slobber- knocker.
Defensively, the Steelers give up a lot of big plays. Looking at tape, I think they've slipped appreciably. I don't think they're what they were. Everybody has scored at least (19) on them except Jacksonville and in multiple cases they've scored 30 on them. I think that's going to be the story. Can the Bengals prevent big plays and offensively can they can create some? Andy has to stay away from the critical mistake and take advantage of the chances he'll get to make the big play.
The Bengals haven't given up the big play this year. That's a good matchup. We've seen it over and over again. When that big old guy gets out of pocket, he's so strong with his arm. Usually when a guy rolls to his right you don't have to worry about the left quadrant of the field. But he will be able to get the ball to the other sideline, accurately and with oomph on it. He's so big and he can see the whole field, he can deliver the ball anywhere.
I think Pittsburgh is as good as I've ever seen at the controlled chaos of it. They practice it. The scramble drill. The deep receivers come short, the short receivers go deep. The receivers on the right go to the left. It's all orchestrated. It's not a fire drill. If you're in zone coverage, you have to convert to man. You have to plaster the guy in your area and if you don't, Ben is going to find him. The Bengals haven't faced a quarterback this year that can do it like Ben. It's hard to get him on the ground. He's a son of a gun out of the pocket. They can't let him step up in the pocket. They can't let him get out of the pocket.
I don't think the Bengals corners will drop coverage stupidly to try and make a play on Ben. If I'm in the secondary and Ben is running, I let Ben get his yards. You cannot leave your coverage to go up and get a highlight hit on Ben. That discipline in the back end is going to be huge.
The Pittsburgh offense has been more consistently high scoring than the Bengals offense. But I like the Bengals defense in a massive test against Bell. The discipline in the back end and playing the run better, the defense is one of the bigger reasons they won three in a row on the road. Nobody rushed for more than 75 yards against them. I don't think you can stop Bell, but you have to control him. These two guys, Brown and Bell, they can run all day. You have to take Bell out of it and if Ben's having an off night, then Brown is out of it. If Bell gets off and Ben is on, then you've got a nightmare on your hands. In my mind Bell is the head of the snake.
And how many times do special teams impact this game, whether it's a high-scoring game or no scoring? Every yard on special teams is million dollar real estate in these AFC North matchups. If they can continue to win the average drive start and avoid turnovers, that's going to be a big deal in this one. Field position and ball security.
THE EDGE, Bengals. The thing I like is they're coming in after the offense struggled in Tampa against a good, solid defense. When the Bengals offense has struggled this year, they've had a bounce back. They bounced back after the Cleveland game. They bounced back after the Indy game. It's the perfect storm. Even though you won that game in Tampa, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson can light them up and he did. He lit them up at halftime and I'm sure he's been lighting them up all week. I think they'll bounce back.
It's a home game. I think they learned their lesson in the Cleveland debacle at home. They know you have to win your home division games. If they beat Pittsburgh, they're basically eliminating them. If they beat Cleveland next week, they're eliminating them, too. Pittsburgh is playing for their lives and that's a club with a lot of history and tradition. But the Bengals are playing for a ton, too. I just think the home-field edge gives them a little more juice.
I think the Bengals defense is starting to look like the old defense. Getting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga back has helped. Nose tackle Domata Peko has been paying pretty well for himself in the last month. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is starting to look like Geno again. The whole secondary has had a good year. That group is solid all the way around. Safety Reggie Nelson is good. George Iloka has played pretty well there. I think the corners are feisty and tough and they don't back down and they know what to do. The last three weeks have been very good for the defense.
The Bengals have always done a good job on Antonio Brown, I always thought. They hold him to about five catches a game and not a lot of yards. They've made him a priority in past games and I think they'll make him a priority here. Take him away and make the young guys beat you. The run defense wasn't playing real well, but getting Maualuga back, I'm shocked by it, to be honest with you. I didn't know he had it in him. He's really played well vs. the run. I thought in the Saints game he was terrific. Peko, too. I looked at that game in depth and both guys were key in getting them back to playing the run again. And the key is Geno looking like Geno. In the beginning of the year he was favoring that leg and he's not favoring it any more.
As long as Andy isn't puking all over himself Saturday night he should have the opportunity to make some plays down the field. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor had a problem last week with a double move and you can double move him a couple of times. It's only his second game back since he broke his arm. The Steelers are so-so at best in coverage. The Bengals will get some shots. They can pound it with running back Jeremy Hill and running back Giovani Bernard can get all those yards out of the backfield. To me, that's the difference. They've got a pounder and a guy who can be a third-down back who can go out in space and create problems in the passing game.
The Steelers' defense is old and they haven't had any continuity on that side of the ball whatsoever. You take outside linebacker James Harrison off the scrap heap and he's become one of your better pass rushers, that's not a good sign. Losing right end Brett Keisel hurts and, again, they got him out of retirement. If you add that all up, that's part of the problem with what they're doing.
The thing about this passing offense is you haven't seen them at full strength, either, the entire season. It started with wide receiver Marvin Jones going down, then Eifert went down, then right tackle Andre Smith went down. You haven't really seen them at full strength. When you go on the road in the NFL and I don't care who you're playing, when you win three straight road games, that's an accomplishment.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. To be honest, the Steelers aren't very good on defense. I think the Bengals offense can get matchup problems. If they win the next couple of games, they have a shot at the No. 1 seed as banged up as they've been.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Don't be fooled by the moans and groans coming out of Pittsburgh.
Big Ben is as dangerous as he's ever been. The mind-boggling stats from earlier this season show that Brown, first in NFL receiving, and Bell, second in NFL rushing, make him as dynamic as any QB in the league.
And while Charles Richard LeBeau has a transition on his hands as the Steelers defensive coordinator, at 77 years old he's as deft as he's ever been at drawing up those third-down blitzes that have stymied four decades of quarterbacks.
Yes, the Steelers are giving up nearly 350 yards per game. But what has the Bengals concerned this week is that the Steelers are also No. 4 in third-down efficiency. Want to guarantee an egg game where they look comatose? It's always on third-down, where they were 1-for-13 vs. Indy and 3-for-17 against Cleveland. But they are 25-for-44 since the Browns game.
Roethlisberger and LeBeau. They've kept the stomach of Bengaldom tied in knots since 2004 and they'll make for another uneasy Sunday.
But LeBeau has his own problems. He's lost the heart of his defense, Keisel, and the soul, Polamalu, has been relegated to the box. He had to find his second-leading sacker, Harrison, in retirement and it's doubtful he'll play Sunday with a knee injury. Taylor, his best cover corner, is suddenly looking like he's 34 and gave up a 69-yard TD last week off a double move, his first game back from a broken arm. They no longer put him on the best receiver. Their last two first-rounders, linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier, are going to get plenty of snaps Sunday after missing a combined 16 games this season.
And for the first time since 2005 and Chris Perry, the Bengals can attack LeBeau with two dynamic running backs. The Bengals' only 100-yard rushing game against LeBeau came in their first game against him, on Oct. 3, 2004 when Rudi Johnson hit it in a Steelers win. The last time the Bengals rushed for 100 against the Steelers at home was 14 years ago in the first season of PBS.
It's not like the Steelers are a sieve against the run. It may be un-Steeler-like, but No. 11 can still make for a bad day for your offense. But the one thing the run will do is set up the big pass that has had the Steelers struggling.
Dalton is rated only 14th in the league in play-action and deep passing, according to profootballfocus.com, but the Steelers have allowed 12 passes of at least 40 yards and last week Brees ripped them for three of them while ringing up 9.5 yards per pass. Green has had just one 40-plus catch since he came back from his injury and is itching for another.
But the marquee matchup is no doubt the torrid Bengals defense against the red-hot Bell and Brown. The Bengals come in allowing a league-low 11 touchdown passes, they are second in NFL defensive passer rating at 75.0, third in allowing yards per attempt, fifth in allowing completion percentage, and seventh in third-down efficiency. If the Bengals have their toughest matchup of the year in Brown, so does Brown.
Before the Panthers tied them, 37-37 in October, and the Browns ran on them 52 times last month, PBS had been a graveyard for offenses and it will be interesting to see how well the defense plays in front of a home sellout after a three-game stretch on the road where they were among the league's best in virtually every category.
The best way to quell Bell is to keep him off the field with the AFC North's newest two-headed monster. With LeGarrette Blount banished, Big Ben and Steeler Nation are fretting about Bell's rising number of touches. Meanwhile, equal doses of Bernard and Hill will not only keep Bell off the field, it should keep LeBeau at bay with manageable third downs.
The Bengals' No. 1 special teams in the NFL have to rule the day with league leaders such as punter Kevin Huber and return man Adam Jones keeping their Pro Bowl seasons alive. No broken jaws. No punt-return TDs. No fumbles. In nine of the 12 games this season, the Bengals have won the average drive start. The Steelers are in the middle of the league covering kicks and punts and near the bottom returning them.
So what if it's a high-scoring slobber-knocker? Even track meets have turning points and the Bengals can turn this one with some more solid teams play that has marked this season.
The recipe? Clock Big Ben and let him have the ball for 27 minutes, pull off three big passes and let Brown get his 80 yards, but not 110.