The Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2) are back at home for their first matchup of the year against the Cincinnati Bengals (2-3). Currently in sole possession for first place in the AFC North, Pittsburgh comes into Heinz Field riding a massive victory last week against Kansas City. The defense was flawless, letting up just six yards in the first half (8 passing, -2 rushing), against a top-2 offense in the league. Not the same defense we witnessed last year now is it?
That has been the story of the year, the defense becoming an elite unit, and the offense being consistently inconsistent. There were signs of life last week, however, but also luck. The matchups this week will be interesting, especially with a Bengals defensive unit ranked #2 in the NFL, but an offense ranked #24. Pittsburgh has the #3 defense and the #13 offense coming into this weekend. Let’s take a look at what we will be seeing come Sunday.
Cinci’s D-Line vs. Pit’s O-Line
The second ranked defense in Cincinnati relies heavily on their front four, which includes Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Carl Lawson, and Michael Johnson, all of which have been playing great ball this season. The defense has racked up 18 sacks, ranking them #5 in the league, with the majority going to Atkins (4.0). Three out of the four linemen have at least three sacks this season, which will be quite a task for an injured Steelers line. I expect a lot of quick passes and screens for the Steelers, which is really nothing new.
As for the Steelers O-Line, they will be without Marcus Gilbert (Hamstring). The Steelers will need all the help they can get because they will have a HUGE task in stopping the front of Cincinnati. The black and yellow have given up 10 sacks this season with 27 QB hits, so Ben Roethlisberger has not had the same protection he had last season. The main point of concern is the right side and Chris Hubbard. Hubbard is the typical extra lineman for run plays, but he will have to take the role of a right tackle once again. He has struggled this season, and this week will not be any different. Bring some tight end help and maybe even JuJu Smith-Schuster, because Hubbard vs Dunlap is not a matchup I want to see.
Artie Burns vs. A.J. Green
Don’t look at the news of Joe Haden having his way with Green during the two player’s careers too heavily because he won’t be matched up against him all game. Second-year cornerback Artie Burns will get plenty of chances against Green as well. Burns has helped this Steelers secondary rank #1 in yards allowed per game through six games. Unfortunately, they have yet to face a challenge that Green is. In the division games against him the last couple years, the Steelers have allowed 36 catches for over 550 yards. That is something to worry about. The good news, however, is that Ross Cockrell is not a Steeler anymore!
Burns allows a 51% catch percentage, which is in the middle of the pack when it comes to cornerbacks league-wide, but he has the talent, the speed, and the hands to keep up with Green. During the offseason and still during practice, he matches up with Antonio Brown quite a bit. Taking that practice into the games has obviously worked out, since he is the solid #1 corner on the team. I do not expect him to shadow, so I will anticipate a few Haden matchups, but the majority of the day it should be Green and Burns going at it. Don’t forget about slot corner in Mike Hilton as well. He won’t cover Green, but he has boosted this secondary tremendously, ranking as the #24 corner in the league, according to PFF.
An more-experienced Burns versus an All Pro Green will be a fun one to watch.
Le’Veon Bell vs. Vontaze Burfict
Let’s talk about “26 Savage” for a little, shall we? Bell is having Pro Bowl performance as of the last few weeks and has now eclipsed 550 yards rushing on the season on 167 carries with four touchdowns. Two out of the six games, he has had 30+ carries. Let’s just say the Steelers rely on him quite a lot. But hey, it is not just the things he does with the ball. His PFF grades are incredible, with a rushing grade of 85.2 and a pass blocking grade of 80.0. This guy knows how to pick up a blitzer, and one of them may be Vontaze Burfict this week.
Burfict and Bell have some history, and I don’t feel comfortable explaining all of the mishaps (it makes me cringe too much). After a suspension this season, Burfict has put up some incredible stats. He has 19 tackles and a sack in just two games. The scary thing, he is just getting started, and what better matchup for him then his absolute most hated rival. Vontaze is the 9th ranked linebacker coming into this game, but is definitely a top-5 backer once he gets more in the groove. I expect him to be all over the place on Sunday, which I am not looking forward to.
Tony Romo will be in the booth again for CBS, so let’s hope for a similar result!