The Pittsburgh Steelers have an opportunity this week to right the ship after as bad a start to a season as one could imagine.
After failing to gain 200 yards of offense against the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers must find a way (with a patchwork offensive line and mediocre running back talent, no less) to move the football while taking the heat off franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
There is no doubt: This week's task is daunting. The Cincinnati Bengals have a much more potent offense than the Titans. However, in a surprising twist of fate, the Bengals' highly touted defense struggled against the Chicago Bears.
Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 52-33, but the Bengals swept the Steelers in 2012, which was the first time that happened since 1998.
With 63 appearances, the Steelers are no strangers to Monday Night Football. Their record on Monday night is 40-23, with their first win coming in 1970 over the Bengals.
But enough about history—let's delve into the state of the franchise as we approach this pivotal AFC North showdown.
Roethlisberger did his very best to keep the Steelers in the game last week. This week, the plan has to be to let "Ben be Ben," so to speak. Allowing the "Sultan of Sandlot" to move and improvise could be key to the Steelers' success.
Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer will be charged with trying to move the football on the ground this week. The key for them will be to play within themselves and not try to do too much on offense.
The Steelers receivers struggled to deal with physical coverage last week. This week, they must be ready to continue to work to get open and fight for the football. Working back to the football to help out a scrambling Roethlisberger could pay dividends, as this group remains deadly after the catch.
Once again, we can expect this tight end group to be relegated to primarily a blocking role. Assuming Kelvin Beachum is back in a reserve role this week, expect to see him play some tight end in run sets. Marcus Gilbert probably won’t turn away some extra help on the right side.
This group took a physical beating on Sunday against a motivated Titans defensive front. Assuming this Steelers team cannot suddenly become a punishing physical offensive line, it will be up to the coaches to scheme better to account for this unit's problems, which seem abundant.
The defensive line was largely unheralded (likely because of the jaw-dropping inefficiencies of the offense); nevertheless, it played well on Sunday. Everyone is healthy and ready to roll on Monday night. This unit could make a big difference if it can be disruptive.
This group is another that will have a new starter this week. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had a great day passing against the Bears defense, so it is crucial for this group to find a way to keep the pressure on him. If they can, some capable safeties are running around to help capitalize on errant decisions.
Against the Titans, the Steelers secondary played solidly, albeit passively, in coverage. It's also worth nothing that when the starting safeties were the top two tacklers, something went wrong up front.
It remains uncertain who the starting kicker will be this week, so do not be surprised with any kind of performance turned in by the special teams unit.
The week’s offense has to take what the Bengals give in the run game and create manageable situations on second and third down. Clearly, this was a team that was counting on tremendous production out of rookie running back Le'Veon Bell. I would not be surprised to hear that running backs coach Kirby Wilson tried to get Mr. Miyagi on the phone to speed his rook’s healing.
Instead of Bell, the Steelers are relying upon Redman and Dwyer. So, what’s to be expected? Against a tough Bengals defense, they must pick their spots and commit zero errors. It isn't always about trying to break the long run. Neither Dwyer nor Redman is capable of that anyway, but they appear to have it in their heads that they are.
The coaching staff must convince them to hit the creases harder and quicker than usual while also minimizing negative carries. A scenario of 2nd-and-7 is much more palatable than 2nd-and-11.
In the passing game, Pittsburgh has to find a way to get its speedy receivers open in space. Whether the Steelers use bunch formations, bubble screens or quick passes against soft coverage, they must find a way to get rid of the ball quickly—particularly in spots where the receivers can run after the catch.
The offensive line may see a new starter if center Fernando Velasco is ready to step in. If not, backup Kelvin Beachum will likely take every snap. This throws off what the Steelers want to do, primarily because they had been lining Beachum up as an extra tight end in their two-tight end sets.
It's fair to assume that Velasco ends up starting in an attempt to bolster what appears to be a stagnant run game.
Overall, it will be key to play tempo football against the Bengals. Quick runs and passes will create a rhythm, mask flaws in talent and keep the Bengals off balance.
One school of thought is to use coverage, double-teams and a bracket zone to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible. The problem with that is that overcompensating for a talent like Green might leave other pass-catchers open to make plays.
The other way to look at it is to play him straight up and hope he doesn't get the best of the defense. When it comes to a wide receiver, this is a sound strategy. Committing an extra man to Green is fine, but focusing the secondary on him would leave tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham in positions to carve up the defense like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.
In fact, how the Steelers manage these two massive targets will have an impact on who’s in the win column. Last week against Chicago, both Eifert and Gresham displayed athleticism and may prove to be matchup nightmares for the Steelers.
One look in particular that Pittsburgh must defend comes when the Bengals line Eifert up on the left. Then, at the snap, he drags down behind the line of scrimmage, almost like a pull for a run play. But instead, quarterback Andy Dalton rolls right, and Eifert heads to the right flat. The play is challenging to defend, and Cincinnati used it effectively several times against Chicago.
A few more big plays like this one from Troy Polamalu wouldn't hurt either.
The plan of attack has to be simple. The Steelers must contain the Bengals' run game led by BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard while focusing on pressuring Dalton. Green, Eifert and Gresham are too dangerous to trust this, or any other secondary, to take care of.
If there was ever such a thing as a must-win game in Week 2, this is it. For as poor a performance as the Steelers put on last week, it can all be forgotten with one division win. The Bengals are stinging from a tough loss as well, so plenty is at stake.
Unless specified, all stats provided were courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.
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