The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday night at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati and below is a preview breakdown of the game from an offensive, defensive and special teams perspective.
Steelers On Offense:
Running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are out for this game so the Jonathan Dwyer is set to make his first career start and yards will not be easy to come by against the Bengals, especially with center Maurkice Pouncey not 100%. Pouncey might not even play in the game. On 61 runs up the middle this season the Bengals defense has allowed 4.70 yards per carry. The Steelers front has to try to handle Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins up front, who despite the numbers, has played well up front. The Bengals problem defending the middle is because of the play of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has struggled so far this season against both the run and the pass. While I do not expect the Steelers to have the same success on the ground that they had against the Philadelphia Eagles a few weeks ago, they still have to try to attack the middle of the Bengals defense on the ground throughout the game. Dwyer has shown some ability in his limited action this season at bouncing it outside, but I would much rather him stay patient between the tackles. That being said, I should note that the Bengals defense has allowed 20 runs of 10 or more yards this season with most of them coming on the edges. On the flip side, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is responsible for 5 of those 20 runs and 3 more of those were runs by wide receivers. 40% of the rushing yards that the Bengals have allowed this season have come via those 20 plays. The other 148 rushes have gone for a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. The Bengals can be run on, but the Steelers must stay consistent enough in hopes of breaking a few long ones.
The passing game is where the Bengals can be exploited. Their defense is mostly susceptible in their cover-1 and quarter looks, and once again, they must make Maualuga earn his keep Sunday night. The Bengals defense has allowed 22 explosive plays so far through the air and they don\'t do a good job at covering the backs out of the backfield either as they have allowed 44 catches for 368 yards to running backs in their first 5 games. Only the Carolina Panthers have defended running backs worse so far this season. This week I expect Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis will try to compensate for that this and it could set up some favorable one-on-one matchups for wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown outside if he does. Lewis has to decide if he wants to take his chances at being paper cut to death or big played, so quarterback Ben Roethlisberger must take the opposite of what Lewis decides he wants to defend, as he does not have the talent on the field to stop both. To slow down the pass rush of the Bengals long defensive ends, we could see tight ends Heath Miller and David Paulson on the wings again like they were against the Eagles. Rest assured, there will be a lot of chipping going and the ball out quick from Roethlisberger when there isn\'t. Per the norm, Miller should get 6 or 7 targets in the middle of the field as he will look to single up on a linebacker or a safety.
The Bengals defense has had a rough time defending the red zone this season as they are ranked 29th with a 64.71% red zone percentage. If the Steelers don\'t come away with 7 points once inside the 20, it will be very disappointing.
As long as the offense doesn\'t turn the ball over and continues to convertt third downs at the same clip they have so far this season, they should be able to put points up. Hopefully a bunch of them.
Steelers On Defense:
The Steelers prime focus on defense will be to not let Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green destroy them. Last week against the Tennessee Titans the defense played a lot of cover-1 and did not provide much safety help to cornerback Ike Taylor. That figures to change this week and Taylor should be allowed to bracket underneath Green more this week as a result. The Steelers defense wants Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to try to use his other options instead and they will dare the Bengals offense to run on them with the safeties mostly playing deep in this game.
Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is a threat for sure and he figures to get the attention of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons in this game. Could we see the Steelers defense use some dime this week on third down with cornerback Curtis Brown seeing his first action this season? I kind of doubt it, but it wouldn\'t be a shock to me either. This would be a perfect opportunity to use it and limit the snaps of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who is returning from a hamstring strain in the process. Like I said, I doubt that happens, but keep your eyes peeled for it just the same.
The Steelers defense has not done a good job at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks so far this season, so we could see cornerback Cortez Allen come off the edge on a corner blitz a few more times in this game on third downs. That being said, the Bengals offense has been horrible this season on offense at converting third downs and the Steelers defense has been just as bad at allowing them. Something has to give, right?
If the Bengals are going to win this game it will be because ruining back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is able to run the ball up the middle and Dalton spreads the ball around to his other eligibles not named Green. Dalton has thrown 9 interceptions so far this season with 3 being returned for touchdowns. He has forced some balls so far this season and the Steelers defense has to make the necessary plays when he does Sunday night. Turnovers will likely decide this game.
Green is a very talented wide receiver with a huge catch radius. Limiting what he does in this game will go along way in deciding who wins this game.
Steelers On Special Teams:
The Steelers special teams unit will have the chore of limiting what Bengals punt returner Brandon Tate does Sunday night. The Bengals rank 4th in the league on punt returns with an average of 13.8. Luckily that has been one of the strong areas for the Steelers so far this season as they have allowed an average of 6.9 yards per return through five games. The special teams penalties must come to a stop this week. DeMarcus Van Dyke has three so far on him, while Stevenson Sylvester and Will Allen have also been flagged. The punt block allowed last week against the Titans was brutal and that certainly can\'t happen again. Rookie Chris Rainey has averaged 27 yards a return on kickoffs so far and he can certainly flip the field quickly against a Bengals kickoff coverage unit that is allowing 27.2 yards a return. That being noted, it will be a bad sign if the Bengals are kicking off a lot in this game. Hopefully it is a result of them settling for field goals.