BENGALS CBS DARQUEZE DENNARD AND WLLIAM JACKSON VS.
STEELERS WRs ANTONIO BROWN AND JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER
The Steelers have to win at Heinz Field Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and that means quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who leads the NFL in passing yards, has to get the ball to Brown and Smith-Schuster because that's what they do.
Yes, running back James Conner is 93 yards shy of 1,000, but he's listed as questionable after practicing this week for the first time in three games with an ankle injury. Besides, Big Ben throwing to Brown (104 catches and 15 TDs) and Smith-Schuster (106 more for nearly 1,400 yards) has been virtually unstoppable. They certainly were back on Oct. 14 in Paul Brown Stadium when both cracked 100 yards and Brown put an arrow through the Bengals' heart with 10 seconds left on the now infamous zero blitz call that resulted his tie-breaking 31-yard catch.
The victim then was little used slot corner Tony McRae, along with starting cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, out for Sunday. Brown has a mystifying knee injury that has suddenly made him questionable. But two of the Bengals' prized first-round corners are left to man up the outside in Jackson and Dennard.
When people talk about the Bengals' 6-9 team not having a bare cupboard, isn't cornerback one of the places you, start along wide receiver, running back, quarterback and defensive end? (One of the major points of off-season discussion, though, has to be the future of WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict. After being declared out Sunday following his seventh concussion, he's played in only 43 of the 80 games played since he appeared in the 2013 Pro Bowl.)
Yes, this defense is 22 points and 75 yards from giving up the biggest totals in Bengals' annals. But in the last month with head coach Marvin Lewis calling the defense and simplifying things in the back end, they seem to have gone back to what their corners do best. Man-to-man press coverage. That's why they were drafted in the first round. Profootballfocus.com has Kirkpatrick rated 11th and Jackson 16th in coverage snaps per reception. Dennard has played about 75 percent of his snaps in the slot (292) and according to PFF his coverage snaps per reception of 8.3 is 12th best among those that have played at least 292 plays in the slot.
Dennard won't be in the slot Sunday. That's probably going to be rookie Darius Phillips. But with Kirkpatrick in and out with injuries the past month, Dennard has held up outside. Wide receivers haven't been killing them in the passing game, where Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield has used everything but receivers with tight ends and running backs and where the last 100-yard wide receiver was Tampa's Mike Evans on Oct. 28.
According to PFF, Big Ben didn't go near Jackson back in October (two targets for no completions) and Dennard gave up one big play, a controversial 29-yard jump ball to Smith-Schuster he nearly picked off. The Bengals corners are still waiting for their first interception, but they're embracing Sunday's matchup.
"Two great receivers. Both with 100 catches. This is why they drafted us," Dennard says.
Dennard is their most high-profile free agent and no doubt he's a priority when free agency dawns in March. There's not much to say. He'd like to come back, but what can anyone say? No one knows who is going to be running what defense and no one knows for sure if Lewis is going to be doing the hiring.
This we do know. Dennard, a member of the players' social justice committee, is one of the more impressive Bengals in the community and the locker room and if he comes back Cincinnati is a lucky place.
The Dennard Difference Foundation is well known to the kids in his native Twiggs County, Georgia, where he hosts a free football camp and a celebrity basketball game, as well as his college town of East Lansing, Mich., where he conducts a back to school event and this past season gave 40 kids a trip to a Bengals game where they met him and several teammates.
But he's saving a big surprise for Cincinnati in a few weeks. The foundation has purchased a duplex that was foreclosed and is being rehabbed for a large needy Cheviot family that has lost its single mother and is being adopted by another single mother.
Dennard found out about its plight during a Learning Is Cool event at the elementary school where many of the children attended. Within hours he called foundation director Tia Kara wanting to know what they could do.
"I told him the Band-Aid was food and clothes, but he's always looking for bigger solutions," Kara says.
Dennard knew the answer was stability and in his mind that meant one thing.
"A home," Dennard says. "A place where you know you can lay your head. If you don't know where that is, that makes things tough. It gives you stability and that's what people need."
They are converting the duplex into a single family home with help from donations from Lowe's as well as various carpenters and other companies. The home rehab has been able to merge several passions of Dennard. Accessible housing, trade school awareness and the Lighthouse Youth Service for Homeless and Foster Youth. Some of the youth are serving as interns for the project.
"One of Quez's things is that college isn't for everyone. There are also trade schools," Kara says. "He says, 'We'll meet you half way. We can't do everything for you. You have to do a lot of it.'"
In the next few weeks, Dennard presents the house to the new owner and the cost doesn't really matter.
"I've been blessed to have a little bit," Dennard says.
That's about the only thing we know heading into Sunday and into Monday.