As the Cincinnati Bengals travel to the Steel City in an effort to split the regular season series with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the contest will mean much more than merely evening the score for the surprising Bengals.
A win at Heinz Field would serve as vindication for the plethora of doubters who still question the Bengals integrity as an actual playoff caliber squad.
Moreover, victory would inch these confounding cats closer to a potentially stunning AFC North Championship, while defeat would almost mathematically eliminate them from overtaking Pittsburgh or Baltimore.
The Steelers, looking technically ahead at the Ravens in the division, need to serve notice to the Bengals that newcomers are not welcome (yet) on the block. After all, the Steelers were swept by Baltimore earlier this season, and any further defeat at the hands of a division opponent could force them out of a potential championship and into a frenetic race for the AFC's sixth seed.
Sunday's contest pits a preseason afterthought against a tried and true annual contender. The Black and Gold will look to send their opposition home with a new color: orange and black and blue.
Here are 10 things for Steelers fans to watch for against Cincinnati during Week 13's pivotal contest.
It was an issue of very vocal concern all week following Pittsburgh's struggles in Arrowhead Stadium: what is up with the red zone offense?
In fact, fans have clamored about the Steelers ridiculous success rate in the red zone for nearly the entire season.
The play calling appears to be to blame. The Steelers cannot get out of their own way thanks to it. They run on obvious running downs, don't use play action or no huddle effectively in the zone and they just do not move the ball much once the field gets short.
-Nick DeWitt, B/R Featured Columnist
Weeks ago, my peer presented this concern, even referencing screaming at his television set. As it turns out, he's likely still talking to the TV.
In fact, fans can talk until their faces are blue about the premiere offensive talent the Steelers boast, but the team ranks 19th in the NFL in total scoring.
The red zone woes are a huge contributor to the offense's under-performing. In Kansas City, a game that seemed to present clear blowout potential gave the 'Burgh a chance to open up a huge lead, especially critical considering the defense's domination of Palko and the Chiefs offense.
In three red zone trips against a stunned Chiefs crowd, the vocal "12th man of Arrowhead" and the K.C. defense "won" the battle. Or, should it be said the Steelers lost the battle? Minus an amazing throw from Ben to Saunders for the unit's lone touchdown, the offense may have gone 0-for-3 in what could be called the "gold zone."
Earlier in the game, on their first red zone chance, Mike Wallace dropped a sure touchdown, and Mewelde Moore fumbled moments later.
Scoring on less than half of their trips inside the 20-yard line in 2011, the Black and Gold need to see more production in this area.
Otherwise, winnable games are going to turn into losses. Imagine last week if a competent quarterback played for the Chiefs!
After starting the season with visions of NFL records, things have slowed down for Mike Wallace. The receiver set his sights on a 2,000 yard season. That seemed far-fetched. That is, until the season began.
As huge numbers began to pile up, a new name entered the discussion about Wallace's fast start: Jerry Rice. After all, projections showed Wallace to be on pace for Rice's record breaking 1995 campaign of 1,848 yards.
In four of their first seven games, the Steelers watched Wallace soar. He had four 100-yard efforts with a low-water mark of 76 yards against Jacksonville.
In recent weeks, Antonio Brown has moved the sticks and often led the team in yardage. Wallace's big play penchant has been absent, and his statistics have seen a steady decline.
Steelers Country looks forward to the return of Wallace's production, hoping for a great game from the receiver against a key division opponent.
So much for the lousy "Bungles."
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green made one super play (even if Troy Polamalu could have done more, cynics) in their first matchup, a narrow Pittsburgh win over the upstarts.
Considering this is the first season for a team that was supposedly rebuilding, if not just in flat demolition mode, a 7-4 record and division contention isn't too shabby.
He may not have the huge volume stats that make analysts go "ooh-la-la!" Still, Dalton's a winner, and the "Red Rifle" led his team to a comeback win over the intrastate Browns last weekend.
While A.J. Green made the highlight play of the game, the offense in Cincinnati is not a two man show. His average may not reflect a dynamic season, but Cedric Benson has run for hard yards. In their last meeting, Benson began running downhill in the fourth quarter against the Steelers.
Thankfully, Willie Gay was in the right place at the right time when Dalton decided to throw.
Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell have both caught at least 35 passes, and tight end Jermaine Gresham is having a solid year at tight end.
While the focus point of Cincy's offensive attack are the surprising "dynamic duo," the unit is not merely the work of two men. The Steelers saw their potential when the Bengals rallied to tie the game after trailing 14-0 weeks ago.
In the video, you will notice Rashean Mathis, a.k.a. "Steelers Killer," assigned to coverage on A.J. Green.
Then, you will see Green make one quick movement to the outside before turning up the field, otherwise known as an "out and up." Mathis tries his best to cut Green off at an angle before Green simply wins the battle at the point of collision, getting the football to the pylon. Mathis was fooled by the route and late on the coverage upfield.
Green has had success against everybody, including the greats of the game.
These are the types of plays NFL defenses contend with, and it was all made possible by great route-running. Additionally, Green is able to concentrate, making fantastic catches anywhere on the field and against seemingly great coverage. Taking one moment off against Green is deadly, as the Steelers learned on his lone catch weeks ago.
Ike Taylor, easily the best cover corner in the Steelers secondary, will need to have a solid game against Green, easily the Bengals' most productive receiver.
Unlike former Bengals wideouts, who made more from the gift of gab than the gift of grab, Green is a bonafide threat. Thankfully, Pittsburgh may have quite the neutralizer in Ike, who is quietly (if only he had hands...) having an MVP campaign in the secondary.
Troy Polamalu's football strengths are his personal weaknesses on the field. He can mow down offensive players like a torpedo, but missiles explode. With each collision, considering his tendency to lead with his helmet, the risk of injury is heightened.
In Arrowhead, the safety left the game with another concussion, adding onto the pile of setbacks that will likely take games (if not a season or two) off a stellar career.
Still, do we really want to ask Polamalu to do anything but what he does? His style of play is a risk that he assumes on his own, and it is as disruptive a defensive force as any in football.
Polamalu's impact on defense is a hybrid one. He can line up as a linebacker, safety, or play coverage (especially in the red zone) for a blitzing corner. He has a hyper-sensitivity to the game, always seems to be somewhere in the play and makes jaw-dropping efforts almost weekly.
How many Superman leaps over the line of scrimmage have we seen from other talents around the NFL?
From his traditional role as a great safety, Polamalu's presence makes things much more confusing for Andy Dalton, who will have to be incredibly careful not to allow Polamalu to read his eyes, cue in on his snap count or catch him falling asleep on an assumed coverage scheme.
With the probable return of explosive pass rushing end Lamarr Woodley, the Steelers get a much-needed boost along the defensive front. It couldn't have come soon enough. Not to say they've been playing poorly.
The unit has fared well recently against the run, a major improvement from the early parts of the season. The issue is with quarterback pressures, a surprising struggle for a team that prides itself on creating havoc for opposing passers.
Soon, fans will be carrying around picket signs: SACKS NEEDED!
Despite his relative success, Andy Dalton is still a rookie, and getting into his comfort zone would go a long way toward securing another pivotal AFC North win over the Bengals.
In 2011, the Steelers have only 24 sacks. In the last three seasons, the team has gobbled up passers, to the tune of 48, 47 and 51 quarterback take downs, respectively. Who can forget some of the defense's greatest efforts, with 55 sacks in both 2001 ("Big, Nasty D") and 1994, when the defense earned the name "Blitzburgh" and the "Steel Trap."
Few seasons have seen fewer than 40 sacks, and the unit is on pace for fewer than 35 in 2011. The last drought came in 2007, Tomlin's first season as head coach, with 36 sacks.
The Bengals defensive backs did a decent job in coverage in their first meeting, which saw an injury to Leon Hall. Adam Jones stepped into the role and he held his own. But, just how able is the maligned corner?
Last week, Nate Clements struggled against Colt McCoy and a far more pedestrian cast of characters.
Make no mistake that the Steelers crew of fast burners, a relative plethora of retrieving receiving talent, will look to exploit.
Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson at the safety spots will need to be on high alert.
Antonio Brown has become a machine from week to week, moving the sticks from any down and distance. Just call him "Mr. 3rd and 19!"
Mike Wallace can explode on any play and is due for a breakout performance.
Emmanuel Sanders, Hines Ward and Jericho Cotchery give Pittsburgh depth at the position to rival any NFL team, and the latter is just starting to contribute.
On paper, the Steelers passing offense and Bengals passing defense is a decent mismatch in favor of Pittsburgh.
The Bengals are without Carlos Dunlap again, but their defense sacked Roethlisberger five times in their last meeting anyway. This is a bit deceiving, though, as Roethlisberger had chances to throw away the ball on a couple of those efforts.
If Roethlisberger is kept upright, can the Steelers take advantage of this potential mismatch?
The Bengals secondary doesn't have to worry as much about the Steelers young, playmaking receivers if Big Ben is not protected. On the season, the quarterback has been sacked 32 times, traceable to both his style of play and the struggles of the offensive line in pass protection at various points in recent years.
In Cincy, Andy Dalton has remained relatively upright, having been sacked 17 times. Still, not everything about the offensive line has been par, and both teams share a couple of concern issues.
Additionally, the Steelers have not run the football well. Rashard Mendenhall has averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, a similarity to Cedric Benson's 3.9 yard average for the Bengals.
Another area of concern is penalties, where both lines have shot their offenses in the foot at various times this season. Twenty-yard down and distances are typically drive killers, and neither line has done an acceptable job at avoiding yellow flags.
Naturally, there are telling statistics that correlate to winning: turnovers and third down efficiency are two commonly noted measures.
In this contest, another precursor to success will be the play of each line. Can the Steelers prevent sacks of Roethlisberger? Can the Bengals keep Woodley, Harrison and company out of the face of Andy Dalton?
Can either team establish a running game or at the very least present the threat of the run to open up elements of the offensive attack?
And, which set of hogs will avoid backbreaking, drive-killing penalties?
Both Heath Miller and Jermaine Gresham have been key contributors to their respective offenses this season. With so much to focus on against an NFL offense, having a physical tight end with soft hands as a threat—albeit over the middle or as a checkdown—is an added advantage that can frustrate defenses.
Heck, most Steelers fans will express the wish for Heath Miller to be targeted more often!
Miller has 39 receptions for 485 yards and two touchdowns. Gresham's catches have been less impressive (37 catches for 370 yards, a perfect 10 yards per catch), he has been a critical element to the Bengals offense in the red zone with five touchdowns.
Great quarterbacks spread the field and deliver the football to multiple targets. With Big Ben and the Red Rifle at the helm, tight ends will not be strangers to those watching the key contest at Heinz Field.
Our society likes things to be big: big games, big stories, big events.
For Cincinnati, nothing would carry them further than beating one of the big boys.
Until they do, the NFL public isn't going to buy into the Cincinnati praise that many NFL personalities are starting to solicit.
"He’s a good player. He spins the ball really well, especially with the wind. He was spinning it really well. He seems to be very cerebral. He knows what’s going on out there. I think that he is playing the best out of all the rookie quarterbacks. The other guys have numbers, but he makes some great throws. We were on the sideline — Byron, Charlie and I — and we were saying ‘Oh, that’s a good throw.’ He makes good throws, he anticipates and I think he’s playing really well. I told him, ‘We’ll see you in a couple of weeks, but you’re playing lights out.’"
Big Ben has praised the abilities of Andy Dalton, and NFL analysts have spoken well of the surprising play of the Bengals.
Why do I think most NFL fans are a bit more skeptical? Simple: they are!
In a fantasy football society that loves numbers, Cam Ward is the Rookie of the Year, even though Dalton and company are pulling out the wins. Likewise, despite close games against the "elite" of the AFC North and some blowouts of "inferior" opponents, the discerning football public has questions.
Shouldn't you beat bad teams? (Or, as a statement, your schedule is weak.)
Didn't you lose those games to Pittsburgh and Baltimore? (Or, as a statement, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades!)
Playing in the horseshoe of Heinz Field, the Bengals don't just want to end up close; they want to win.
A win over Pittsburgh would give them the vindication they surely feel they deserve. It would showcase their abilities and make them to be viewed as viable playoff candidates.