By Daniel Benjamin
Pittsburgh is currently sitting pretty in the AFC North as the Steelers have a three-game lead in the division. The Steelers also essentially control their own fate in the AFC playoff race as they have a slight edge over New England (9-2). They hold a tie-breaker advantage over the Patriots as a result of their victory over the Chiefs earlier this year; the Patriots lost to the Chiefs in the season opener.
Their opponent this week, Cincinnati (5-6), has moved into the playoff hunt following two straight victories. The Bengals are coming off a 30-16 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. Cincinnati, No. 8 in the AFC playoff race, is one game behind the second wildcard spot, which is currently being held down by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pittsburgh has won five straight and nine of 10 matchups in the series, with Cincinnati’s last victory coming in 2015. The Steelers defeated the Bengals 29-14 at Heinz Field in Week 6 as they got two late first-half field goals to take a 20-14 halftime lead. The Steelers then dominated the action in the second half.
Bengals on Offense
Cincinnati was certainly glad to see Cleveland again this past week, as the Bengals had their best offensive output since they faced the Browns earlier this season. The Bengals, for the second time all year, scored 30 points and racked up 361 total yards of offense. They also didn’t turn the ball over for a second consecutive game. The Bengals are averaging 18.1 points a contest, which ranks 25th in the league.
Quarterback Andy Dalton had a mistake-free November to give him respectable numbers for the season. Dalton is completing 62% of his passes for 198 yards a game and 18 touchdowns, seven of those coming in the last three games, along with eight interceptions. The last time they met, the Steelers limited him to 140 passing yards and a 56.7% completion percentage while also picking off two of his passes. Dalton did toss a pair of touchdown passes versus the Steelers.
Dalton doesn’t have an overabundance of weapons. A.J. Green is one of the most talented receivers in the league, but he is not having a great season. Overall, Green has 53 receptions on 92 targets for 809 yards and six touchdowns. Brandon LaFell and tight end Tyler Kroft have 37 and 31 catches, respectively.
With the passing game struggling, the Bengals’ running attack has also rarely gotten on track. That said, rookie Joe Mixon exploded for a season-high 114 yards on 23 attempts on Sunday.
Overall, the Bengals rank 31st in the league in rushing yards, accumulating just 75.6 yards a contest as well as 31st in yards per carry (3.2).
Bengals on Defense
The Bengals have been solid on the defensive side of the ball all season long, ranking 10th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg) and 13th in total defense (330.5 ypg). They have been a little stingier the last couple of weeks, limiting Cleveland and Denver to 33 points combined. The Browns did roll up 410 yards last week, but the Bengals stiffened once they entered the red zone—allowing one touchdown in four opportunities.
Cincinnati struggles against the run. The Bengals are giving up the fifth-most yards at 126.6 yards per game, but they have been even worse the last three weeks, surrounding 153.7 yards a contest.
Pass defense is the strength of the Bengals. They have a trio of solid cornerbacks in William Jackson III, Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick. Reserve cornerback Darqueze Dennard is second on the team with 60 tackles, while George Iloka is solid at free safety.
Cincinnati is permitting the fifth-fewest passing yards in the league at 203.8 yards a game. That number has increased to 233.7 yards over the last three contests. The Bengals have also given up just 12 passing touchdowns all season, the fifth fewest.
Cincinnati does a good job at getting after the quarterback, registering three sacks a game, but the Bengals don’t force a lot of turnovers. They have come up with seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
Reserve linebacker Carl Lawson leads the team with seven sacks. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is second on the squad with 6.5 sacks while defensive end Carlos Dunlap has 4.5 sacks.
Players to Watch: Joe Mixon and Dre Kirkpatrick/William Jackson III
Mixon is a quick and shifty back who can also catch the ball out of the backfield as well as run with it. He is coming off his best rushing game of the season and had success against the Steelers in the first matchup, garnering 48 yards on six carries in the first half of the game. Mixon also had a long run of 25 yards against the Steelers. The 21-year-old fourth-round draft pick has accumulated 484 yards on the ground at a paltry 3.2 yards a carry. All four of Mixon’s touchdowns have come on runs.
Pittsburgh has thrown the ball more often the past two weeks than they have in all but one game prior. What that means is that cornerbacks Kirkpatrick and Jackson will likely be extremely busy keeping an eye on Antonio Brown. Brown, the league’s No. 1 ranked receiver, has caught 20 passes over the last two weeks for 313 yards and five touchdowns. Against the Bengals in Week 6, Brown had four receptions on 10 targets for 65 yards and one touchdown.
Cincinnati has typically shadowed wide receivers, so the Steelers will likely be able to dictate matchups by moving Brown around. Jackson has been a bit better this year, yielding a 44.2 passer rating on throws—which is the fourth best in the league—into his coverage area heading into last week’s game against Cleveland. In the meantime, Kirkpatrick ranks 63rd out of 118 cornerbacks.
For the season, Kirkpatrick has 42 tackles along with eight pass defensed and one interception. Jackson has totaled 14 tackles and seven pass defensed along with one interception. Each player has scored a defensive touchdown.
Outlook: Steelers 21, Bengals 20