By Jeremy Hritz
Time to move on from the awful play of a week ago against the Tennessee Titans and to focus on the imminent matchup against the AFC North favorites, Cincinnati Bengals. While conventional wisdom says the Pittsburgh Steelers will have a difficult time competing in Cincy based on their abysmal performance in week one, it’s difficult to envision the Steelers playing poorly for two weeks in a row.
However, if the Steelers are going to be competitive and have a chance to secure a victory, they are going to have to give a much better effort, and against a Bengals team with a formidable defensive unit and an excellent collection of skill players on offense, an effort similar to the one last week in Pittsburgh would result in a blowout.
It is no secret that the Bengals have an outstanding defensive line, highlighted by Geno Atkins, who gave David DeCastro fits in Pittsburgh last year. Throw in defensive end Michael Johnson who racked up 11.5 sacks last season, and the questionable Steelers offensive line will have its hands full in protecting Ben Roethlisberger, who the team cannot afford to lose to injury.
It would be foolish not to mention James Harrison and the new dimension that he adds to the Bengals defense. Both Harrison and the Steelers have said all of the right things this week in regards to his departure but to say that he would love nothing more than to dominate against his former team would be foolish. We know how hard Harrison plays, and with extra motivation, it could make for an even rougher outing for the shaky Steelers offensive line. The question is how effective can Harrison be at 35 years old after innumerable injuries and surgeries?
Against the Chicago Bears in week one, the Bengals defense wasn’t dominant, as they gave up 323 total yards and failed to record a sack of Jay Cutler, who was sacked 38 times in 15 games in 2012 behind a soft offensive line. But at home in prime time, the Bengals defense will be looking to assert itself as the premier group in the AFC North.
Offensively, the Bengals feature one of the best receivers in football in A.J. Green, who had an explosive game last week, catching nine balls for 162 yards and two touchdowns, including one for 45 yards. Ike Taylor will shoulder the task of shutting Green down, and he has shown in previous contests that he can do so. The area of concern is William Gay who will be starting in place of Cortez Allen, and though he played well last week, his history as a starter in Pittsburgh is well documented. It will be more important than ever for the Steelers to generate a pass rush to keep Gay from being exposed in coverage.
Andy Dalton had a decent outing against the Bears last week, but he still threw two interceptions. His most recent performance against the Steelers in Pittsburgh last December resulted in 278 passing yards, two picks, and a pounding as he was sacked six times. Regardless of his less than stellar play, the Bengals still earned the win by a score of 13-10 and secured another playoff berth, while they eliminated the Steelers from contention.
What to Expect…
The Steelers really didn’t give many reasons for confidence heading into the game against the Bengals, and nobody really believes that the Steelers have a realistic chance of winning, nor should they.
The offensive line has been pitiful, as have been the running backs, and the turnover issues from 2012 seemed to have carried over into this new year. When Roethlisberger had protection, there were tiny glimpses into what the passing game could be, though it was more methodical than it was explosive. Overall, the offense played about as bad as an offense can play.
The defense on the other hand, played well, and despite being on the field for over 34 minutes, only gave up 229 yards, and though they didn’t make any splash plays or harass Jake Locker, they appear to be primed for another solid year. With Jarvis Jones getting more snaps, and with Shamarko Thomas getting some opportunities due to the injury to Allen, the defensive youngsters will have an opportunity to make some early contributions.
Things can only get better for the Steelers, and it’s hard to imagine them playing below the line two weeks in a row. But will improvement be enough to match the intensity of an up-and-coming team looking to send a message on a Monday Night?
It would be foolish to pick the Steelers against the Bengals on the road, right?
Keep Your Eyes On…
The Steelers offensive line. If this unit can come together and allow the offense to sustain a few drives and give their defense a break, it will go a long way in putting the Steelers in a position to win. It’s a big if, especially with a newly acquired center in Fernando Velasco starting, and with two tackles that have been seriously disappointing. Ultimately, the performance of this unit early on will be an indicator of which direction this game is headed.
In my season prediction, I forecasted the Steelers losing this game, but I am going back on my word. Roethlisberger is 14-5 all-time against the Bengals, and putting too much stock in last week’s game seems like a mistake, as the Steelers are a more talented group than what than what they put on display last weekend.
The Steelers show that week one was an anomaly, and they get the first win of the season in a close game.
Steelers 26, Bengals 20