NFL Week 10 Preview: Bengals V. Steelers: 10 Matchups to Watch
If you would have told your friends before the NFL season that the Cincinnati Bengals would be in first place in the AFC North heading into Week 10, they would have un-friended you on Facebook and had you committed.
But here it is, Week 10, and if the playoffs started today, the Bengals would have the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Cincinnati welcomes their arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers to Paul Brown Stadium in Week 10 of the NFL season.
The Bengals are looking to build on a come from behind victory against Tennessee and the Steelers enter the game just a game back in the loss column and looking to reclaim the divisional throne after a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9.
This game, with major playoff implications, will be decided by ten important match-ups.
Steelers WR Mike Wallace V. Bengals CB Leon Hall
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To keep the Steelers out of the end zone, the Bengals must not give up big plays to Pittsburgh wide out Mike Wallace.
Wallace uses unbelievable speed to burn secondaries for huge gains and has 868 receiving yards in 2011, third in the NFL. His six touchdowns are tied for second-most in the league and he leads the league in receptions of 40 yards or more.
Trying to slow down Wallace will be Leon Hall. Hall has only one interception in 2011, but his smothering defense is one of the major reasons Cincinnati ranks 10th in passing defense.
Ironically, it is Hall’s ability that keeps his stats low; his coverage is so strong that opposing quarterbacks do not throw his direction very often.
Hall is as fast as nearly anyone in the NFL, but will face his toughest test of the season in the form of Wallace. Mike Wallace runs deep routes like he was shot from a cannon, and Leon Hall will need safety help over the top to keep Wallace out of the end zone for four quarters.
Steelers WR V. Bengals FS Reggie Nelson
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2011 has been a Jekyll and Hyde season for Reggie Nelson.
On the Jekyll side, Nelson forced a fumble that led to a defensive touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts and an interception for a touchdown against the Seahawks. At his best, Nelson is a heady player who makes big plays in important spots.
On the Hyde side, occasionally Nelson is out of position and prone to giving up huge plays in the passing game. One of his miscues led to a wide open touchdown for the Jacksonville Jaguars in a game the Bengals eventually won.
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will attack Reggie Nelson with fast receivers running deep routes and using double-moves. Nelson must read his keys, play disciplined football and not let receivers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace behind him if the Bengals are to win on Sunday.
Steelers OT Max Starks V. Bengals DE Carlos Dunlap
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The Steelers’ offensive line has been banged up virtually all season and these injuries have forced head coach Mike Tomlin to be creative with his roster. Recently, including Week 9 against the Ravens, Pittsburgh has turned to Max Starks to shore up the offensive line and protect Ben Roethlisberger.
At 6’8”, 345lbs, Starks is an absolute monster. He is an eight-year pro who has spent his entire career with the Steelers and understands the offense.
In Week 10, Starks will be called upon to contain the relentless Cincinnati pass rush and allow Roethlisberger to read the defense and let big passing plays develop.
Bengals fans are watching an All-Pro in the making in Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap has exploded onto the national scene recently. After being held without a sack through the first six games of the season, Dunlap has six tackles and three sacks in Cincinnati’s last two games against the Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans.
Dunlap is turning into Dwight Freeney; his speed is daunting and Pittsburgh will have to use a back or tight end to chip Dunlap and keep him out of the backfield.
The big question heading into the game against the Steelers is whether Dunlap will play. He did not practice on Wednesday.
Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall V. Bengals LBs
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The Pittsburgh offense has taken a running back by committee approach this season, with Rashard Mendenhall splitting carries with Isaac Redman and change-of-pace back Mewelde Moore.
Mendenhall is the main cog in this trio, and the Bengals must shut him down to keep the Pittsburgh offense in long yardage situations on second and third down.
Cincinnati will need to prevent Mendenhall from getting to the edge, much like they did against Chris Johnson in the second half of Week 9’s game against the Titans. If middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is out for Sunday’s game, expect the Steelers to attack his replacement, Dan Skuta, in the rushing attack.
Maualuga participated in practice on Wednesday, a good sign for Bengals fans.
Steelers Def. Coordinator Dick LeBeau V. Bengals Off. Coordinator Jay Gruden
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After years of bland and predictable play calling under former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, Bengals fans believe first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was sent from the football gods themselves. His schemes are perfect for the Cincinnati roster, and he utilizes each player’s talents to maximize his offensive weaponry.
In charge of calling the plays, Gruden has a tremendous feel for knowing where to attack the defense when. He mixes short passes, long bombs and draws to keep the defense on its heels and he has never called an ill-timed screen.
Jay Gruden has been the answer to the Bengals’ offensive prayers.
Dick LeBeau may very well be the best defensive coordinator in the history of the NFL. LeBeau is a pioneer of the 3-4 defense and season after season he puts together one of the top defenses in the league.
While Gruden always seems to be a step ahead of the defenses he opposes, LeBeau has seen it all and coached against some of football’s best minds. In terms of experience, Dick LeBeau has the advantage in this chess match.
If Gruden is not creative, LeBeau will make him look like a first-year offensive coordinator.
Bengals C Kyle Cook V. Steelers NT Casey Hampton
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Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden will approach this week like any other; they want to attack the Steelers on the ground and run the ball in the middle of the field. Cincinnati’s ability to make hay on the ground will depend on whether center Kyle Cook can move Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton.
Kyle Cook might want to bring a truck.
Hampton is short for an NFL defensive lineman—he is only 6’1”—but with a listed weight of 325lbs and a low center of gravity, keeping him out of the “A” gaps will be as difficult for Cook as trying to parallel park an ice cream truck by pushing it with his bare hands.
If the Bengals inside running game is to gain any traction, it is imperative for Kyle Cook to change the line of scrimmage and win the battle against Casey Hampton. If Hampton creates havoc in the middle, the Bengals will be forced to alter their offensive game plan.
Bengals OT Andre Smith V. Steelers LB James Harrison
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After a difficult start to his NFL career, Andre Smith has played tremendously in 2011.
Given his history, Cincinnati fans have been waiting for Smith to be outclassed, but it has yet to happen. He kept the Colts’ duo of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney out of the backfield and has proven himself a solid blocker in both the running and passing attack.
If you are still waiting for the other shoe to drop for Andre Smith, Sunday might be the day because he will be charged with stopping Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
In his eighth year in the NFL, Harrison is notorious for his speed into the offensive backfield and his demoralizing hits. Just ask Mohamed Massaquoi. Andre Smith has stonewalled opposing blitzers this season, but against Harrison he may as well be trying to stop a missile.
If James Harrison blows by Andre Smith early in the game, Cincinnati will be forced to change their protections to give Smith some help. This will disrupt the Bengals’ offense and may limit their play calling.
Conversely, if Smith proves he can handle Harrison on his own, the play book will be wide open for Jay Gruden.
Bengals RB Cedric Benson V. Steelers LBs Timmons and Foote
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A.J. Green and Andy Dalton receive the lion’s share of the limelight, but Cedric Benson is the engine of the Cincinnati offense. Even if he does not gain much ground early, Benson will carry the football 15 to 25 times in an effort to wear the Steelers down so the running game can be effective in the fourth quarter.
For much of the game, Cedric Benson will be running into Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote, the teeth of the Pittsburgh linebacking corps. Timmons and Foote each have at least forty tackles this season, and they close creases quicker than any defender Benson has run against in 2011.
If the Bengals are to win the ground attack, Cedric Benson must lower his shoulders and bring the fight to Timmons and Foote. If the Steelers’ middle linebackers are the aggressors, Cincinnati may have to pass more than they are comfortable with.
Bengals WR A.J. Green V. Steelers CB Ike Taylor
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A.J. Green has been nothing short of phenomenal for the Cincinnati Bengals this season. The rookie wide receiver ranks in the top 15 in receiving yards, in the top ten with five touchdowns and third in the NFL with four catches of 40 yards or more. At season’s end, Green will be a candidate for rookie of the year.
The Bengals will not be able to beat the Steelers without a big performance from A.J. Green, but Green has played his best when the pressure has been at its highest. 320 of his 599 receptions have come in the second half this season and he has scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in 2011.
In Week 9 against Tennessee, Green seemed to grab every pass that came his way in the second half; Andy Dalton couldn’t miss him with his eyes shut. Cincinnati will need Green’s sure hands to keep momentum on their side against the Steelers.
Ike Taylor will defend Green on Sunday. Taylor does not have gaudy stats and is usually left out of any conversation about the NFL’s best defensive backs. What Taylor can be counted on for is consistency; he will compete for every pass thrown his direction and he can run step for step with just about anyone.
A nine year pro, Ike Taylor has covered some of the game’s best and will provide a formidable challenge for A.J. Green.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton V. Steelers SS Troy Polamalu
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When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, they selected a smart, efficient quarterback who motivates his teammates with gritty play and undying positivity. He is not as dynamic an athlete as fellow rookie quarterback Cam Newton, but he is a tremendous leader.
Dalton has thrown twelve touchdowns in 2011, tied for 12th best in the NFL; however, his success has come at the hands of lackluster defenses.
Andy Dalton has passed his introductory biology classes; on Sunday he graduates to advanced physics.
Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu will do his best to confuse and disrupt Andy Dalton. Expect Polamalu to line up in multiple spots and move in and out of blitzes while Dalton attempts to make his pre-snap reads. He will read Dalton’s eyes and attempt to blaze into throwing lanes before Dalton knows he is there.
If the Bengals are to prevent Troy Polamalu from being an absolute menace on the field, Andy Dalton will have to play within himself and ignore the impulse to force passes.
If Dalton tries to do too much, Polamalu will make him pay.