Bengals Preview, Week Fourteen: Steelers
Coming into the season, expectations for the Pittsburgh Steelers were mixed, which became fitting after the team experienced stretches of Jeckyl and Hyde play once the action began. After they pounded the Colts and Ravens on consecutive weeks mid-season, it looked like they had formed into something dangerous. What has ensued in the last three weeks, however, has been far from fearsome.
The Bengals are no different in terms of having a somewhat on again/off again type of season. While Andy Dalton gave a sickly performance in the first half with three interceptions and many apparent pre-game pukes, the defense held their water and the quarterback improved markedly after halftime. It was a victory snatched from the jowls of defeat to be sure, but a crucial win nonetheless. By winning all three games on their road trip, Cincinnati slammed the breaks on what looked like a potential collapse after that miserable Cleveland showing at home on Thursday night.
Now they return home, perhaps not strutting, but walking tall at least. New found strengths in Jeremy Hill and Rey Maualuga have emerged and have positively altered the identity of the team. Each have settled down the game for their teammates. Also, quietly, Brandon Thompson continues to flash as his swim move looks sharp off of the line of scrimmage. Marshall Newhouse, who looked so bad in that Browns game, is another who deserves a lot of credit for holding down the position enough to give those around him confidence in his play.
The Steelers are coming off a rather thorough beating at home to the Saints despite a deceptive final score of 37-34. The Pittsburgh secondary looked vulnerable against one of the game's better passers in Drew Brees. There were comparisons made between Brees and Dalton early in Dalton's career, but at this point, we know what's under the hood on both of these guys and it's not much of a comparison anymore. Therefore, Dalton cannot have one of his bad days on Sunday; he cannot be the reason they lost.
If he makes the right reads, throws fairly accurately, limits himself to one interception and protects the ball when he runs with it, the Bengals can beat anyone, and especially Pittsburgh. If he is only average, the run game must give a solid contribution. If he is awful, the defense and ground game must be at their all-time best to still win. He is not paid or even counted on to make spectacular plays, just the right ones, and the organization has developed itself around this premise. Drafting recent running backs, tight ends and offensive linemen are insulators to his limitations. It perhaps feels like a tenuous future plan to go long term with a quarterback who will always need a great defense and good ground game to take his team to the postseason, but if the goal is only making the playoffs, it's become full proof. What happens once they reach that stage is still very much a work in progress.
That's why one cannot count out those pesky Steelers no matter how old their defense gets or how banged up Big Ben appears to be. Roethlisberger is a great individual player with the best playground skills in the game. He seems physically invincible and makes grown men look like younger brothers when they go to tackle him. He has terrific chemistry with the speed-burner Antonio Brown and he now has a young running back with a Marcus Allen running style and a cool name in Le'Veon Bell (although his status for Sunday is a question mark as of this writing thanks to a possible league suspension stemming from a marijuana arrest that was later dropped). Bell leads the AFC in rushing with 1,046 yards.
The Bengals defense, though, knows how to play Roethlisberger; they can't always stop him, but they at least know how to. The classic approach against him is for the defensive ends to rush more up field in hopes of containing Big Ben in the pocket. Admittedly, this approach has become more flawed as Roethlisberger has grown more comfortable hanging in the pocket, but even now when he's older and less mobile, he is too much of a threat when he breaks the pocket. It seems sensible for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to stick with the game plan Mike Zimmer crafted for the Steelers all those years ago.
To predict this game is a crap shoot because of all the weird trends happening to both teams right now. Just when you have either figured out, they up and change again on you. Because of that, one might conclude that Dalton has a nice bounce-back game from last week, the defense softens a little after three strong consecutive weeks and the Steelers miss a crucial field goal.
Bengals 31, Steelers 28
Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor
Photo via Bengals Facebook