The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) will face off this Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3) in their first division matchup of the season. The Steelers are counting on a victory here to once again turn the season back in the right direction.
The Bengals are chasing the Ravens in the division hunt at this point. A win would pull them closer while a loss would set them in third behind the Steelers. This game is, in short, a must-win contest for both teams.
Here’s a look at 10 keys for the Steelers to claim victory.
The Steelers simply have no margin for error with the way their defense has played. Every little mistake by the offense is magnified when it leads to an opposing score. That’s been a common theme this year.
Luckily, the offense hasn’t made a ton of mistakes. In their two victories, the Steelers were nearly flawless. That will need to continue in this game.
Ben Roethlisberger has thrown only two interceptions this season. The Steelers lost each of those games. While you can’t trace the loss directly to either interception, it was still a contributing factor because the defense couldn’t staunch the bleeding afterward.
If the Steelers can play mistake-free football on Sunday, they have a chance to come away with an important victory within a division that is still completely up for grabs.
The Bengals were mistake-prone in their loss last week to the Cleveland Browns. Andy Dalton threw two costly picks. The Browns converted miscues into points and converted that into an upset victory. Pittsburgh has to use the same script this week.
Dalton doesn’t make a ton of mistakes, but he can be forced into them with good pressure. The Steelers have struggled to generate much pressure so far defensively.
They may have the services of LaMarr Woodley once again, however. James Harrison and Jason Worilds have made a moderately successful tandem so far. Either way, the Steelers should be able to punish the pocket.
The other way to force mistakes is to disguise coverage. This is something else the Steelers have had trouble with. They’ve been accused in this space before of playing a defense straight out of the mid-1990s. They are definitely using the same schemes that they’ve employed since Dick LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh.
Mixing things up could really throw Dalton off his game. The mixture used by Cleveland had him confused often. The Steelers would be wise to look over that tape and adopt some new ideas.
The Bengals, like the Steelers, have a corps of fast receivers that are great at getting open behind a defense. One school of thought—the one I would bet on Dick LeBeau being a part of—says to play back in zone and keep the play in front of you. It’s basically a prevent-style system that tries to contain a team.
The other school of thought—the one I’m suggesting—is to play up and press the receivers. So much of what the Bengals do is based on timing between the quarterback and receivers. That’s how Dalton can get rid of the ball quickly and accurately.
For the Steelers, disrupting that timing is paramount. Putting a physical guy like Keean Lewis on A.J. Green is the first step. He must be eliminated as a threat or the Steelers will have a terrible time slowing down the Bengals. Lewis must jam him at the line and hit him hard for the first five yards to keep him off his route.
If a receiver gets away, it is the risk you take in playing up. But in that case, Dalton has to adjust and change his approach slightly. That extra second or two could be all the linebackers need to get into the backfield and batter him.
At this point, the next coach who gets the Pittsburgh special teams to play at even an acceptable level when covering kicks and punts will be a local hero. The Steelers are simply awful at this and Tomlin’s decision to switch coordinators has had no impact.
The Bengals are going to want good field position. It is much harder to get receivers deep when you’re worried about being backed up against your own goal line. The Steelers defense historically plays better when they smell some blood.
Also, longer fields mean that drives can stall before the end zone more often. The Steelers should be able to put up some touchdowns. If they can trade touchdowns offensively for field goals on defense, they can win the game handily.
It all starts with how the kicks are covered. If the Steelers are consistently starting at their own 20 or inside of it while the Bengals are starting closer to midfield, Pittsburgh will be at a huge disadvantage.
I would say the most effective runner so far outside of Rashard Mendenhall’s game against the Eagles has been Baron Batch. He’s got a nose for an opening. He knows how to sneak through a hole and get some extra yards.
I’m not advocating that he suddenly ascend to the starting role, but I would like to see more of Batch than just a few carries per game. The Steelers need to find out if any of their backs can succeed behind this battered offensive line.
Batch might be that guy. He’s got a little bit of ability to cut back and change course. He also is elusive. That’s something that none of the team’s other backs have really mastered yet.
Plus—and not to put too fine a point on it—he’s healthy. The same can’t be said for Mendenhall and Isaac Redman. Jonathan Dwyer was conspicuously absent against the Titans as well, although he probably was just the odd man out.
I’d like to think that since they are now firmly an underdog, the Steelers would rise to the occasion and start beating down other teams. Unfortunately, it’s hard to have a lot of faith in a team that has performed so miserably in almost every game this year.
It has to stop. I’m going to go right at Mike Tomlin for the blame here. Part of a head coach’s job is to get his team up for a game. He has to be able to motivate in multiple ways. This team has been listless all season long and they just don’t seem to have that fire.
This all seems very odd to me because Tomlin is a fiery coach who previously showed great ability to get this team going. He needs to do it again and do it now. The Steelers can ill afford a fourth loss this early in the year.
This Pittsburgh team reminds me at least a little of the 1995 team under Bill Cowher. That team started 3-4 and looked out of it. They simply didn’t have that magic early on.
They turned it on after Bill Cowher proclaimed it a nine-game season and won all but one game the rest of the way. They rode that sudden momentum shift into the Super Bowl and nearly won that too.
That team also had some injury problems. They lost Rod Woodson for almost the entire year until he returned for the Super Bowl.
This team could go the same way. They’re 2-3 right now, but it can be an 11-game campaign where the Steelers could finish 12-4 or 11-5. The schedule plays out right and those division games against Baltimore are looking slightly more even than they did a few weeks ago.
The key is to stop the slide now and start pouring it on.
I hate to say it, but maybe the best way to handle this defense is to simply remove it from the equation. That requires changing the team’s offensive tactics from one of long drives to one of scoring as many points as possible.
The Steelers have the talent offensively to put up points in bunches against virtually any defense in the league. They could simply go for relatively quick scores (five to eight plays) and try to get a big lead early. That would put more pressure on an opponent and might force them off their game.
It would also give the defense more of a lead to work with. That could help if it relaxes them. It could also help because it might keep them from blowing the lead simply because they don’t have the chance.
The Steelers could do this for a half or even three quarters and then, if they have a sizable lead, go into a mode where they use a long drive or two to kill the clock.
I really hate to say it, but playing around this defense has become a must unless they can step up and play a full game.
Previously, I’ve harped about Willie Colon taking holding calls or making mind-numbing false starts. That’s lessened to some degree. Now the problem has become Ike Taylor and pass interference calls that keep drives alive for an opponent.
The penalties have to stop. All of them must stop. The interference calls are common in the NFL and maybe they call it too often overall. But it isn’t like crews are very inconsistent with it. They call it regularly and almost every crew views it the same.
Taylor used to be much better at playing within himself, but he’s fallen apart this year. Carnell Lake and Dick LeBeau need to sit him down and tell him to play his own game and not worry about what happened in Denver almost a year ago. He’s still haunted and it shows.
I have reservations about this, but the Steelers are weakened by the knowledge that Ryan Mundy has failed miserably at safety and that Will Allen is not a playmaker. Golden is very, very raw and he has shown a penchant for mistakes, but at this point the team has nothing to lose.
The reason I like this idea is that Golden is hungry. The team obviously kept him around for a reason and I’m fairly certain it wasn’t just to take up some space in the back of the locker room. They saw something there. Maybe it’s time to start nurturing it and bringing it out of him.
The Steelers can’t lose much by going to the rookie. He’s athletic and fast. I’m not under any illusion that he will be the next Troy Polamalu or Ryan Clark, but he doesn’t need to be. He simply needs to be steady.
Again, why not? Can the defense really get worse? I don’t think so.