The Bengals, one of three AFC North playoff teams from last season, are currently 3-3 and embroiled in the same fight for divisional dominance as the Steelers.
Pittsburgh has yet to win a game on the road and is dealing with injuries to a number of its key starters. Thus, there's nothing easy about this game, though that also doesn't mean the Steelers cannot win.
Here's a two-step game plan for how they can get the better of the Bengals this week.
Stopping Andy Dalton
For two straight weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals have lost thanks to mistakes made by their second-year quarterback Andy Dalton. Despite Dalton throwing four touchdowns in those two games, he also threw five picks (of his total of nine on the year), was sacked five times and fumbled the ball away once.
A combination of pressure up front and good coverage on his receivers in the secondary forced Dalton into making bad throws, which resulted in both picks and incompletions.
If the Steelers want to win on Sunday night, they'll have to make it three bad games in a row for Dalton.
Despite the Steelers defense ranking in the top 10 against both the run and the pass, they still have a record under .500. A more conservative passing offense that is by and large operating without a run game has something to do with this, as does the underwhelming defense that's being hidden by its strong yards-against numbers.
It's not about the yards the Steelers defense is or isn't not giving up—it's more about what opposing offenses are doing with them.
Pittsburgh ranks 22nd in passing touchdowns allowed per game while the Bengals offense ranks fifth in passing touchdowns earned per game, at 2.2. As such, the Steelers need to be more concerned with preventing scoring plays and not just plays themselves if they are to beat Cincinnati on Sunday.
The Bengals are a far better passing team than they are on the ground, averaging only 99.3 rushing yards per game. They'll again be throwing the ball heavily on Sunday—heading into this week, they're passing an average of 36 times per game, compared to 25.7 rushes.
Considering that struggling Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor (who has given up four touchdowns this year, along with amassing seven penalties) will likely be matched up with top Bengals receiver A.J. Green (along with some safety help), Pittsburgh will be exposed to giving up scoring plays. It needs to limit this as best it can, and its safest bet is to stop Dalton from throwing well in the first place.
For this to happen, however, the Steelers must get more production out of their pass rush. Without safety Troy Polamalu—who is again out this week—as well as situational pass-rushing linebacker Chris Carter, the Steelers have just one active defender with a positive pass rush grade: linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Five of Dalton's interceptions have come while under no pressure—that is, from errant throws, tipped passes, good coverage or bad routes. The other four are directly related to the pass rush forcing him to throw while hurried.
The two issues are connected, however. Dalton's non-pressured picks are a result of the ones he's thrown under pressure—he's knocked off his rhythm.
Getting to Dalton is the best way for the Steelers to limit the Bengals' passing game. Corners Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen, as well as safety Ryan Clark, who is having quite the season for himself (though for auspicious reasons like the front seven struggling with tackling), will also be called upon to close off Dalton's other receivers.
They should have more success with their assignments than Taylor on Green, which will help matters. But there is no way the Bengals can be effective on offense without Dalton playing well; the more the Steelers can emulate what both the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins did in the past two weeks, the better their chances to win.
Keep Ben Roethlisberger Protected
Though Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked just 10 times this year, that's still an average of two per game, and if the Bengals keep rushing the passer at the rate they have thus far, he's set to be taken down more than that on Sunday.
Complicating matters for Roethlisberger is a "minor" ankle sprain he suffered in practice on Thursday, which could limit his trademark mobility (we all saw how last season's more severe ankle sprain did so), and that rookie Mike Adams will be taking over as starter at right tackle while Marcus Gilbert recovers from a torn tendon in his ankle.
Protection for Roethlisberger has been pretty solid this year, considering he was sacked 40 times last season. But with Adams in for Gilbert—who showed in the preseason that his run-blocking is much stronger than his pass protection—and Roethlisberger somewhat hobbled, the quarterback may just be a sitting duck for the Bengals' pass rush.
The Bengals have had a lot of success with their defensive line by employing a rotational approach. It's a less specialized, more well-rounded group than last year, which further helps the element of disguise inherent to their rotation.
Geno Atkins leads the group with six sacks, and defensive end Michael Johnson isn't far behind, with five. All but three of their defensive linemen have at least one sack, and two of those three have played fewer than 70 snaps this season.
Cincinnati's linebackers have gotten in on the pass rush party as well. Of the six linebackers who have played 60 or more snaps, only Rey Maualuga and Dan Skuta have yet to sack a quarterback.
The Steelers have needed to rely almost exclusively on their passing game—they rank just 31st in rushing yards per game, at 74.8. And this week, their running game has taken an even bigger hit, with both Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman out, meaning that Baron Batch and Jonathan Dwyer will have to carry the full load.
Batch is averaging 2.1 yards per carry and Dwyer 2.9, so it doesn't appear likely that their run game is going to experience an upswing this week.
As such, the Bengals defense is going to be unrelenting in its pursuit of Roethlisberger. With his ankle not at 100 percent and Adams helping protect him, Cincinnati could be extremely successful in this venture.
The Steelers will need to bolster their offensive line with tight ends and running backs and speed up their passes. This may limit Roethlisberger's downfield game, with less time to get deep passes out, but it will help ensure he stays upright and can move the ball, which is their only true hope to keep drives alive.
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