The Bengals played well and mounted a second-half comeback in their first crack at Pittsburgh, but fell just short of a win at Paul Brown Stadium.
Cincinnati has proven they can hang with the Steelers, but 10 important questions linger over the Bengals as they take to the gridiron in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh wide receivers torched Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings in Week 8. Mike Wallace, who has 55 receptions on the year, caught six balls against Cincinnati, while Antonio Brown had five receptions. Neither scored, but both were key in the Steelers’ ability to maintain possession and control the clock.
Leon Hall did rack up an interception in the contest, but he left the game with an Achilles injury and is out for the season.
Wallace and Brown were so effective against Cincinnati because the corners played soft coverage out of fear that they would be burned down the field if they played too closely to Pittsburgh's dynamic receiving duo. This allowed Ben Roethlisberger to hit his receivers on hot routes and let them make plays in the open field.
If Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer plans on playing tight coverage against Wallace and Brown, safeties Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson must cover the deep areas of the field to prevent big plays.
In the first meeting between these two AFC North rivals, the Bengals offensive line played well. The big men in the trenches were not confused by Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex schemes or exotic blitzes, and they did not allow a single sack.
But in Week 10, the Bengals did not have to contend with Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Woodley has not played since Week 8 due to injury. Even though the beastly five-year pro has missed three games this season, he still has nine sacks, good enough for seventh in the NFL.
In their first meeting, the only linebacker who threatened Cincinnati with the blitz was James Harrison. Woodley will give the Bengals another strong, speedy linebacker to account for in the passing game.
If Woodley picks up where he left off in Week 8, as one of the most destructive forces in the league, he will cripple the Bengals passing game with pressure and hits on quarterback Andy Dalton.
The Bengals have surprised so many people this season because they are early. No one expected them to be this good this soon.
With a roster loaded with inexperienced talent, it is unknown whether the team yet has the mental makeup to sustain a postseason push. Rarely can a young, overachieving team make the playoffs in their first year as a unit. It is more common for young teams, even talented ones, to take their lumps and narrowly miss the playoffs in their first attempt. However, the Bengals are still mathematically in play.
A win Sunday would prove they will not crack under the pressure of high expectations.
Cedric Benson was in need of a big game heading into the Bengals Week 12 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. He had not rushed for over 80 yards since Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills and appeared to have lost a step since the first half of the season.
In the second round of the Battle of Ohio, Ced returned to form to batter the Browns. Benson had 21 carries for 106 yards, an astounding five yards per rush, and added a touchdown. He wore down the Cleveland defense with power runs that had been absent in the previous two games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
It is too early to tell if Benson can carry his performance against the Browns into Heinz Field against the Steelers. After all, the Browns have the fourth-worst rush defense in the NFL, and the Steelers have the sixth best.
Benson will face tough sledding on Sunday, but the Bengals will need him to wear down the Pittsburgh D and turn it on in the fourth quarter as he did early in the season if they are to leave Steel Town with a victory.
These are not your father’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
These are not even Bill Cowher’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
The running game is not as vital to their offensive success as it used to be in Pittsburgh, but offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will still turn to the running attack to pick up first downs in short-yardage situations and to set up the play-action pass.
In their first meeting, the Bengals D gave up a combined 69 rushing yards to Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, the Steelers two main running threats. Cincinnati must crush the Steelers ground game again in Week 13 to put Pittsburgh in 3rd-and-long situations.
Where the Bengals run defense must improve is in red-zone play. Although they only allowed Mendenhall 44 rushing yards in the first matchup, they also allowed him to score twice. When Pittsburgh gets in scoring position, the defense must explode off the snap, change the line of scrimmage and protect the end zone.
It will not matter how few yards the Bengals give up on the ground if Pittsburgh can run in the red zone—where it matters most.
Most NFL tight ends are safety valves. Jermaine Gresham is a weapon.
Over the past three weeks, all in games against AFC North opponents, Gresham has been on a tear. In Week 10 against the Steelers, Gresham hauled in four passes, including a late-game touchdown to keep the Bengals in it.
Against Baltimore in Week 11, Gresham caught three passes for 48 yards and had a touchdown controversially reversed. The Bengals had to settle for a field goal on this drive, and the reversal stalled Cincinnati’s momentum.
Last week in a fourth-quarter comeback victory over the Cleveland Browns, Gresham, in his second year out of Oklahoma, caught five passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden needs to utilize Gresham’s size and incredible hands to keep the Bengals offense running. If Gresham continues his outstanding play, Cincinnati will never be out of the game.
Andy Dalton has been impressive in his first season under center in the league, and his name is being bantered about in NFL Rookie of the Year conversation. No one anticipated he would play as well as he has thus far in 2011, and he has proven himself the leader Cincinnati was longing for.
Despite his rocket arm and leadership skills, Dalton has looked like a rookie in important spots this season. He threw two of his twelve interceptions in the first game against the Steelers, and while the blame for one of them may fall on a receiver who gave up on a route, Dalton can ill afford to take chances and make mistakes against a team like Pittsburgh.
The “Red Rifle” also made critical mistakes against the Ravens. He threw three interceptions and lost a fumble against Baltimore and committed an intentional grounding penalty that helped kill the Bengals final drive.
In fairness, the team has put Andy Dalton in situations where he has to take chances. When any quarterback, rookie or veteran, has to drop back and pass most of the second half because the team is in a hole, interceptions and mental errors will happen.
To beat the Steelers in their backyard, Dalton will be most effective if he can play conservatively. If he has to force passes in an attempt to complete another fourth-quarter comeback, he will likely make a rookie mistake that will cost the Bengals the game.
The Cincinnati defensive front pestered Ben Roethlisberger in the last three quarters of their Week 10 game. They flushed Big Ben from the pocket and closed the pocket before he was ready. They roughed him up and sacked him five times.
If only the Bengals played with that intensity the entire game.
In the opening quarter, Roethlisberger dictated the pace of each play and had as long as he wanted to find open receivers. He gashed the Bengals for 14 quick points, and Cincinnati found itself playing catchup the entire game.
Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals best defensive lineman, did not practice Thursday and is unlikely to play against the Steelers due to a hamstring injury. He will be sorely missed by the defensive unit, as he was blossoming into a ferocious player before he was hurt. Even without Dunlap, the Bengals must throw Ben Roethlisberger off his game for the full 60 minutes to win on Sunday.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have some of the best fans in all of sports, and these fans give the team a distinct home-field advantage. The loud and proud Steel-town faithful will greet the young Cincinnati team, terrible towels in hand, with all the warmth of the Roman Colosseum. Pittsburgh fans will scream for blood, and the players will be happy to oblige them.
The Bengals have played in high-profile road games against Tennessee and Baltimore, and in the case of the Week 9 game against the Titans, Cincinnati came away with a win. In Baltimore, the crowd noise (tame, by Pittsburgh standards) adversely affected the team, and it showed in pre-snap penalties and the play of Andy Dalton.
Against the Ravens, Dalton looked frantic in spots and threw some passes that would make Tim Tebow shake his head. Dalton and his teammates must succeed early to build their own confidence, quiet the Heinz Field crowd and erase Pittsburgh’s home-field advantage.
The easy answer: probably not.
The last time these two teams hooked up, it appeared Pittsburgh had no answer for A.J. Green. He outran Ryan Clark. He mixed it up with Troy Polamalu. He outworked both of them to make one of the sickest touchdown catches of the 2011 NFL season.
On the same play, Green suffered a knee injury, and the Bengals best deep threat was out of the game.
After sitting out against Baltimore, Green returned in Week 12 with a three-reception, 110-yard game against Cleveland. One of his catches was a 51-yard strike that put the Bengals in position to score.
Pittsburgh is lucky Green left the game in Week 10. The Steelers biggest defensive liability is the secondary, and Green is on the cusp of becoming an elite receiver.
He may be jammed off the line of scrimmage, he may be double covered, but A.J. Green will make big plays against the Steelers. Perhaps the real question is, how many?