Bengals Prowling Into Steel City
On Sunday afternoon, the Cincinnati Bengals (7-4) head into Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers (8-3) in a huge AFC North showdown with major playoff implications. For the Bengals, this isn’t quite a must-win game, but considering they are a game behind both Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the division, it’s about as close as you can get to a must-win game.
Andy Dalton and friends will have their hands full in Pittsburgh with the terrible towels waving and the raucous crowd screaming. Much has been made about the Bengals’ surprising play this season, and deservedly so. With a rookie quarterback and a rookie wide receiver, they have far exceeded expectations.
However, when you look at the teams the Bengals have beaten, the impressiveness begins to wear off, and I’m calling their bluff. The Bengals have defeated only one team with a winning record (Tennessee), and all four of their losses have come against teams with winning records. I think this is a team on the rise, but they have obviously benefited from a fairly soft schedule. They may prove me wrong this Sunday, but I smell a Steelers’ statement game coming.
Not surprisingly, I expect this to be a very physical, grind-it-out type of game. The AFC North is known for it. Both of these defenses are very good, especially in the rushing department. Offensively for Cincinnati, the key is going to be protecting Andy Dalton. They will not be able to run the ball against the Steelers, so you can throw that idea out the window. Even though Cedric Benson just isn’t that good, I still expect them to stubbornly try. They just won’t be successful. Actually, Cincinnati’s entire offense really isn’t that good. They are middle of the pack, ranking 17th in passing offense and 20th in rushing offense. They seem to be the type of team that is able to put together a couple of impressive drives a game thanks to their playmakers, but they are woefully inconsistent on offense. The Bengals are going to have to make some big splash plays offensively, because I just can’t see them putting together very many long, methodical drives against the Steelers’ defense. A.J. Green needs to be targeted early and often. He is their playmaker. Obviously, the huge storyline leading up to the game to watch is whether Troy Polamalu plays or not. Andy Dalton should start praying right now that he doesn’t, because life would be a whole lot easier without that freak of nature on the field. He is far and away the Steelers’ best playmaker on defense, and Pittsburgh could suffer if he is not able to go in this one.
On the other side of the ball, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers will have a test of their own going against Cincinnati’s defense. Mike Zimmer, the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, has done a terrific job with this unit this year. Nobody gave this team a chance, but they have straight up come to play each and every week. Cincinnati ranks #5 in the NFL in total defense, giving up 307.7 yards per game. Usually when you think of Pittsburgh’s offense, you think of a team that pounds the rock down your throat. Not anymore. This year’s team is throwing the ball, with 387 passing attempts compared to 290 rushing attempts. Wide receiver Mike Wallace is the fastest player in the game and one of the most exciting young players around, and Ben Roethlisberger will be looking to get him the football so he can make plays with his blazing speed. He has been held largely in check the past two weeks. Look for that to change this week. I think he finds a way to beat Cincinnati’s defense deep on a play or two on Sunday. Don’t forget wide receiver Antonio Brown, either, who has quietly put together a very nice year and is in the top 10 in the NFL in receiving targets. Look for the Steelers to try and establish the running game early, wear the defense down, and then strike through the air. I know this is somewhat cliché, but it is very true: Cincinnati MUST force Big Ben into turnovers Sunday, or they don’t have a prayer. The Bengals have intercepted just 6 passes this year in 10 games, which is awful. They have to turn that number around.
This Steelers team is a veteran team with lots of experience, and they know how to win. I hear people saying that Andy Dalton and company “aren’t babies anymore”, but I say rookies are rookies. They are playing well, don’t get me wrong, but they are not quite ready for the big time yet, and Pittsburgh is the big time. As I said, I smell a statement game from Pittsburgh, so I’m taking the Steelers 30-16.
Bold Prediction: In a very hostile environment at Heinz Field, Andy Dalton gets sacked 5+ times. (Cincy has surrendered just 17 sacks this season)