When the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-0) face off this Sunday, you can expect a playoff atmosphere at Heinz Field. That’s because for all intents and purposes, a loss for the Steelers would have the team thinking Wild Card at the halfway point of the season. For the undefeated Bengals, a win would push their lead in the AFC North to an almost insurmountable 3.5 games with a game in hand.
So yes, this game is important.
It’s also a game that will mark the return of Ben Roethlisberger after missing the last four with a knee injury. Heinz Field should be electric in a game that has serious implications for all the playoff contenders in the AFC.
Let’s take a look at some key factors for both teams and make a prediction.
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Spread: Bengals (-1)
Series History: Steelers lead 55-34
Last regular season meeting: 12/28/14: Steelers 27 Bengals 17
Three keys to Steeler victory:
Find a way to limit Eifert – The Steelers defense has been absolutely dreadful against the tight end this season, allowing players like Antonio Gates, Travis Kelce and Rob Gronkowski to have huge games this year. Yes, those are three of the better players at the position, but the Bengals Tyler Eifert might be in the conversation as the best tight end not known as “Gronk” in the NFL.
In fact, only Gronkowski has more touchdown catches than Eifert’s six at the position, and 21 of Eifert’s 28 catches have gone for first downs. Considering the Steelers 27th rated pass defense already has to deal with one of the best wide receivers in game in A.J. Green and the rapidly improving Marvin Jones, limiting Eifert will be an even bigger challenge.
Attack Bengals defense with a balanced offense – The temptation to let Roethlisberger go crazy from the start is understandable considering he threw for nearly 700 yards and five touchdowns in two matchups with the Bengals last season. However, after missing four weeks and likely to play with a knee that will not be fully healed, it would not be wise to expect Roethlisberger to carry the team with his arm.
Add the fact that the Bengals have 17 sacks through their first six games, and you could be asking for trouble. The Steelers must keep Le’Veon Bell involved in the ground game and get him rolling. This will also force the Bengals to have to commit to stopping Bell and DeAngelo Williams which will open up opportunities for Heath Miller, who struggled mightily with Roethlisberger out of the lineup.
Stop Bernard and Hill – This is a game where points are going to be scored in bunches and where both passing games should have success. The team that runs the ball more effectively will have a definitive edge, and though the Steelers have a outstanding tandem in Bell and Williams, the Bengals also boast a dangerous one-two punch with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill.
Bernard and Hill have contributed mightily to a ground attack that averages 122.2 yards per contest and the Bengals have the third-most rushing touchdowns in the league with nine despite playing only six games. If Bernard and Hill are allowed to get rolling, it’s going to do serious damage to Steelers hopes of getting a critical win.
Three keys to Bengals victory:
Pressure Roethlisberger – As mentioned above, the Bengals have the ability to rush the quarterback, evidenced by their 17 sacks. It’s fair to assume sack specialist Carlos Dunlap will look to take advantage of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva who will be asked to protect Roethlisberger’s blind side while making his second NFL start.
Regardless of Roethlisberger’s recent history of success against the Bengals, no one will truly know how healthy his knee is until he plays, so expect the Bengals to try test him as much as possible. The Bengals are deep at cornerback with former first rounders Adam “Pacman” Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Leon Hall and Darqueze Dennard all playing well this season. This might mean more blitzes by the Bengals in order to pressure Big Ben.
No big returns for Brown – All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown is obviously salivating over the return of his franchise quarterback, however, he also has to be excited to return punts against the Bengals at Heinz Field. That’s because all three of Brown’s career punt return TD’s have been at home against Cincinnati.
In a contest where a third phase touchdown could be the difference maker, the Bengals must contain Brown in the return game.
Don’t be the “Bungles”- Sure, the Bengals are undefeated and have the look of a true contender in the AFC, but we’ve heard that tune before only to see them turn into the “Bungles” when games mean a little more. This game undeniably means a ton, so will Marvin Lewis lead his team to a pivotal victory or as so many times before, come up small in big spots?
This is a true litmus test for the Bengals. Can they beat a desperate team on the road that has historically owned their franchise for years with few interruptions? Can Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton win in a big spot, or lose the games that really matter?
Prediction – This has a chance to be a regular season classic with both offenses more than capable of racking up 30-plus points. Roethlisberger’s return could not come at a better time, and playing at home should give the Steelers a definitive edge. Despite of some issues in the pass defense and two disappointing losses with Roethlisberger out, the Steelers are a better team than their record indicates. Something they will prove Sunday. Steelers 35 Bengals 30