The course of the Steelers season could change with this game. It is their first game against an AFC North opponent and a win would keep them in the race. But if they come out with another road loss, their season may be over.
A struggling ground game and a porous defense have been two of the main contributors to the 2-3 record to start the season. These holes have been particularly glaring on the road, where the Steelers have lost all three of their games.
Things do not get any easier on Sunday night as the Steelers are on the road for the fourth time in six games.
The 3-3 Bengals have lost two in a row, but have one of the best receivers in the league in A.J. Green and will use him as they try to end a two-game losing streak.
Pittsburgh certainly has an excellent shot at beating the Bengals, but given their performance this season, it will be a struggle if they expect to come out with a victory.
As each week goes by, the Steelers’ injury report gets bigger and bigger. There is no exception this week.
Mike Tomlin has already ruled out Troy Polamalu, Marcus Gilbert and Chris Carter—three areas where the Steelers have been struggling this year.
Pittsburgh’s secondary has had trouble this season, particularly since Polamalu has been out of the lineup and they are getting no help from the pass rush.
Not out of the ordinary, but the offensive line has been disappointing this year as well. While the pass protection has been better, the run blocking is virtually non-existent and now the Steelers will have to depend on rookie Mike Adams to replace Gilbert at right tackle.
Adams does have a strong presence in the ground game where he can be a devastating run blocker, but he leaves a lot to be desired in pass protection and can be a liability. It may mean that the Steelers will have to keep Heath Miller in to help out.
Besides these injuries, the Steelers are banged up elsewhere with Maurkice Pouncey, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman all listed as questionable for the game.
On top of this, Ben Roethlisberger injured his ankle in practice on Thursday but will play as will LaMarr Woodley, who is returning to action after sitting out against the Titans.
These injuries aren’t just to any players either, but to many key starters who do not have backups who can play anywhere near their level.
Non-Existent Pass Rush
Injuries to Woodley and James Harrison have slowed the Steelers pass rush, as the team only has 11 sacks through five games.
The two star outside linebackers have combined for three of these sacks while Lawrence Timmons doesn’t have any.
Without any pass rush, the defense is suffering, especially in the fourth quarter where they have blown multiple leads to lose games.
Besides not getting sacks, the Steelers’ defense just is not getting pressure on the opposing quarterback.
The defensive line has combined for three sacks and has not been able to generate much pressure. Part of the reason may be the fact that Casey Hampton is still starting ahead of Steve McLendon.
Hampton is exclusively a run-stuffer at this point of his career and he has seen better days. Meanwhile, McLendon can barely get on the field despite the ability to defend against the run and put pressure on the quarterback.
With Woodley and Harrison struggling to stay on the field, the backup outside linebackers have not got the job done and the Steelers can’t depend on Larry Foote and Timmons to blitz.
Jason Worilds leads the team with three sacks, but he does much better when he has free space, as he lacks the moves and power to win one-on-one battles, and Carter has offered very little.
The lack of pressure has also resulted in a lack of turnovers as the team has only forced six turnovers this season.
Pittsburgh could turn this around this weekend against Andy Dalton, as he has been sacked 17 times this year and has thrown nine interceptions.
However, until the Steelers’ defense can generate consistent pressure on the quarterback, they will continue to struggle.
Since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007, the Steelers are 8-7 in road prime-time games, including 0-2 this season.
Even in several of their wins, the Steelers weren’t particularly impressive against some of the worst teams in the league.
This season has not been any better as the Steelers have lost to the Denver Broncos and Tennessee Titans in two games that they should have won.
Now, for the third time this year the Steelers will play on the road at night and they cannot afford to drop another game, especially one against a division opponent.
For whatever reason, the Steelers struggle in the hostile environment that comes along with road prime-time games.
Part of that reason may be the lack of a running game. The crowd noise has a clear impact when the Steelers are trying to throw the ball around the field and Pittsburgh simply settles for too many field goals when away from Heinz Field.
Whether it is the lack of preparation or a mental hurdle, Pittsburgh needs a better road performance this week if they want to get their season back on track.
The Steelers have a chance at winning this game, but if they do, expect it to be a tight game. Between the injuries and battling crowd noise, the Steelers have many obstacles that they must overcome if they want to get back to .500.
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