By Christina Rivers
The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers will have contention come Sunday. Both will be fighting for playoff positioning. Both teams will come out hungry and ready to play at Heinz Field. Due to the fact that three teams remain in contention to win the AFC North, despite the weather, the heat is on. While Pittsburgh has been sliding, Cincinnati has been getting hotter. Individual matchups in this contest are going to be intriguing.
While the Steelers have recovered somewhat on the offensive line, they will be facing a very aggressive Bengals defensive front. Over the past couple of weeks, the Bengals defense has been on point, keeping opponents close enough for Cincinnati to win five of their last six games. On December 13, Cincinnati was able to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 34-13, mostly due to their defense. They rank in the top 10 of all NFL teams. While David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum played well last week, their rookie status may give the Bengals the idea that veteran defensive linemen can push them around. With the loss of Willie Colon, Ramon Foster will move to left guard once again for the Steelers and be battling Geno Atkins the entire game. Atkins has been able to log 10.5 sacks and in 707 snaps this season he has been disruptive, getting into the offensive backfield to hurry opposing quarterbacks 44 times and add 13 hits. The Steelers may have to use a tight end to help keep Atkins away from Roethlisberger unless Foster and Max Starks have a spectacular game on the left side of the line. With Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers thrown in the mix, the Steelers will be busy on the offensive line.
While the Steelers’ offensive numbers are a lot closer to those of the Bengals this week, Andy Dalton continues to have sub-par performances. In the second quarter against the Eagles, the Bengals were flat. Dalton doesn’t have a good record against his biggest rivals, either. He posts a 64.1 passer rating against powerhouse teams in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. His record is 0-6. In the month of December, Dalton has thrown three touchdowns and as many interceptions, putting his quarterback rating at 72.0. In his final three games of November, Dalton had a 117.2 passer rating with nine touchdowns and no picks. Dalton admitted, “I’ve had chances and I haven’t hit them.” The last time Dalton met the Steelers was on October 21. Dalton was 14-of-28 passing for 105 yards and a score, but also threw a critical interception.
The Bengals defense is allowing 320.2 total yards per game, 219.2 through the air and 101.0 on the ground. While it may prove difficult to rush against them, Ben Roethlisberger has a fair number of targets to get the ball to. Emmanuel Sanders is still an uncertain start for Sunday, and Mike Wallace has been a bit off all season. Roethlisberger should be able to find a rhythm and hit his receivers and an ever-reliable Heath Miller as long as his offensive line keeps him upright. Roethlisberger is always a threat when he extends plays. “We’re picking up momentum,” Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. “These teams are postseason teams every year. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are always in the postseason and they always go deep, so it’s important for us to play well against them now in order to go in with some momentum if we do make the postseason.”
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is putting up consistent numbers on the ground. The Steelers’ defensive front, including the linebacking corps will need to step up and contain him in order to force Dalton to go to the pass once again.
Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson have been solid in pass defense. Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Nate Clemons aren’t slacking at corner either. Whether it’s Mike Wallace, Jerricho Cotchery, Plaxico Burress or even Emmanuel Sanders in the mix, they will have to not only catch the ball, but hold onto it.
With special teams being a concern lately for the Steelers, they will need to step up this weekend against a quick Adam Jones and solid Brandon Tate. Keeping the Bengals pinned deep and forcing them to have to create drives that include most of the playing field would give the Steelers an edge in field position, which is always key.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.