By Jeremy Hritz
Last Thursday night was brutal and another potential endorsement of the 2012 season as a forgettable one. While there are still eleven games left on the schedule, the window of opportunity continues to close, and if the Steelers drop their Sunday night contest against the divisional opponent in the Cincinnati Bengals, they will be staring out of the window and not stepping through it.
It is difficult to play consistent football when a team is as plagued by injuries as the Steelers are. It is also difficult to play consistent football when players that you have depended on in recent years have failed to make plays.
Ike Taylor appears to be a shadow of his former self that must rely on holding receivers in order to stop them.
Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel are not getting any push and are giving up rushing yards historically uncharacteristic of the Steelers.
James Harrison gets a pass because he has only been back on the playing field for two games, so hope is still out that he will get it together.
And now, along come the Bengals, who were at one point 3-1, with the Red Rifle and his trusty sidekick A.J. Green. While Andy Dalton has not performed flawlessly, throwing nine interceptions and being sacked 17 times, he has connected with Green for several big plays and has racked up 1726 passing yards with a 66% completion percentage. Ultimately, Dalton has been a mixed bag, mainly a result of the pressure he has been under, but facing a Steelers team this week that struggles to get to the quarterback, he could exploit Taylor and the struggling Steelers secondary.
The Steelers Will Win This Game If…
They can pressure Dalton and the passing game accumulates points, not just yardage.
One thing that has marked the Steelers this year is whatever is expected in a game, the opposite happens. The running game looked like it would be available against the Raiders, yet it struggled. The Raiders running game appeared to be inept, yet they gashed the Steelers and made big plays. The Titans, a team that had failed to score points and that had failed to stop opponents from scoring points, did both. At this juncture, it is difficult to forecast what the Steelers will bring to each game, but what they ultimately need against the Bengals on Sunday night is pressure and lots of it. With LaMarr Woodley finally again reunited on the field with Harrison, teams will now have to account for two effective pass rushers, assuming Woodley can make it through an entire game. With Lawrence Timmons slowly elevating his play in combination with both Woodley and Harrison, the Steelers should be able to get pressure. Key word, should. However, the defensive line must play better and get a greater push and occupy the offensive line so that the linebackers can get home on their blitzes.
For as good as Ben Roethlisberger and the receivers have been this year through the air, the offense has only scored an average of 23.2 points per game, good for 17th in the league, and while it would be absurd to expect the passing game to be solely responsible for scoring points, with a running game as bad as the Steelers, this burden unfortunately falls on Roethlisberger’s shoulders.
While Roethlisberger has been money on third downs and has thrown eleven touchdown passes, outside of the Eagles game, he has missed on some crucial plays that could have influenced the outcome of the Denver, Oakland, and Tennessee game (pick six, last offensive drive, overthrow of Sanders). There is no question that the offense is Roethlisberger and the receivers, and if the Steelers are to win this game, and other games this season, as the team leader he needs to make the crucial plays. If Roethlisberger is on in the crucial moments this Sunday night, the Steelers will improve to 3-3.
The Bengals Will Win This Game If…
The Steelers defense plays as it has all season, and if they can disrupt the Steelers passing game.
Make no mistake, playing in Cincinnati on a Sunday night against a team facing 0-3 in the AFC North is a daunting task. The Steelers better hope that the Steelers Nation is out in full force Sunday night, and that they interfere with any possible home field advantage.
With that said, the Bengals passing attack should have success against the Steelers as they have the personnel to exploit the Steelers secondary, and Dalton should have time considering how the pass rush has been ineffective this year for Pittsburgh. While Dalton is not an elite quarterback, he has weapons in Green and Jermaine Gresham that will be difficult for the Steelers to account for. If they have success in the air, Dalton and his receivers will put up points.
The Bengals have sacked the quarterback 20 times this season, a statistic that doesn’t sit well considering the injuries that the Steelers have on the offensive line. Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson have combined for 11 sacks, and the Steelers must account them for on the defensive line. With pressure, the Steelers offensive strength is negated, making scoring points almost impossible. More than ever, the Steelers need a big game from their patchwork offensive line to have a chance against the Bengals.
So far this year, I am 3-2 in correctly picking Steelers games, with my two failures coming in the Raiders and the Titans game. While before the season started, I selected the Bengals to beat the Steelers in Cincinnati, I cannot imagine the Steelers continuing the trend of mediocrity this season by dropping a fourth AFC game. Maybe I am denying and delaying the inevitable, but I believe that the offense is close to finding its rhythm and putting up points in bunches. There is something to be said for Roethlisberger’s domination in the state of Ohio, and having Woodley and Harrison back on the field together will provide for a spark on defense. I like the Steelers in a close one, after rallying back from a ten to 13 point deficit, all on the arm of Roethlisberger.
Steelers 31 Bengals 27