The Pittsburgh Steelers game Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals is a must-win game if the playoffs are to be in their future. There is no room for error as the Steelers have put themselves in this position thanks to four loses in the last five games. It is hard to believe that the AFC North crown is still also within their reach should they win and the Baltimore Ravens lose, but that can\'t be the focus. The playoffs have already begun and they must play like it on Sunday at home against a Bengals team that would like nothing better than to be the one to deliver the death punch. Below are 7 things to watch for specifically in this game along with my prediction at the end of it. In case you missed it, here is the Wednesday podcast preview of the game that features a great interview with Bengals beat writer Joe Reedy from the Cincinnati Enquirer.
No Christmas Gifts - Not surprisingly, 19 of the Steelers 27 turnovers this season have come in the losses and 18 of those 27 have come in the last 5 games, of which they only won one of them. Also not surprisingly, they won the 3 games that they did not turn the ball over at all. The Bengals have scored 100 of their 355 points this season off of turnovers or blocked punts and all 34 of their punts last week in their win over the Philadelphia Eagles came off of turnovers. Their offense has only converted third downs at a 35.45% rate this season, so it is advisable to not give them short fields. This is pretty cut and dry for the Steelers. If they don\'t turn the ball over they should win this game. If they do turn the ball over the defense will need to replace it by forcing two, which is highly unlikely to happen. Just because it is Christmas doesn\'t mean that they have to be in a gift giving mood on Sunday.
Lawyer Up Against The Law Firm & The Terminator - Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has rushed for 101 or more yards in 4 of the last 5 games and the Bengals won all 4 of those games. In the last meeting against the Steelers he was held to 69 yards rushing with 44 of those yards coming ion the Bengals first offensive possession. Much like the game back in Week 7, whichever team can run the ball the best will most likely win the game. Green-Ellis will have a new fullback this week to run behind in the form of John Conner, who was signed off of the street to replace the injured Chris Pressley. Conner is more than capable of handling the duties, especially on the lead iso play the Bengals like to run to the right outside behind the pulling guard. The Steelers linebackers and defensive backs have top make sure to stack and shed their blockers early and often on Sunday in order to keep the Bengals offense behind the chains, where they struggled at times this season.
Atkins Diet - Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins has had an excellent 2012 season. Heading into Sunday against the Steelers he has 44 combined tackles, 10.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles to his credit. In the Week 7 meeting the Steelers did not have center Maurkice Pouncey, who sat the game out with a knee injury. His replacement, Doug Legursky, combined with guards Willie Colon and Ramon Foster, kept Atklins in check to the tune of 2 tackles and a sack. Pouncey is back now, but Foster has been flipped over to the left and rookie David DeCastro has taken over his spot at right guard. These three need a solid game against the Atkins in order to open up the running lanes for the Steelers running backs, much in the way the line was able to do back in the Week 7 win. Despite his solid season, the Bengals front has allowed a 4.24 or better yards per carry average this season on runs between the guards, so expect this to be the area that offensive coordinator Todd Haley tries to exploit early in the game. 7.5 of the 10.5 sacks that Atkins has registered this year have come on first or second down. 8 of those have come with 10 or more yards to go in addition.
Don\'t Be Green With Envy - It is still unknown whether or not cornerback Keenan Lewis will be able to play in this game with his hip and knee injury. If he does, he will not be 100%. Regardless of who is lined up against Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, you can bet that quarterback Andy Dalton will attempting to target them. In the last meeting it was cornerback Ike Taylor who held Green to just 1 catch on 6 targets. The lone catch was a touchdown, however, but it was also via a short field thanks to a turnover by the Steelers offense. It would be a Festivus miracle if Green is held to those types of numbers again on Sunday, but he can be held to under his average of both catches and yards. The Steelers secondary did a poor job of tackling the catch last week in the loss to the Dallas Cowboys and that simply can\'t happen two weeks in a row. Green must earn every bit of yardage that he gets and can\'t be allowed to have any explosive plays of 20 yards or more, of which he has 14 of on the season. Holding him below his 14.2 yards per catch average is a must, especially if he has more than a few catches. The defense can\'t let him be the one to kill him.
No Time For Counterfeiting - The Steelers "Young Money Crew" has been counterfeiting for a good portion of the season. The drops, fumbles, and poor in-game decisions made by Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders over the course of the season has killed the offense at key times during games. Heading into the season it was thought that this trio was the perhaps the best group in the league, but they have shown to be anything but that. On Sunday this unit has a chance to redeem themselves and they must be up to the task. The Bengals defense has allowed a 58.3% completion ratio this season to the deep portion area of the field and that ranks them 27th in the league in that stat. The short middle area of the field has also been tough for the Bengals defense to defend in addition as they have yielded a 75% completion ratio on 124 throws to that area. That too ranks them 27th in the league. There is money for this crew to be had over the middle on Sunday and this is where the Steelers offense must exploit in the passing game.
Ground Sticktoitiveness - As long as they do not get behind big early like they did in the loss to the San Diego Chargers, the offense has to try to keep a better run versus pass ratio Sunday at Heinz Field. Ideally you want to see the running backs carry the ball a combined 25 times or more in this game if at all possible. Even if the run is not there to start it can\'t be abandoned too quickly. The Bengals can be run on but it might take a little patience. Last week against the Cowboys the offense did not stick to the run enough in a close game. That can\'t happen two weeks in a row. Keep this stat in mind. The Steelers are 0-4 this year when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws for at least 285 yards, compared to 6-1 when he starts and throws for less than 285 yards.
Fast Start - Only once this season has the Steelers offense scored on their first two possessions of a game and that was in the win against the Washington Redskins. Getting on top of the Bengals quickly will force Dalton to press and take their offense out of their gameplan. This team needs a complete game for once and Sunday would be a great time to finally see it.
Prediction - This team has the talent to win this game and make a serious run in the playoffs if they can get healthy on defense and get their offense clicking the way it should. The errors the last few weeks, especially on offense have been very disturbing. The focus and preparation has to be better or we will be talking about the draft next week. The defense needs to start helping the offense out just a little and the turnovers just can\'t take place on offense. My confidence level heading into this game is slim, and with good reason. You just do not know what you are going to get on Sunday with this team. If ever there were a week when the team needed a blowout, this week would be it, but I just cant see it happening. This is, however, the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and the Steelers are 4-0 in games played on this date since that win over the Oakland Raiders at Three Rivers Stadium. This one will not be pretty or convincing, but I am expecting a Festivus miracle in this game. Something along the lines of a pick-6 by Cortez Allen or a Casey Hampton fumble recovery return for a touchdown? The Steelers can\'t go out this way against the Bengals, right?
Final Score - Steelers 23 Bengals 20