As we get ready for the AFC Wild Card game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, let’s take a look at three match ups to keep an eye on when the two bitter divisional rivals meet Saturday night in the Queen City.
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Bengals pass defense — I specifically mention Roethlisberger because he’s the straw the stirs the drink in the Steelers passing game, and he’s flat-out not been himself the final four games of the season. The passing yards have been coming in bunches, but so has the interceptions — seven over the last four games to be exact, pushing his total for the season to an alarming 16 in 12 games played.
Couple that with the fact that Roethlisberger faces a Bengals pass defense that has been one of the best in the NFL and something has to give. The Bengals secondary boasts four contributors with first-round pedigree, and their 21 interceptions rank third best in the league. Another telling is the Bengals have held opposing QB’s to a 78.9 passer rating (5th in NFL) and have held Roethlisberger to a 71.7 rating in their two meetings this year — significantly lower than his season rating of 94.5.
Roethlisberger can’t force the issue and expect to get his third playoff win in Cincinnati for his career. Utilizing all of his weapons, not just the remarkable talent that is Antonio Brown, will be key. This means getting Markus Wheaton involved early and often when he sees single coverage, and find ways to get Martavis Bryant feeling better after back to back dismal showings in Baltimore and Cleveland.
Finally, Roethlisberger needs to lean on old-reliable Heath Miller. Miller has racked up Brown-like numbers with 20 catches and 171 yards in two games versus the Bengals this season. Expect plenty of operating space in the middle of the field for Miller and Wheaton with the Bengals linebacking duo of Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict struggles in pass coverage.
Tyler Eifert vs. the Steelers pass defense — Considering the Bengals had three different players scored double-digit touchdowns this season, it would be fair to assume the Steelers defense will have their work cut out for them even with backup quarterback AJ McCarren expected to start for the injured Andy Dalton.
One of those players was Tyler Eifert, who despite missing the better part of four games, led all NFL tight ends with 13 touchdowns and proved to have an uncanny ability to have much of that success in the opponents red-zone. Eifert only averages four catches and just more than 47 yards a game, but he has the ability to be a major factor against a Steelers pass defense that has had serious issues defending the tight end position.
Safeties Will Allen, Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden have all been victimized in the passing game, and both inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons have been sub-par in pass coverage far too often. In a game that will likely be close and could come down to who is able to convert red-zone opportunities, finding a way to limit touchdown-machine Eifert is going to be crucial.
Bengals front four vs. Steelers offensive line — Here’s a stat that will tell you all you need to know about why this match up is key — of the Bengals 42 sacks this season, an astounding 37.5 of them came from their defensive line. What’s that tell you? For one, the Bengals rely on their front four to get to the passer and two, that front four is outstanding.
The Bengals duo of Carlos Dunlap (13.5 sacks) and Michael Johnson (5 sacks) make for as a good a pass rushing combo at defensive end in the NFL. Dunlap is a force, and he will spend much of the evening matched up against Marcus Gilbert, who quietly had a career year that could have earned him his first Pro-Bowl selection. Don’t let Johnson’s numbers fool you, he’s capable of being a game changer and will get most of his reps against Alejandro Villanueva.
The case could be made that defensive tackle Geno Atkins might be the best of the lot. Despite playing in the interior and regularly commanding double teams, Atkins registered 11 sacks and combined with fellow DT Domata Peko (5 sacks) to clog the middle and make life difficult for teams looking to establish their ground attacks.
If the Steelers can win this battle against the Bengals defensive line, it should free up receivers down field who will often have to deal with the Bengals dropping seven into coverage the majority of the time.