This Saturday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to meet the Cincinnati Bengals, for a prime time matchup, in an AFC Wildcard game showdown. The Steelers and the Bengals have split the first two games during the regular season, with the visiting team winning each contest. The second game between these two division rivals was a rather chirpy affair, and saw both teams exchanging words and shoves, at midfield, during pregame stretching. For some reason, the Bengals thought an attempt at a little pregame intimidation would be a good idea. Instead, their ignorance only served to light an even bigger fire under the Steelers, who were already simmering over how Vontaze Burfict appeared to celebrate his ending of Le’Veon Bell’s season during their first matchup. In that second meeting, several Steelers players allowed themselves to be suckered into situations where they drew penalties, situations that they just should have walked away from. The Steelers need to bring more discipline with them Saturday night, because any kind of bad behavior in a playoff game, at the wrong time, could very well cost them the game if the score is close.
When Cincinnati Has The Ball:
The Steelers have overcome a lot to reach this point, and while the adjustments they made have gotten them to the postseason, this is the postseason now. It’s time for them to start the BEST eleven defensive players they have, against Cincinnati, and let them have at it. That means a secondary minus Antonio Blake, who should be doing nothing much more than making nice with the bench, while Ross Cockrell and Brandon Boykin see the vast majority of playing time across from William Gay. Blake may be the better tackler, but the Steelers need defensive backs who can contest the ball and keep A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu in check. The Steelers can ill afford to have any breakdowns in communication that allows a Bengals receiver to get wide open behind the defense, because A.J. McCarron has already proven that he is capable of hitting the deep ball. Just as bad as their breakdowns in coverage have been, the Steelers have had their issues when it comes to tackling as well.
Too often this season, Steelers defenders have gone for the big hit instead of wrapping up, with the end result being, drives have been extended, allowing unnecessary points to be given up. The Bengals have too many weapons on offense, who have the ability to rack up yardage after contact, to be allowed to escape initial contact. Between Giovani Bernard, A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu, the Steelers defense can’t afford to give them any extra yards. They need to maintain assignment and gap discipline, and get these guys on the ground quickly. Keith Butler’s unit has come up with some pretty big games this season, against much better quarterbacks than A.J. McCarron. All they have to do Saturday night is play smart, disciplined football, and create some turnovers. McCarron is inclined to make mistakes when he is under pressure, and the Steelers have certainly generated quite a bit of pressure this year, getting 15.5 sacks from the defensive line, 25.5 sacks from the linebackers, and 7 sacks from the secondary.
When The Steelers Have The Ball:
The most important thing the Steelers can do Saturday night, is to take care of the football. Ben Roethlisberger will play a big role in that regard, because his touchdown to interception ratio has been unusually high this year during road games. Reggie Nelson has been Ben’s biggest nemesis within the division, and will certainly be waiting for him to lock on to one target, so Ben needs to spread the ball around and take what the defense gives him, and not try to force anything. The Steelers have more weapons on offense than the Bengals defense can account for, so Ben needs to show a bit of restraint until one of them breaks open. Once again, there is no need for him to rush or force anything.
The biggest question mark facing the Steelers on offense, is whether or not running back Deangelo Williams will be ready to go. Assuming that he is not, Fitzgerald Toussaint is going to have to provide a viable threat on the ground. Nobody is expecting Toussaint to go out and get 100 yards, but he has to be able to get at least 3.5 yards per carry to keep the cincinnati defense honest.Todd Haley might also want to consider giving Jordan Todman some touches, as he has cutback ability along with big play capability, and can catch the ball out of the back field. He doesn’t run with the same conviction that Toussaint does, but his confidence builds with each carry.
Final Conclusions And Predictions:
The Steelers and the Bengals know each other well, so there shouldn’t be any new surprises. The Steelers offensive talent is superior to the Bengals defense, so the biggest concern will be protecting the football. That brings it down to the steelers defense versus the Bengals offense, and even more specifically, A.J. McCarron and his receivers versus the Steelers secondary. If the decision is made, and it should be, to go with a rotation of Cockrell, Boykin and Gay, throughout the game, the Steelers secondary should be capable of providing decent enough coverage, especially with a consistent pass rush. If Ben can get back to being Ben, which means making smart decisions with the football, there is no reason that the Steelers can’t put up the points necessary to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs. So, If Ben reverts back to his normal big game type performance, and the Steelers end up leaving Blake on the bench, the Steelers leave Cincinnati with a 31-21 win.