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Steelers vs. Bengals: 10 Keys to Watch During Heated AFC North Showdown

Cody MeadowsCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2016

Steelers vs. Bengals: 10 Keys to Watch During Heated AFC North Showdown

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    For a team predicted to finish the season in last place, the Cincinnati Bengals are playing awfully well. In fact, they currently sit in first place in the AFC North.

    I'll admit it, I was one of these people who had the Bengals winning three or four games.

    The Bengals were coming into this season with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and a dark shadow cast by disgruntled former quarterback Carson Palmer. Running back Cedric Benson had been in and out of trouble as well, I thought for sure he would be long gone before the season ended.

    Surprisingly enough, everything has gone right for a team that has gotten used to everything going wrong.

    Andy Dalton has been solid, and Cedric Benson has been playing well too. Carson Palmer was finally traded to the Oakland Raiders at the trade deadline. Had it not been for an injury to Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell a deal probably would have never been done.

    As it stands, the Bengals will get at least one first round draft pick from the Raiders, possibly two depending on how they finish the season with Palmer. Either way, the Bengals got the better of this deal.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the thick of things, a game back in the AFC North behind both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens. This game is a must-win for the Steelers, who can't afford another loss in the AFC North after dropping another game to the Ravens.

    This isn't unfamiliar territory for the Steelers, who are used to having to fight their way into the playoffs. The last time the Steelers lost two games to the Baltimore Ravens, they won the Super Bowl.

    The focus for both teams will be to make the playoffs regardless of seed. It will be interesting to see how this talented, young Bengals team performs when a game means something.

    Read on to see 10 keys to watch for in this AFC North showdown.

Will Ben Roethlisberger Take Care of the Football?

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    Ben Roethlisberger has been good more often than not throughout his career. Even when he has a bad game, he tends to keep the Pittsburgh Steelers within striking distance.

    The key for Ben this weekend is to take care of the football. The interception last weekend was a key reason the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals defense is playing great football this season, so points may be hard to come by.

    Big Ben still needs to do what he does; that's who he is. By that, I mean he needs to play his game. Run around back there and extend the play but don't force any passes.

    If the Bengals defense gets a hold of him, he needs to be willing to either launch the ball out of bounds or hold it tight and take the sack. Punting the ball is much better than giving a team great field position on a fumble recovery or interception. 

    With Ben, you have to take the bad with the good. He makes some bone-headed plays, but can also make plays that nobody else could. The pass to Santonio Holmes in the closing seconds of Super Bowl XLIII that beat the Arizona Cardinals is an example of this. That is a play only a gunslinger can make, and you can't think in those situations!

    Most quarterbacks would second-guess themselves and not even try that pass. This is why I compare Ben to Brett Favre, only he is a better decision maker.

    Ben has completed 63.2 percent of his passes, totaling 2,632 yards with 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season.

Is Andy Dalton Ready to Take the Next Step?

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    Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has played extremely well this season. He certainly has had a lot of pressure on him with all of the turmoil in Cincinnati and has handled it like a veteran.

    He could have just as easily panicked when asked to start, but he took full advantage of the opportunity. He makes good decisions with the football and commands respect from his offense. Make no mistake, he has become the leader of this team. 

    My question leading up to this game for the "Red Rifle" is simple. Are you ready to take the next step? Winning six games to this point is great, but can he beat the rival Pittsburgh Steelers when they absolutely must win this game?

    Dalton hasn't faced a defense like the great Dick LeBeau's yet. He will need to make quick decisions and take what the Steelers give him.

    If he can do this and plays within himself, the Bengals can win this game. It isn't all on Andy Dalton, but offensively, he must play smart to keep his team in the game. He needs to manage the game rather than try to win it himself. 

    Dalton has completed 61.5 percent of his passes, totaling 1,696 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Pittsburgh Steelers Defense Must Force Turnovers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers defense is good, but not great, as it has been for so long. The Steelers are giving up over 110 yards rushing a game, unheard of for a Dick LeBeau defense!

    Even more shocking, however, is the fact that the Steelers are third in the league against the pass. Giving up just over 184 yards a game through the air, the Steelers secondary has stepped up their game.

    I've noticed that the defensive backs are playing right up on the receiver this season, as opposed to giving the usual five-yard cushion.

    The Steelers turnover differential is still minus 10, a number that must start to change for the better.

    The lack of pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on that late fourth quarter drive was astonishing. If the Steelers defense allows Andy Dalton the same luxury, they will lose this game.

    The Steelers defensive scheme relies on pressure, and without that, it isn't tough to beat at all. Watch the Super Bowl from last season, or any of the Steelers three losses this season, for proof of this.

    It's like peanut butter without jelly: not nearly as good.

Cincinnati Bengals Defense Must Attack, Attack, Attack!

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    The Cincinnati Bengals defense simply needs to keep doing what they have done all season. Attack at all times, and don't sit back and wait for something to happen.

    Watching this Bengals defense is odd simply because they are playing aggressive this season. I don't know if it's all of the added youth or if they are finally coming together as a team. There have been a lot of talented players on the Bengals defense for several years, but they never seemed to play as a team.

    The Bengals are statistically a top-five defense right now, and they play like it. They are only giving up 84.5 yards rushing a game and 216.8 passing.

    The defense has forced 20 sacks already, and it seems like more when you watch the Bengals play. They are relentless pressuring the quarterback and rarely miss tackles. They often hit running backs before they get going and gang tackle frequently. Unlike Bengals teams of the past, there aren't many arm tacklers out there!

    This will be key against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is as hard to tackle as anybody in the NFL.

    Rashard Mendenhall has a tendency to fumble the football, so look for the Bengals to exploit this. Ben Roethlisberger also has several fumbles this season.

    While they have played much better as of late, the Steelers offensive line has several weaknesses. 

    Will the Bengals defense continue to play at a high level, or will Ben Roethlisberger figure them out?

Who Will Win the Special Teams Battle?

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    As we all know, special teams can win or lose a football game.

    The Cincinnati Bengals have a much more reliable field goal kicker in Mike Nugent than the Pittsburgh Steelers do in Shaun Suisham. Mike Nugent has been nearly perfect, making 16 of 17 field goals so far this season. Shaun Suisham has made 15 of 20 field goals and never looks confident out there.

    Returning kicks is a tossup, but the Steelers have the edge. Antonio Brown averages 28.7 yards a return for the Steelers and is due to break one open for a touchdown. The guy is as explosive and shifty as it gets, and he's been close a couple of times. 

    For the Cincinnati Bengals, Brandon Tate averages 24 yards per kick return and has scored once on a punt return. He isn't as explosive as Antonio Brown, but he's deceptive and quick.  

    If either team can establish an edge in field position, it will play a huge role in the outcome of the game.

Cedric Benson

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    Cedric Benson is having a great season.

    I expected him to be run to death with a rookie quarterback in there, but that isn't the case. He gets a lot of carries, but not to the point he's worn down physically. He looks fresh out there due in large part to the Bengals' balanced attack working so well.

    The Steelers have given up 110 yards rushing per game; this isn't the vaunted run defense we are used to.

    So far this season, Cedric has run the ball 137 times for 539 yards and two touchdowns. While he hasn't scored a lot, he does average 3.9 yards per carry and hasn't fumbled the ball yet. He isn't a good fantasy back, but he does just fine on the football field! 

    If he can keep the Steelers defense honest, it will go a long way towards winning this game for the Bengals. If not, look for Dalton to have a long day with several visits from James Harrison.

Rashard Mendenhall

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    Rashard Mendenhall isn't having a great season so far, but this doesn't mean he isn't dangerous.

    In fact, his numbers look bad because the Pittsburgh Steelers are a pass-first team now. When he does get called upon, it's usually into a stacked line or a draw play.

    I look for the Steelers to change the game plan a bit and favor the run this weekend. As good as the Bengals have been against the run, they will be focused on stopping Ben Roethlisberger first and foremost.

    Because of this, Mendenhall will need to use his deceptive speed and power to put the Steelers in third-and-short situations. All too often, the Steelers get stuck in third and long, which eliminates any question for opposing defenses. They know a pass is coming, and it puts the Steelers in bad situations.

    If Mendenhall can assert himself, the Steelers have a good chance to win Sunday. 

Young Money Crew vs. Fearsome Foursome

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    This football game will feature a lot of talent at the wide receiver and tight end positions.

    While the "Young Money Crew" of the Pittsburgh Steelers is missing Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown will still be a tough pair to handle. Add to this veterans Hines Ward, Jerricho Cotchery and Heath Miller, and you have plenty of targets for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

    Mike Wallace has 47 receptions for 868 yards and six touchdowns, while Antonio Brown has 39 receptions for 540 yards and a touchdown. Both of these guys can stretch the field, and Mike Wallace is one of the biggest deep threats in the NFL.

    The "Fearsome Foursome" of A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham and Andre Caldwell have 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,400 yards between them. A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson have shown the ability to stretch the field as well, with the others being reliable and sure-handed.

    Green is a worthy Rookie of the Year candidate, well on his way to a 1,000-yard, 10 touchdown season. He and Andy Dalton already have good chemistry going that will be around for years to come.

    This is too close to call with all of the talent available to both Roethlisberger and Dalton. We could just as easily see a shootout as we could a defensive struggle.

Time of Possesion

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    It goes without saying, but time of possession will play a huge role in this game. Having long, sustained drives can be just as good as scoring points if your team builds an early lead.

    Looking back at the Steelers' last couple of games, we can see both sides of this point.

    Against the New England Patriots, the Steelers had the ball nearly 20 minutes more. This kept Tom Brady off of the field, unable to gain momentum and rhythm offensively.

    Last weekend against the Baltimore Ravens, the Ravens had the ball nearly ten minutes longer than the Steelers. Most importantly for the Ravens, they got the ball last and ran out the clock.

    I would bet that no matter the sport, teams who control the clock win more often than not. It won't be any different for this game either. 

Will the Bengals Have a Home Field Advantage, or Will the Road Warriors Prevail?

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    The game may be in Cincinnati, but will the Bengals have home field advantage?

    No matter where the Pittsburgh Steelers play, it seems as though Steelers Nation takes over. It's a short drive for most Steelers fans, and you can bet they will be out in full force.

    I truly believe the Bengals need a great home crowd this weekend. If they don't, and the Steelers get a lead early, Andy Dalton will feel like he's on the road.

    It may seem meaningless, but crowds can affect games. Take the Indianapolis Colts home games, for example. It is always difficult for road teams to hear their offensive signals, which results in numerous false starts.

    I've even heard rumors that they pipe in crowd noise, but who knows for sure? It sounds unbelievably loud on TV, when the Colts are good anyway!

    Point is, crowd noise is a huge part of any game and could provide the Bengals an advantage.

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