Will Roethlisberger's frown turn upside down on Sunday night?
At 2-3 and in third place in the AFC North, the Pittsburgh Steelers have some regrouping to do. Their Week 6 loss at the one-win Tennessee Titans was an illuminating look at what can happen when the Steelers play down to their opponents rather than netting a victory over a thoroughly beatable team.
Now they head to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals on Sunday night. The road hasn't been kind to the Steelers this season—they have yet to win away from the relative comfort of Heinz Field—but historically they have been more successful when facing the Bengals on their home turf. In order to win, however, they need to make improvements in all phases of the game.
Let's take a look at where the Steelers stand as they head into this all-important divisional contest.
The Good: Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Clark
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is having an excellent 2012 season, even though he's taking fewer deep shots than he did last season—his longest pass (per teamrankings.com) to date has gone 82 yards, as compared to 95 in 2011. His completion percentage is up from 62.2 percent last year to 64.6 percent so far this season, he's thrown 10 touchdowns to date and he has just two interceptions.
With Pittsburgh's defense not playing well and the run game also struggling to be consistent, the Steelers have relied on Roethlisberger's arm for big plays. Pittsburgh is seventh overall in the league in average passing yards per game at 285.8; their 39.6 pass attempts per game ranks fifth.
Roethlisberger threw for 356 yards in last week's loss to the Titans and accounted for 14 of the team's total 19 first downs. He had one interception, one touchdown and targeted 10 different receivers. It wasn't enough, however—three drives stalled, resulting in field goals and not touchdowns.
Red-zone scoring was a major problem for the Steelers last season, and the fact that they had to settle for more field goals than touchdowns against Tennessee certainly helped lead to the loss.
Though the relative lack of a run game has prevented Roethlisberger from successfully employing play-action (and thus has limited his downfield throws) the Steelers problems have absolutely nothing to do with their quarterback.
Clearly, the yards the Steelers do give up result in red-zone trip after red-zone trip for their opponents—3.4 per game, in fact, putting them at 19th in the league. Those 3.4 red-zone appearances result in two touchdowns per game.
It's not helping matters that the Steelers' front seven cannot seem to effectively bring pressure to quarterbacks this year. They started the season without linebacker James Harrison. LaMarr Woodley was sidelined last week with a hamstring injury, and they've been without the support of safety Troy Polamalu in their blitz packages for the majority of the season. All this has resulted in the Steelers ranking 19th in sacks per game.
With the front seven struggling to keep quarterbacks from passing and running backs from taking off, safety Ryan Clark has been an invaluable clean-up man this season. His 11 tackles against the Titans were the highest total of any Steelers defender, and he has the second-most on the year (25). He also has recorded an interception and a forced fumble.
Pro Football Focus has Clark rated as a top-four safety and the best defender on the team. He's missed just one tackle and opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 16.7 when throwing his way. Clark tackles the running backs whom the linebackers miss and provides support to a secondary that very much needs it.
Clark's good year has a lot to do with the failings of other defenders around him, but if he wasn't capable of picking up the slack, the Steelers would be giving up far more yards and points than they are presently.
The Bad: Ike Taylor, The Injury Bug Returneth
As good as Clark has been this season, cornerback Ike Taylor has been just as bad. No pressure up front has allowed quarterbacks more time to complete passes and Taylor, in particular, has been allowing significant completions, including touchdowns.
Though receivers have caught just 57.1 percent of the passes thrown to them when Taylor is on the coverage, they've amassed 373 yards and 143 yards after the catch (a 15.5 yards per-reception average) and have scored four touchdowns.
Last week against the Titans, Taylor gave up 126 receiving yards, 25 yards after the catch, and one touchdown and had three penalties called against him, making him the only Steelers defender to be flagged in that game.
His failings have often required both safeties playing deep to help minimize his mistakes, but when he's one-on-one in zone, he simply cannot cover receivers properly. His lack of speed is resulting in completion after completion—something that could really hurt him and the Steelers efforts on Sunday night if he's matched up with Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green.
Making matters worse, the injury bug is back to bite the Steelers again this season, which is not helping them get their season turned around. Troy Polamalu is has been sidelined since sustaining a calf injury in Week 2. Linebacker Chris Carter won't play on Sunday with a hamstring injury, and offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert is also out with an ankle injury that could have him sidelined for up to six weeks, according to center Maurkice Pouncey (via Mike Bires of The Beaver County Times).
Pouncey himself is also nursing an injury, a knee sprain that has him questionable for Sunday. Also hurt are running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle); linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who missed the Tennessee game with a hamstring injury, looks good to go against the Bengals, thankfully.
The injuries on offensive line are the greatest concern. The Steelers dealt with a great many of them last season, and the result was a breakdown in protection for Ben Roethlisberger and a less-productive run game. Rookie Mike Adams will be taking over for Gilbert while he's out, and Doug Legursky will fill in at center should Pouncey be a no-go.
Against the Bengals' tough defensive line, this could result in more hits to Roethlisberger and further failings for the run game, which currently ranks 31st in the league. A dip in offensive production is the last thing the Steelers need at the moment, considering how they are struggling on defense.
What's Next: The Cincinnati Bengals
The Steelers travel to Cincinnati for Week 7's Sunday night game to take on a Bengals squad that's had some trouble over the past two weeks. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has issues when passing under pressure, and his mistakes in the passing game have directly led to their two consecutive losses.
Pittsburgh has won 11 of their last 12 meetings with the Bengals and, since 2000, have had more success against them in Cincinnati than on its home field. However, the Steelers haven't won on the road yet this year and have injury issues plaguing them on both offense and defense. They're now the underdogs, just clinging to life in a division that's been theirs more often than not in the Ben Roethlisberger era.
To defeat the Bengals this week, they'll need to be more successful in rushing the passer. Dalton has been sacked 17 times this season, and all nine of his interceptions have come when he's facing pressure of one sort or another. If they knock him off his game, he's not likely to recover, if his last two weeks are any indication.
This may be the only way the Steelers can control the Bengals' passing game. Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green has 628 yards on his 43 receptions, 152 yards after the catch and six touchdowns. The Steelers will have to either put someone other than Ike Taylor on him or give Taylor safety or corner help to keep Green at bay—even against the Cleveland Browns' top cornerback, Joe Haden, last week he still managed seven catches, two touchdowns and 135 yards.
On offense, there's some chance that the Steelers could have a strong day running the ball, even if both Mendenhall and Redman are limited. The Bengals are giving up an average of 118.7 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per rush attempt, so it stands to reason that if the Steelers run-blocking comes together, Mendenhall, Redman, Baron Batch or whoever is getting the majority of the carries this week could have a nice outing.
The main concern in the passing game is keeping Ben Roethlisberger protected. The Bengals have the second-most sacks of any team in the league (20) and their defense is the first legitimate pressure-powered unit the Steelers have faced this year.
The fact that rookie tackle Mike Adams will be taking Marcus Gilbert's spot doesn't engender much confidence, considering that his preseason play showed that he's far better at run-blocking than pass protection. He'll be targeted over and over on Sunday, and the Steelers must find ways to limit his mistakes.