BENGALS WR A.J. GREEN VS. STEELERS CB IKE TAYLOR; BENGALS CB LEON HALL VS. STEELERS WR MIKE WALLACE
Remember back in the day of two former Greater Pittsburgh schoolboy foes banging it out when Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and Steelers head coach Bill Cowher would decide this one on the ground?
No more. Not in Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), where Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger comes in with two rings, is riding a blistering streak of three straight 300-yard games with six touchdown passes, and possessing one of the NFL's top deep threats in Wallace.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are led into this AFC North showdown improbably by their rookie combo of Green and quarterback Andy Dalton that is going to be severely tested by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's perennial top five unit. It currently sits at No. 3 in the NFL and allows next to nothing against the pass with confusing packages that torture rookies and veterans alike. The Steelers have allowed the fewest passes in the league of 40 yards or more (one) and the 19 passes of 20 yards or more they've given up are second fewest in the AFC.
Green steps into a legacy where the previous Bengals No. 1 receiver, Chad Ochocinco, never had a 100-yard game against LeBeau and where the Steelers had three pick-six TDs against quarterback Carson Palmer in 12 games. But Dalton and Green are having Rookie of the Year seasons in a new offense the Steelers have yet to see and one that has committed the third-fewest turnovers in the league.
According to The New York Times, Dalton and Green are chasing history as the first rookie quarterback-receiver combination to produce 10 touchdown passes. They have four at the halfway point with Tony Banks throwing nine to Eddie Kennison for the 1995 Rams and Tim Couch throwing nine to Kevin Johnson for the 1999 Browns holding the record.
Roethlisberger and Wallace have hooked up for 11 touchdowns of at least 40 yards, the second most in the NFL behind the Peyton Manning-Reggie Wayne combo. But in the last four games against the Bengals, Roethlisberger has thrown just two TD passes, the longest to a wide receiver an eight-yarder to Hines Ward. In the last two games the Bengals have been a bit leaky against the pass and have been vulnerable to the big play all season, allowing five pass plays of at least 40 yards, but their defense has been stingy when it matters, eighth on third down, fourth in scoring, and fourth overall.
Breaking it down is former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, who played under LeBeau in Cincinnati. An analyst on the Bengals Radio Network, Hawkins worked with the Steelers defensive backs in training camp as a coaching intern:
"The marquee matchup is definitely A.J. against Ike and I figure that LeBeau is going to play bump-and-run because Andy has shown if he gets time against three- and four-man rushes against Cover 2, he'll deliver the ball. It's how Tom Brady moved the ball against them, so I think the Steelers are going to bring the heat.
"I go with A.J. in this matchup even though Ike is one of the top press corners in the NFL. He's tremendous at the line of scrimmage and at getting good top-side leverage on the receiver. He's big, strong and can run. It's why Chad always had trouble against him. Chad's thing is he's so good getting off the line of scrimmage and Ike wouldn't let him.
"And that's no knock on Chad. Ike does that to everybody. In the Super Bowl he did it 30 to 40 times against Greg Jennings, a very good receiver playing with Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
"But what A.J. has and what isn't Chad's strength is that he can win at the point of attack. I think he realized in Seattle two weeks ago when he didn't contest for the ball what can happen and it got intercepted twice. Then he came back last week in Tennessee and played his best game as a pro. Ike doesn't play the ball great in the air so while I think he'll have good position I don't know if he'll be able to find it. And the way the rules favor the offense, that gives A.J. an edge. I can see him getting a couple of pass interference calls.
"I also like the Bengals matchup on the other side with Jerome Simpson's speed and athleticism giving him the edge over William Gay.
"Wallace and Antonio Brown, Ben's two receivers, are tremendous and the Bengals get a big break with Emmanuel Sanders being out because he's a combination of Wallace and Brown. I really like Brown. He's one of the most underrated receivers in the league. I think he's comparable in attitude and competitiveness to Wes Welker.
"Wallace can run like few can. He gives everyone trouble. Leon is a solid corner. He doesn't get run by all that often. He struggled in Seattle and played better last week in Tennessee. They'll take four or five shots to Wallace down the field and Leon will win half of them. They may try to match up Wallace on the other corner, Nate Clements. I think Clements has been a valuable pickup with his ability to get turnovers, play the ball, and come up with big plays. He doesn't have the speed and athleticism of a Johnathan Joseph, but if Adam (Jones) can play, that will be a big lift for them against these explosive receivers.
"The Bengals DBs against the Steelers receivers is a tough call because so much depends on the Bengals pass rush. Ben is so good at extending the play and getting out of the pocket. It's so much harder to cover a receiver when Ben is giving him all that extra time back there. If they don't get him to the ground and put pressure on him, it is tough for those guys. But the Steelers have given up 26 sacks (23rd in allowing sacks per pass) so it will be interesting to see how that plays out."