BENGALS LBS VONTAZE BURFICT and PRESTON BROWN VS. STEELERS RB JAMES CONNER
In a league of matchups, this Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12; click here for tickets) is a game of glittering matchups. There is Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green against arch-nemesis, Steelers cornerback Joe Haden. There is Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown against his arch-nemesis, Bengals cornerback William Jackson, yet to allow a catch in seven targets against Brown that includes four pass breakups, according to profootballfocus.com
There is Steelers rush linebacker T.J. Watt and his NFL co-leading six sacks lined up against Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart, off a solid game he allowed just one pressure. And there is Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and his co-leading six sacks against a Steelers offensive line that is ranked 13th in the NFL by PFF and traditionally strong inside with center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro. Maybe you can even sell Bengals rookie center-fielder Jessie Bates' debut vs. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he begins his bid to match Reggie Nelson's career six picks of Big Ben as a Bengal.
But, let's face it. The defining stat of this series since Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis became Steelers head coach Bill Cowher's linebackers coach 26 years ago has been the Steelers' ability to run the ball on the Bengals and in the process to control Cincinnati's big passing weapons and the clock, not to mention the narrative.
The Bengals are famously 0-6 in their last six games against Pittsburgh and if you're looking for a common denominator besides punch-less second halves and scoreless fourth quarters, look no further than the 32 carries the Steelers have averaged in those games for 119 yards. That works out to only 3.7 yards per carry, but it is the number of carries that count more than anything. They commit enough to it that they've posted rushing games of 167, 152 and 124 in that stretch.
The Steelers supposedly won't get running back Le'Veon Bell until Monday or so, but they haven't had to have him to beat the Bengals. In the 2015 Wild Card Game, backs by the name of Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 123 yards on 28 carries. In 2016 they beat them, 24-16, when 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams went for 94 yards on 32 carries.
Yes, the last time the Bengals beat the Steelers (Nov. 1, 2015), Pittsburgh rushed for 116 yards. But that was on just 19 carries because they were 3-for-11 on third down. The last time the Bengals beat the Steelers at PBS (Sept. 16, 2013), they held them to 44 yards on 16 carries.
By no means has this been the feared Steelers running game of yesteryear. But it looks like it is getting its sea legs behind an always well-coordinated and physical offensive line and a guy in Conner that is emerging as a worthy successor to Bell. After getting an unheard of combined 82 yards rushing against Tampa Bay and the Ravens, Pittsburgh got Conner untracked last week against Atlanta with not only 110 yards rushing, but 75 yards catching on just four passes. That comes after two games the Bengals have allowed four running backs 5.7 yards per carry during a season they've allowed TD passes of at least 20 yards to Panthers running back C.J. Anderson and Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake.
"Some guys are quicker than others. Some guys are fast. Some guys feel your leverage better than others," says Bengals SAM linebacker Nick Vigil. "At the same time you have to tackle them. I think it's coming together. Our main problem was third downs. We just couldn't get anybody off on third downs. I think we did better last week. If want to be a good defense, we just have to keep getting better at that. I think we just paid attention to details. We were letting little things slide. They're easy to fix, but at the same time it's frustrating."
The worrisome stat is the Bengals' backers have been dogged by missed tackles and Conner forced an NFL-high 12 missed tackles last week, improving his number to 32 for the season to lead the league, according to profootballfocus.com.
Here's a tip on how to defend Conner from Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd, his college teammate and one of his best friends: "Just have to wrap him up. He breaks tackles and he has moves. Just prepare to lock in. Make a play. Don't overthink it. Don't try to do too much. Team tackle. If everybody is flowing to the ball, we won't have to rely on one guy to bring him down."
Brown, nagged by an ankle injury since the opener, has been limited this week after re-aggravating it last week and still playing the second half.
"In the run game, we've got to find a way to be more disciplined," Brown says. "(The Dolphins) got some stuff on us last week, but it seems like alternating weeks have been good and bad on the run defense so we've got to find a way to sustain it throughout the rest of the season. (Conner has) been receiving the ball well. He's one of the top receiving backs in the league so far, and they do a great job isolating him on linebackers, doing option routes and finding ways. ... We've got to find a way to get our hands on them, slow them down, so Big Ben gets away from the route."
The Bengals defense has been solid rushing the passer (even though they're only 21st in sacks per pas they've gotten them at the right times), better at turning it over (on a pace for 26 turnovers after just 14 last season) and has allowed just two passes longer than 40 yards. But the check-down passes have killed them. As in Drake converting third-and-16 on a check-down and that's where the missed tackles have showed up.
"That's something we've got to do, whether it's going up there playing tighter or just playing off and breaking on the ball," Brown says, "but we've got to find ways to make those breakups instead of them catching it."
The Bengals have one of the league's best weapons against the check-down in Burfict. And he, too, is just getting his sea legs after making his season debut last week. When he played the game of a lifetime in that Wild Card Game three years ago, there were only four catches by the backs and that was on eight targets.
"We just have to tackle better," Vigil says. (Conner) runs hard. He has a good feel what the defense is. They check it down to him a lot. They throw it to him out of the backfield. That's what they do. If there's nothing open downfield, Ben will check it right away and you just have to tackle them."
Brown gets the sense with Burfict back and the unit set to play its sixth game under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, they're about to hit stride.
"I think so. Defense only gave up 10 points last week. I think we're trying to find our way," Brown says. "We've got Vontaze back, a lot of guys back from injury so hopefully we can start to gel and get the rotations right and keep it going."
Photos from Thursday's practice in preparation for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.