Bengals vs. Steelers Preview: 10 Keys to a Cincinnati Victory in Pittsburgh
There's nothing quite like Steeler week. Despite the intimidating task that awaits the Bengals on Sunday, fans and players alike look forward to Steeler week like no other.
The Bengals come into this one with high expectations after a strong showing in their first encounter that proved they can and should be able to beat the AFC North's elite teams despite their youth.
With a wild-card playoff spot hanging in the balance, a win at Heinz Field would go a long way towards getting the Bengals to 10 wins and a shot at the postseason.
With our renewed expectations at the ready, let's examine, as always, the 10 keys to a Cincinnati Bengals victory.
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In their first meeting, it was turnovers that cost the Bengals gravely in pursuit of a fourth quarter comeback at Paul Brown Stadium.
Big Ben had his way through the air for 223 yards, and it will be up to the Bengals secondary to step in and make some plays on Sunday to prevent that occurring again.
Roethlisberger targeted nine different receivers in Week 10, and the Bengals will need to capitalise on errant throws and confusion that this could bring if employed once again.
Turnovers helped the Bengals seal a victory against Cleveland at the weekend, and they will prove more than important in keeping this one close, especially with the difficulty that will yet again face Andy Dalton.
Pittsburgh has turned the ball over 18 times in 2011 and post a turnover ratio of -8. The Bengals need to capitalise on those numbers and put some points up on the board from Steeler mistakes.
A Big Game from the Shaky Secondary
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It was three weeks ago that Bengaldom joined in a collective groan as Leon Hall went down with a season ending injury against the Steelers, and his lack of presence may well continue to be felt in Week 13.
The Bengals were lucky to have Adam Jones ready to step in to Leon Hall's shoes when their star CB went down, but with the news that Jones will not be returning punts until he is fully healthy, you have to worry for his durability in what will be a tough encounter on the road.
Nate Clements' feet were his own worst enemy against Cleveland and the vet will need to stay on his toes with arguably tougher receivers in Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.
Kelly Jennings has been largely hit and miss thus far in 2011, and needs to step up, as he is the weak link right now.
Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson are looking more comfortable as a team and are starting to perform to their respective talent levels.
Communication will be the key as it seems to continue to be an issue for this somewhat new-look secondary, and with Clements likely to get beat by the younger guys, it will be up to Crocker and Nelson to stay alert in the back.
Dalton to Green
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AJ Green is steadily showing that he has the talent to be one of the best wide receivers of the modern era, and the highlight reel catches that made it so will be needed when the Bengals head to Heinz Field.
As much as I like Andy Dalton, it is clear that AJ Green is the playmaker of the two, and as he did in the game-winning drive against Cleveland, its often AJ's ability to reel in sometimes suspect passes that makes him so dangerous.
There's no doubt that Jay Gruden will give the order for deep passes to Green at least three times on Sunday as usual, but how will Pittsburgh's solid defense react to being outclassed by Green in their last meeting?
Green may see a jump-ball scenario similar to the one that had him injured in Week 10, and if he can capitalise on it, he can provide the Bengals with some much needed points and open up the field for the likes of...
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Jermaine Gresham is quietly having a solid year in Cincinnati. While attention remains focused on AJ, Gresham has provided a steady pair of hands and a large frame for Dalton to throw to.
If AJ Green draws a significant amount of coverage on Sunday as you would assume, Gresham may see a lot of targets. He's a big physical guy and is more than capable of withstanding some shots from Troy Polamalu.
He currently has five receiving touchdowns to his name in 2011, only one behind Green with six.
"I want be relevant," Gresham said. "More than anything, I don’t want to be a bust. That’s been on my mind and I don’t want to disappoint anyone around here. I just want to do my part and help this team win. I’m going to make certain that I work harder than the next guy. I just don’t want to be a bust or disappointment."
Offensive Line Needs to Play More Consistently
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While Andrew Whitworth & Co. didn't allow a single sack on Andy Dalton the first time these two teams met in 2011, their play has not been as stout as that accolade might suggest.
They need to provide better running lanes for a Bengals ground game that has been (up until last week) largely bundled up at the line of scrimmage most Sundays.
They also need to stop drawing penalties. They are crippling to Andy Dalton, and they will need to play mistake-free football if they want to get the most out of each drive.
The Steelers D will capitalise on penalties and all too often lately have the likes of Nate Livings and even Whit given up yardage foolishly.
D-Line Must Get to Big Ben
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The Bengals defense had five sacks of Big Ben at PBS, and currently hold 28 for the year, putting them fifth in the AFC.
The defense will need to exploit Pittsburgh's poor pass protection and lay the wood on No. 7 from the get-go if they want to avoid giving him the opportunity to expose the Bengals weaker secondary.
With Carlos Dunlap likely to miss Sunday's game and Domata Peko questionable, it may be up to the newer faces on defense to keep the intensity high in this one.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins leads the team with 6.5 sacks at this stage in the season, which also leads all NFL interior linemen.
His contribution will be essential to not only bringing the heat on Big Ben, but getting the most out of his fellow lineman.
The Bengals D-line needs to play tough and play smart, improving particularly in the second quarter if it wants to limit the damage Big Ben does through the air.
Cedric Benson Must Continue to Improve
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Cedric Benson had a pretty strong showing against Cleveland, racking up 106 yards and a touchdown that helped the Bengals keep the Browns defense off guard.
It was a world away from his dismal showing against Pittsburgh that saw the once feature-back only muster 56 yards.
If Benson doesn't have success early in this one, look for Jay Gruden to split the load fairly evenly between Ced and Bernard Scott as the day goes on.
Benson having some success would be hugely beneficial in Pittsburgh and will really aid Andy Dalton and the passing game.
His contribution is not the Bengals only hope as it may have been in 2009, but for his sake, he needs to show that he can still be a game-changer. Sunday will give him the opportunity to show it.
History and geography are not on his side though, as in the three games he has played at Heinz Field, Benson has rushed for only 76-yards on 31 carries for 2.5 yards per carry...scary stuff.
At the time of writing Benson's status for Sunday looks questionable as he missed practice on Thursday, but look for him to be ready to go even if he is limited on Friday.
Andy Dalton Must Bounce Back Against LeBeau
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It was Andy Dalton's two interceptions that sealed the Bengals fate in Week 10, and the rookie QB will need to take lessons learned from that encounter if he wants to change the outcome this time around.
There's two points worth making when it comes to how things should be and need to be different this week, the first is A.J. Green's presence and the second is the dreaded second quarter.
With Green hopefully lasting the entirety of this matchup, you have to think that if the Bengals get in a similar hole, things might go a little differently. Green's play-making ability may have meant some of the wayward passes in the first meeting, might have been reeled in rather than picked off.
Dalton will be pleased to have A.J. back when the game is on the line, and it will do wonders for his confidence.
The other elephant in the room is the Bengals' inability to play well in the second quarter. Marvin Lewis and Dalton have spoken about the need for the Bengals to put points up early and they will need to reverse their second quarter fortunes if they want the game to be within reach at the half.
Dalton has impressed everyone this year, and he will get yet another opportunity to do just that against a hated foe, in what could be a season-defining game.
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Andre Hawkins has been a really pleasant surprise for Bengals fans in 2011.
He has grown to be as close to a sure-thing in the hands department as you can get, and you can see how Hawkins has come to fill the void left by Jordan Shipley' at least in the eyes of Andy Dalton.
The man known as Lil'Hawk provides a great change of pace for the Bengals offense and with the attention likely on Gresham and Green, Hawkins will be looked to to exploit the gaps.
The two-time Grey Cup Champion has really stepped up and made us all take notice of him, and his consistency provides relief from the erratic hands of Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell.
Look for him to pick up some key yardage in this one.
Some Sparkle on Special Teams
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Kicker Mike Nugent is having a great year having only missed one field goal, and most recently coming through in the clutch to seal a victory over Cleveland. With the Bengals likely to face fourth down a number of times on Sunday, Nugent's leg might well come in handy.
Safety Jeromy Miles provided five special teams tackles against the Browns and is proving to be a valuable asset on kickoffs and punts. If he can help to stack the Steelers deep in their own territory consistently, he could be a game-changer.
Throw in the punting magician that is Kevin Huber and the freight train that is Taylor Mays and you have the make-up of what should be a pretty formidable special teams unit, if there is such a thing.
Brandon Tate continues to be hit and miss and has one punt return for a TD to his name. While the ship has sailed for me, there are still some Bengals fans out there who are convinced that he has something special in him ready to breakout.
As mentioned previously, Dalton cannot do everything on his own against such a prolific opponent. It will take some solid play in all phases and little bit of magic from some to get Cincy the win.