The last two times they turned the lights on at Paul Brown Stadium for the Steelers, Pittsburgh needed to stage last-minute rallies to fend off the hosts. Ryan Finley is hoping to channel fellow Bengals back-up quarterback AJ McCarron's own fourth-quarter magic from one of those games Monday night (8:15-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 5) against the salty AFC North leaders looking to snap a two-game skid.
Nine of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 49 game-winning drives have come against the Bengals and one of them came in "The Brawl at The Paul," the 2015 Wild Card Game in which Roethlisberger responded to McCarron's 16 unanswered fourth-quarter points for a winning field goal with 14 seconds left.
In Roethlisberger's last seven PBS games, one of them was a loss and five of them were wins he needed fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. The Bengals.com Media Roundtable doesn't envision that kind of finish this Monday.
They couldn't break up the '61 Yankees, but they had to break up the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's dominant Steelers coverage tandem of Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac. Bouchette, whose first season on the beat came when he covered the Steelers' 1974 Super Bowl title while writing for his college newspaper in Indiana, Pa., now toils for The Athletic. And he has seen this approximately a thousand times when a slumping Steelers team gets back in the groove. Dulac is still at the P-G and he has seen it, too. Ben is throwing short and they can't run it, but it seems like they've been playing winning defense since '74.
Locally, Paul Dehner Jr., Bouchette's Bengals colleague at The Athletic, has also seen this before. The Bengals, Dehner says, have a tough time matching up with good pass-rushing defenses that turn it over. Richard Skinner, digital sports columnist for Cincinnati's Local 12, isn't too sure how far the Steelers get in the postseason but he thinks they cover the ground they need Monday night.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first.
I think you see a big game from the Steelers. They've gone through this stretch where they moved around. The Baltimore game was moved from Thanksgiving to Sunday to Tuesday to Wednesday. I can't remember how many times it was moved and it just played with them mentally as well as preparation and then they had a shorter time to get ready for Washington and they played badly. They went up to Buffalo and played OK for a half and that was it.
They've had a lot of injuries, too, especially on defense. They didn't have four starting linebackers last week. They didn't have cornerback Joe Haden in Buffalo and he'll be back for this one, but they've been worn down.
Still, I think you'll see a different team than we've seen the last three games. They're refreshed. They've had more time, a regular week plus a day. I think you'll see a different Ben Roethlisberger, a different offense.
THE EDGE: They get refreshed and they find their bearings. STEELERS, 27-14
I know the Bengals' inability to score since they played the Steelers last month. I don't expect that to change even though the Steelers defense has taken a lot of hits.
They've lost linebacker Devin Bush for the year. They've lost linebacker Bud Dupree for the year. Linebacker Vince Williams didn't play last week because of COVID and he won't play Monday. Bush's backup is on IR. They made the trade a month ago for linebacker Avery Williamson. He's stepped up, but he's still learning the system. What was once arguably the league's best linebacker corps is decimated. T.J. Watt is still there, but teams are focusing on him.
The Steelers don't run the ball well. Ben had his worst game of the year last week. Teams are catching on a little bit to the short passing game. We know about their success in Cincinnati, but I never know how much that correlates.
THE EDGE: A low scoring game. The Steelers are an 11-2 team. I don't know how many points they'll score, but their defense is still good enough to win the game and I expect them to bounce back. STEELERS, 19-10
It's the same thing it's been all year. It's a bad matchup. Even a Steelers team that is struggling a little bit offensively. They can't run the ball well. They're already talking about who the next quarterback is going to be. Steelers fans are having a tough life over there at 11-2.
But it's a bad matchup. The Steelers rush the passer, man. They have an opportunistic defense. It wasn't a good matchup with Burrow when they went up there and it certainly isn't a good matchup now. For me it's hard to see a path to victory here. Outside the defense plays exceptionally well, they get a turnover or two that gets you some free points. But I don't see them driving the ball on this defense.
THE EDGE: It's kind of looked pretty much the same since Burrow went down. The Bengals have been scoring in the seven-10 area. Pittsburgh will do what it has to do. Their defense will make a few plays and an offense looking to get right will probably get right just enough. STEELERS, 23-9.
In a perfect world, if Joe Burrow were playing and if you had better pieces, this still would be hard to win. So no Joe Burrow, an offense that hasn't scored but ten points in the second half since the bye and they called up Brandon Allen from the practice squad in place of Ryan Finley and now Allen can't play.
I know Pittsburgh is struggling. I know they're not playing well and you could argue when they went 11-0 they weren't a great team. They were just a team getting the job done and that's still good.
The thing that's disappointing, I wanted to see Joe the second time around against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. How did he adjust, how did they adjust the offense with him? That was really going to be the interesting thing for me to watch with Joe down the stretch. Could he get them to two, three, four wins and get them some momentum, play well the second time against the Steelers and Ravens after seeing them twice? We don't get to see that.
THE EDGE: I know Pittsburgh is struggling. I know they're not playing well and you could argue when they went 11-0 they weren't a great team. They were just a team getting the job done and that's still good. This has all the feel of Pittsburgh going up 17-0 and running the ball and punting the rest of the way. STEELERS, 27-3.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Bengals center Trey Hopkins described it best last week.
He was talking about the Steelers interior defensive line when he observed, "They're kind of like sharks in the water. They smell blood and it becomes a frenzy," but he could have been talking about the mindset of Pittsburgh's entire team under head coach Mike Tomlin. It hasn't mattered who the Bengals head coach has been or the quarterback. When they've made a mistake, Tomlin's Steelers have wasted no time to make them pay and feast.
The reason the Steelers are 11-2 and not something like 7-6 without a running game while trying to figure out how to put Big Ben in a new scheme is their defense and turning mistakes into points. It's not just turnovers, and they're at the top of the NFL turning a league-leading 23 turnovers into points, but it is any mistake or shift in momentum. If they get the right call, look out.
Check out last month's 36-10 win over the Bengals in Pittsburgh. After the Steelers turned an Alex Erickson fumbled punt into a 3-0 lead, the Bengals cut the lead to 12-7 in the middle of the second quarter. But on the next drive, the Bengals committed a pair of 15-yard defensive penalties (roughing the passer and pass interference) and the Steelers converted for a touchdown. 19-7.
Then when the Bengals offense tried to deflate the rest of the half, they were called for a hold, they had to punt and the Steelers cashed a field goal after the half's two-minute warning for a 22-7 half-time lead.
Then in the third quarter it took the Steelers just four minutes to take advantage of the Bengals losing a replay challenge on third down. 29-7.
So Bengals back-up quarterback Ryan Finley's orders are the same for any quarterback against the Steelers. Mistakes at a minimum. And that includes getting rid of the ball and avoiding the sack. He's been sacked seven times while throwing 19 passes and he faces a defense leading the NFL in sacks, quarterback knockdowns and blitzes.
It's not the same defense that has accumulated those numbers. T.J. Watt is the Steelers only healthy starting linebacker, but he's one of the best rushers in the game and maybe the best at creating turnovers. And interior linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward are always a test for any offensive line. Plus, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is lurking back there with a Pro Bowl well in hand. One of his four picks is a pick-six and he's a threat to go all the way on any snap.
Two encouraging things from last month's game for the Bengals are their trio of running backs hit the Steelers for 100 yards rushing (throw in Shawn Williams' 39-yard run off a fake punt and it was their third most rush yards against Pittsburgh in the last 20 years) and their run defense kept Pittsburgh in check well enough to have a shot if the offense hadn't gone 0-for-13 on third down.
At some point the Steelers draw blood. The Bengals' challenge is not to let it become a frenzy by being able to get Finley in favorable down and distance with the run game and not letting Pittsburgh's run game drain the clock.