Thinking about the game plan for a 5-8 football team is tricky. When you are trying to come up with a game plan to take on a team that is 9-4 and on a three-game winning streak, things become even more complicated.
The mindset of the Steelers and their staff is something of a mystery at this point. Do you take these last three games, starting with the Bengals, and do everything you can to win? Or is it a case where players start to dial things down a little, try to stay healthy and begin thinking about next season?
Are young players playing for their jobs? The same question can be asked for some veterans.
Some Steelers fans threw in the towel on this season weeks ago, so their attitude likely hasn’t changed. Those fans aren’t going to like hearing this, but the Steelers have to play to win starting Sunday night.
And they can win.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin spoke with Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week about the upcoming game. “We understand the ramifications of what happened, but it really doesn't change our plan of what we want to do this week — defeat the Cincinnati Bengals,” he said.
In Pittsburgh's first game against the Bengals, the Steelers offense struggled mightily to get on track, mustering only 10 points. On the other side, the Bengals were able to move the football at will—in particular with running back Giovani Bernard, who scored two touchdowns.
A reversal of fortunes in that sense is a must this Sunday.
On the injury front, everyone should remain cautiously optimistic. ESPN 970 radio host David Todd shared this:
#Steelers injuries: Beachum & Keisel have chance to play Sun. Also limited early DeCastro, Mclendon, Woodley, Hood, Cotchery. Could have all— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) December 10, 2013
If the goal is to win, getting these guys back on the field is key. So assuming it’s all hands on deck and the team is going to go out like a lion and not a lamb, here’s the game plan for beating the Bengals.
The key component of the Steelers offense that was missing in the first game against the Bengals is running back Le’Veon Bell. The threat of a run game, if you want to call it that, amounted to a 10-carry performance by running back Felix Jones.
This Sunday, the Steelers need to feature Bell against a Bengals defense that is certainly going to be playing pass-first.
Bell provides the best chance for the Steelers to get moving on the ground and take some pressure off the pass. His combination of size and quickness has proven to be quite formidable, as he continues to pick up steam and could be poised for his first 100-yard game this Sunday.
In previous weeks, the Steelers have leaned heavily on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, using the run game only as situational football and a change of pace.
This week, the Steelers need to hit the Bengals in the mouth early with a steady dose of the run game, setting up play action.
There has to be some mystery to the offense for it to be effective. The Bengals are ranked in the top 10 in both rushing and passing yards allowed.
I've preached this for weeks, but it keeps working. Spread out the defense, put the best 11 players on the field and run the no-huddle offense. There are plenty of matchups the Steelers can win, including tight end Heath Miller over the middle and wide receiver Antonio Brown pretty much wherever he wants to go.
The best friend of the Steelers on Sunday night will be 11-personnel, putting the five best offensive weapons on the field and creating mismatches in the Bengals' secondary. The freedom to put four or even five players in the pattern will force the Bengals to play more dime and set some of their best defenders on the sidelines.
The Bengals are going to bring a balanced offense to Pittsburgh on Sunday night. That’s not to say their offense has been dynamic, though. In fact, in its balance, it has been quite middling.
Some Bengals fans are even asking for a new quarterback to replace Andy Dalton. While I think that is something of a reach, there is no denying that the Bengals offense has too many skill players not to be more effective on offense.
To clarify, it’s not that the Bengals offense cannot be explosive, it is just that the unit is very week-to-week when it comes to production. One week, it produces 430 yards of offense and 42 points against the Indianapolis Colts. Another week, it can only muster 266 yards and six points against the Cleveland Browns.
If the Steelers want to get a similar result to that of the Browns matchup, the key is to play smart assignment football.
In the first game, cornerback Ike Taylor did a tremendous job of shadowing wide receiver A.J. Green. In recent weeks, Taylor’s game has fallen off and the Steelers cannot assume he will suddenly right the ship on Sunday night.
It could be worth letting cornerback Cortez Allen take a run at Green, utilizing a safety over the top.
Even with its recent lapses, the Steelers' pass defense is still among the best in the league.
The fear is that the Bengals and that big offensive line are going to line up and just pound running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard at them until the safeties are forced to creep up. Then they will take their shots deep.
To counter this, the back four must trust in the Steelers' front to stuff the run. This means guys like safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Lawrence Timmons need to have huge games. These players must key on the running back and be sure that, even if they do not make the tackle, they force the play back where someone like defensive end Cameron Heyward can finish.
One thing the Steelers may want to avoid up front are lots of exotic pressures—at least initially. Don't use twists and stunts, creating voids that a player like Bernard can exploit with his speed in the run game.
This is a week to be smart.
Predictions and Implications
Pittsburgh can win this game, and it appears as if it really wants to win it. Even if there is very little on the line personally for the Steelers in terms of the playoffs, giving the stink eye to an AFC North foe is something to get the players ready to play.
Who will win the Sunday Night matchup?
Nevertheless, in my weekly prediction guaranteed to go wrong, I am taking the Bengals.
Cincinnati is on a roll and looking to get to the No. 2 seed in the AFC. When you think about the motivations of these two teams, it is hard to picture a scenario where the Steelers come in more prepared and focused.
A loss on Sunday would mean that the Steelers could finish no better than 7-9. They haven’t finished under .500 since 2003. That's the year before Roethlisberger took the reins of this offense.
Unless specified, all stats are courtesy of ESPN.com.