The Steelers are still stinging from their Sunday night loss in the finals seconds to the Ravens, but must regroup quickly for another division game on the road against the AFC North leading Cincinnati Bengals. This is a must game if the Steelers still want to have any shot at winning the division as a loss would make them 0-3 in division play. The Bengals are the surprise team in the division and should not be faulted for playing an easy schedule to start the season.
As I do each and every week, here are my 7 things to watch for this week against the Bengals as the Steelers look to move to 7-3 on the season heading into their bye week. At the bottom is my score prediction for the game and I will have my week 10 picks and predictions up for the other games later tonight.
Get Off On 3rd - The Steelers defense did not do a good job getting off the field on 3rd down against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco last week. Flacco was struggling coming into that game passing on 3rd downs, but you would not have known it Sunday night. This week they face a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton, who has also not been great this year on 3rd downs either as he has a 55.1% completion rate on 3rd downs overall and has turned just 28 of his 43 completions on 3rd into first downs on 78 passing attempts.
Fighting Gators - It looks like Bengals left defensive end Carlos Dunlap will be a go this week despite being hampered by a hamstring injury suffered last week against the Titans. Dunlap will be going up against Steelers rookie right tackle Marcus Gilbert on passing downs and the two were teammates at the University of Florida. Dunlap has had a fantastic season rushing quarterbacks this season as he is responsible for 3 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 24 pressures through the first 8 games of the season. Dunlap has done that in less than 300 snaps this year in addition. Gilbert has really come into his own the last few games and this sets up for a classic battle that Gilbert must win against a player he knows very well.
Attack The Nickel - The Bengals will pay quite a bit of attention to Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown on Sunday and that means that Bengals nickel cornerback Kelly Jennings could be primed to be picked on. Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller will all likely get attention from Jennings over the course of the game and he has not looked great thus far this season. Jennings has been targeted 14 times and allowed 9 catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. Look for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to attack a favorable match-up here.
Hurry Up More - The Bengals like to rotate out quite a bit of personnel in run and pass packages, so running more hurry up, no-huddle offense would be advised early on to catch them with the wrong personnel on the field for an extended amount of time. As I mentioned above, they like to get Dunlap on the field on passing downs so keeping him off the field as much as they can and throwing against a 4 defensive back secondary will tilt things in favor of the offense.
Rookie Connection Initiation - Both Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green are having great rookie campaigns and both have adapted well to the speed of the pro game. Green could see quite a bit of Ike Taylor on Sunday and Dalton has been living off of the short pass, that includes the short slant to Green. Taylor had problems last week with Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin off the line in press coverage, so he must do a better job at jamming the rookie at the line in press coverage situations. The Steelers would be advised to mix in both man and zone coverages on Sunday in an attempt to confuse Dalton. Some well timed fire X blitzes could force him to force the ball into the center of the field where the Steelers defense has a better shot at picking him off.
Where Will Lawrence Be? - Last week we saw linebacker Lawrence Timmons play both inside and spell Jason Worilds outside despite the Steelers having Worilds and James Harrison finally back from injuries. Timmons also was curiously not on the field for 17 of the defensive snaps. This week should see the return of inside linebacker James Farrior from a calf injury and it will be interesting how the Steelers choose to use Timmons, as it makes sense to keep him inside where he is most effective. Timmons was pretty much invisible filling in for Harrison at right outside linebacker for 4 games. He really needs to start making his presence felt after signing a big contract extension before the start of the season.
Healthy Into The Bye - This is not really a key to this game as much as it is a key to the future games down the stretch. The Steelers will get their well awaited bye next week and look to return from it fairly healthy as LaMarr Woodley, Emmanuel Sanders and Arnaz Battle all look to return fairly soon. The Steelers have lost enough key players through the first 9 games and hopefully they can not only get a win Sunday, but do so without any new injuries to boot.
Steelers Bengals Game Prediction - This is a dangerous game and certainly one that many of us already had circled on the schedule as a win before the season started. The Steelers defense has to start finding ways to create turnovers, but Bengals have been good at not giving it away through their first 8 games. As long as they keep running back Cedric Benson in check and do not give the Bengals short fields to work with, this should be a game they win. I think the Bengals make it close with a late touchdown, but the Steelers will head into the bye week with a respectable 7-3 record.
Final Score: Steelers 24 Bengals 17