BENGALS SAFETIES VS. STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER
Say what you want about a backup quarterback and surrounding him with all the good things, like getting five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green's first dominant performance in the playoffs.
But if the Bengals are to play on after Saturday night (8:15-Cincinnati's Channel 12) with a win over the Steelers, the defense must deliver one of its steel-belted Paul Brown stands where they are giving up just 19.5 points per game in the last three seasons. With the Bengals averaging 21.7 points per game quarterbacked by Andy Dalton, that's a number to keep in mind.
In the last 24 regular-season games in their building, the Bengals simply haven't allowed many big passing days in racking up a 19-4-1 home record while allowing just 25 TD passes and 37 interceptions.
Try two big ones. Roethlisberger, with three TDs in a 2014 Steelers' win, and the Colts' Andrew Luck, with four TDs in a 2013 Bengals' win, are the only two PBS games since 2013 where foes have had more than two touchdown passes and only six quarterbacks in those 24 games have had more than one TD pass: Roethlisberger, Luck, Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers.
Rivers is the only guy who did it this year when the Bengals beat the Chargers in the PBS opener in a season they allowed just six TD passes at home against nine interceptions. The four play-off quarterbacks they faced here, Roethlisberger, Alex Smith, Russell Wilson, Brian Hoyer (really?) left with a combined one.
But then, it is stopping the run that has dogged the Bengals in the postseason. The one stain on a top ten defense from 2011-2013 is its disappointing play against the run in the Wild Card games, just as glaring as the offense's struggles. In those three games against Houston and San Diego, the Bengals not only gave up 181 yards per on the ground, they let them do it an average of 38 times.
"Going into those games we had some major injuries to our run stoppers," said nose tackle Domata Peko of games they didn't have Geno Atkins in one and Pat Sims in the other two. "But this defense is as healthy as we've been."
On paper, the run shouldn't be a problem. Since WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned on Nov. 1 in Pittsburgh, the Steelers are one of only two teams to rush for 100 yards against the Bengals. In the last nine games with Burfict playing more and more, they allow just 3.7 yards per carry.
And it looks like the Steelers won't have running back DeAngelo Williams (ankle), although backup Fitzgerald Toussaint has a kind of Bengals' killer name to him and Williams is the author of the longest run against them by a back in that stretch with a 55-yarder on Nov. 1.
But with Roethlisberger jacking it up an average of 46 times per game in the last six games, the Bengals have to do what they've done against him this season. They've given him just one touchdown pass (and that was on the first drive of the first game) while picking him four times.
And with their aggressive hands-on approach from their cornerbacks, the Bengals are just about the only team to put the brakes on Pittsburgh's high-flying offense that is third in the league in passing. The truly great Antonio Brown, in one of the four most prolific receiving seasons of all time, averages 9 catches for 115 yards. This season against the Bengals in two games he's combined for just 13 catches and 134 yards.
But here's the biggest stat of all. The Steelers lead the NFL with 21 passes of at least 40 yards. But against the Bengals the Steelers have only four pass plays longer than 20 yards and none of them longer than 31.
Brown says a secondary group led by Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson's NFL-best eight interceptions has done a nice job keeping them in front.
"I think so. I think when they play against us, they do a good job of keeping Nelson back and letting him be rangy as he is and get on passes and play areas well," Brown said in this week's conference call with the Cincinnati media.
"They have a bunch of first-round picks, guys who are aggressive with a lot of tenacity. They got a ball hawk in the middle of the field with Nelson, who takes some great angles on some deep passes and who can come down and play the run. Obviously they have a great defensive four that helps the DBs be aggressive because of the pass rush. We're up for the challenge, and it should be a tight matchup."
The way Bengals secondary coach Vance Joseph sees it, it is "top down," a scheme fueled by the physical man-to athleticism of cornerback Adam Jones and the rangy-in-your -face play of cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick at the other corner. The beauty of is the Bengals can disrupt their routes at the line while not getting beat deep. But start at the back and keep them in front. Top down.
"It won't come down to whether we can we force four, five turnovers. It's going to come down to not giving up big plays. And that's going to be the key to the game," Joseph said after one practice this week. "Without big plays, you keep the scoring down and that's the key. If you set out to try to trap Ben or force turnovers, you may give up a big play. We just have to be rightly positioned, and when the ball goes up, we've got to be top down. That's the key."
Joseph says the Bengals get a break being able to prepare for the Steelers twice a year because they know exactly what they're facing.
* *"Teams come in and play them once a year, they have no idea how good they are. So they come out they play certain coverages," Joseph said. "They play really a bunch of man, a bunch of single-high stuff, and it doesn't work. We play them all the time. So it's going to be a fun matchup. The key is not to give up big plays. That's always the key versus Pittsburgh -- make them earn, make them drive, win the red-zone plays, win the third downs."
Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleaders perform during the Cincinnati Bengals vs Baltimore Ravens game 01/04/2016
Translation: don't give up the big one and in Nelson they have a guy that's been dogging Big Ben for years in big games and dropping back into a nightmare. With a 2012 Wild Card berth on the line in Week 16 in Pittsburgh, Nelson picked him off with 16 seconds left in a tie game to set up the winning field goal. In the 2013 PBS opener, the game that started the Bengals' home streak, Nelson picked him in the end zone late to preserve a win. Back on Nov. 1, Nelson got him twice and one was another late in the fourth-quarter to set up the last points of the 16-10 win. That's a total of six interceptions vs. Ben for Nelson since Dec. 23, 2012.
Rush four, drop seven has frustrated Ben. No more than back on Nov. 1. In two games, according to profootballfocus.com, the Bengals have blitzed him just nine times on 90 passes.
Nov. 1. That's when another safety, Shawn Williams, came up with the biggest pick of the year in Pittsburgh back on Nov. 1. With the clock ticking under seven minutes and the Bengals trailing, 10-6, the Steelers were about to possess the Bengals out of the game. But Sims broke free of the defensive line, chased Ben out of the pocket, and when he tossed a careless ball to his fullback on the sideline, Williams, one of three safeties on the field, made a tremendous diving catch before sliding out of bounds near midfield to spur a 10-0 finish.
Since then, Williams has emerged as a regular, particularly when he started for the injured George Iloka twice in December. With nickel backer Emmanuel Lamur (knee) out for the year, look for the third-year Williams to get even more work Saturday night with Nelson and Iloka on the field. A Georgia-in-the-box safety, Williams is looking more and comfortable in space.
"We didn't lose a step with Shawn," Joseph said. "But obviously, he's played some dime back for us also, where he's close to the ball. So Shawn gives us flexibility to play with an extra DB in the game, or even play as a starting safety. Shawn's going to be a great player. He's a good player now; he's going to be a great player. He can tackle. He can run. He can catch the football. He can cover."
The pick? Williams says nothing special. Sims forced Ben off his spot and Williams made the play when he broke on the ball.
"We've got two real good corners. Three really good corners and guys coming off the bench that can all play," Williams said. "We really do a good job playing top down."
And they didn't have Adam Jones (foot) the last time they played, and they still fended off Brown with aggressive play from Kirkpatrick and rookie Josh Shaw. But Jones is healthy now and rewind when he played back on Nov. 1. According to profootballfocus.com, the Steelers only threw at him twice and one was completed, a 17-yarder to Brown.
"For most defenses, having corners that can cover, it gives you variety to close the middle and pressure without feeling panicked," Joseph said. "Obviously, he's a playmaker. With (Brown) out there, it's very similar people. Both are smaller, quicker guys, very competitive guys. So it's a good matchup with Adam and 84. It's always fun to see."
But in the second game, Kirkpatrick held Brown to three catches for 51 of his 87 yards, none longer than 26 and on that one 21 came after the catch.
"We've done a good job of mixing some of the coverages up on the guy, making sure we're getting him up at the line of scrimmage," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. "Too many teams I see on tape are giving (Brown) too much free access where he can just go out and run and make his cut and come out of the break. And he and ben have such a good relationship there that the ball's going to get completed most of the time. So we've got to do a good job of disrupting him out of his routes and not giving him free access up the field."
From the top down.
Cincinnati Bengals host the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium in week 17 of the regular season.