The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) travel to Cincinnati Sunday night for an important clash inside the AFC North with the Bengals (3-3).
Pittsburgh has alternated wins and losses through five games, while the Bengals blew a 3-1 start with back-to-back losses to the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns over the past two weeks.
A loss for either team would be a crippling early-season setback.
Here are the matchups that will likely decide whether Pittsburgh drops its fourth game in 2012 or the Bengals stretch their losing streak to three games Sunday night:
Steelers RB Jonathan Dwyer vs. Bengals Defensive Front Seven
The Steelers struggled to run the football in Week 6 against the Titans, averaging just 2.5 yards per attempt over 22 carries (56 yards). Ben Roethlisberger had 14 of those yards on one scramble. It cost them late while trying to hold a lead.
The Steelers are now ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing (74.8 yards/game) this season, which isn't good enough for this football team. To make matters worse, both Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman likely won't play Sunday night.
It will be on Dwyer, a guy that impressed earlier this season before getting hurt, to pick up the slack in the running game. The Bengals have allowed 116.8 yards a game on the ground this season, so Dwyer needs to have an impact in moving the chains and keeping the Steelers in favorable down-and-distances.
Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green
In just his second season, Green has established himself as one of the game's best receivers. Green's 628 yards is first in the NFL, while his six touchdowns only trail the seven from James Jones in Green Bay.
Taylor will draw Green for most of Sunday night, and this has been a tough matchup for the Steelers' No. 1 cornerback since Green came into the NFL last season. In two career games against Pittsburgh, Green has seven catches for 123 yards and two scores—most of which has come against Taylor.
The Steelers will likely attempt to bracket Green with Taylor and safety Ryan Clark, but expecting Green to stay quiet Sunday is optimistic considering his hot start to 2012. Taylor just needs to limit the overall damage.
Steelers Interior DL vs. Bengals DT Geno Atkins
Atkins may be the best defensive lineman no one in the NFL knows enough about.
According to Pro Football Focus, only J.J. Watt (3-4 DE) and Cameron Wake (4-3 DE) have better overall grades than Atkins among defensive linemen this season. Atkins has six sacks, three quarterback hits and 14 hurries, plus 20 stops (tackles that constitute a negative play for the offense) against the run this season.
The Steelers will likely have to counter the dominant Atkins with Doug Legursky, who would play if starter Maurkice Pouncey (knee) can't go Sunday night. Guards Ramon Foster and Willie Colon will also draw Atkins on some plays.
Expect the Steelers to double-team Atkins to make sure he can't single-handedly blow up what Pittsburgh wants to do offensively, especially in the downfield passing game.
Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley vs. Bengals RT Andre Smith
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth vs. outside linebacker James Harrison is another matchup to watch, but Woodley-Smith has more juice.
Woodley, who missed Thursday night's loss to the Tennessee Titans after injuring his hamstring against Philadelphia, returns to face a team he has dominated recently. In his past four games against the Bengals, Woodley has tallied five sacks. In fact, Woodley's eight career sacks in this series is his top total against any NFL team.
Smith has been solid in pass protection this season, allowing just one sack and 11 hurries over 256 pass-blocking snaps. If Smith can keep Woodley from hanging out in Andy Dalton's lap, the Bengals should have chances to hurt the Steelers in the passing game.
Bengals Secondary vs. Steelers WRs
Cincinnati should have better statistics against the pass than they do in 2012, especially when you consider the Bengals have had early-season games against quarterbacks Brandon Weeden (twice), Ryan Tannehill and Blaine Gabbert. Yet Cincinnati ranks 17th against the pass at almost 230 yards allowed a game.
The receiving crew from Pittsburgh may represent the most difficult matchup to date for Cincinnati.
Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can all stretch the field vertically and find soft spots when Roethlisberger escapes the pocket. The Bengals will need to be better at limiting the big plays downfield than they were last week, especially against a passing offense that lives off explosive gains.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!