BENGALS CBs NATE CLEMENTS, ADAM JONES AND KELLY JENNINGS VS. STEELERS WRs MIKE WALLACE, ANTONIO BROWN AND EMMNAUEL SANDERS
Since the Steelers left Bengaldom in a wake of angst three weeks ago following the 24-17 loss at Paul Brown Stadium that cost the Bengals cornerback Leon Hall with a season-ending Achilles injury, the Ravens and Browns took their shots deep in the pass game and nicked up the Bengals with three touchdown passes of at least 24 yards.
Throw in a 49-yarder that set up another TD and what do you think the Steelers are thinking with their fleet crew of wide receivers that has been expanded by one? Speedy Emmanuel Sanders, inactive three weeks ago, is ready to join the blur that is Mike Wallace and emerging big-time star Antonio Brown.
Brown gave Hall a bunch of problems before the injury and finished with a game-high five catches for 86 yards on his way to currently leading the AFC with 308 yards on third down.
But when Hall went down late in the first half, the Bengals limited the Steelers to a long throw of 13 yards in the second half. Brown did escape for a 21-yard pass on the first snap without Hall but the Bengals secondary also got stronger during the game the next week.
After Browns receiver Jordan Norwood beat cornerback Nate Clements for a 36-yard bomb and a 24-yard touchdown pass over the middle on the first drive, Cleveland's longest play was a 20-yard scramble by quarterback Colt McCoy.
Even Pittsburgh's longest play back on Nov. 13 was a 26-yard run-and-catch in the flat as an escape valve to running back Rashard Mendenhall.
Stat-wise on big plays from Elias, the clubs are looking in a mirror. The Steelers rank 10th in pass plays of 20 yards with 41 and are tied for 15th in pass plays of 40 (6) on offense. The Bengals rank tied for 10th in pass plays of 20 (32) and are tied for 13th in pass plays of 40 (6) on defense.
Breaking down the matchup is former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, an analyst on the Bengals Radio Network who helped coach the Steelers secondary this past training camp as an intern:
"In my heart, the Steelers receivers have the advantage, but for a secondary that's not at full strength the Bengals are an impressive group.
"They're lucky to have Adam. Although Nate has had trouble running with younger, faster guys, he ends up making the play of the game last week after getting beat early, and he's so intelligent and professional. And I really like the safeties. Both Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson are versatile.
"But giving up the big-play has been season-long problem for them.
"This is a group of receivers with top-end speed that is hungry and competitive. You could see that when they mixed it up with some Kansas City guys in pregame Sunday night. They're good route-runners. They're tough guys and they take it seriously. Wallace can fly and Brown is an excellent route-runner with speed. Scottie Montgomery, their position coach, is the perfect guy for that group and they respect him like crazy.
"They're more explosive without Hines Ward, but Hines is a savvy, smart guy inside that still has an important role.
"The tough thing for the Bengals is that losing Leon means you can't mix it up and put him in the slot. Now Nate is in the slot and Adam and Kelly are always going to be outside against guys like Wallace and Brown that really can run. Adam is coming along nicely, but he still hasn't played very much. Only three games in the last year.
"I think the thing the Chiefs did last week is get great pressure on Ben with Tamba Hali and that's where it is going to have to start with the Bengals.
"I think the key for them to stop giving up the big plays is playing with more discipline. They can't do those things they were doing against Baltimore. Biting on a play fake in Cover 2. Getting caught looking into the backfield. Dropping coverage. It comes down to fundamentals."