Time to move on from that heartbreaking loss last week and look forward to another tough divisional game. On Sunday, the Steelers will travel to Cincinnati, facing a Bengals squad that has surprisingly become one of top teams in the NFL after having started their season at 6-2. The rivalry between both teams might not be quite as vicious as the one with the Ravens, but plenty of resentment in years past between the Steelers and Bengals promises yet another emotional game with much at stake once the teams meet Sunday afternoon.
The Bengals have started strongly this year thanks to a staunch defense led by defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and a promising rookie quarterback and wide receiver combo, and are quickly becoming everyone's darling as the surprise NFL team of the year. Gone seem to be the days when a trip to Cincinnati was circled as a W and Mike Brown's teams were the laughing stock of the NFL. But plenty of football has yet to be played, and we will know a lot more about this team after its first meeting with a quality divisional opponent in Pittsburgh.
On the Steelers side, getting swept in the season series with Baltimore makes winning in Cincinnati that much more important. While the Ravens now own the inside track to the AFC North division title, the match up with the Bengals provides a perfect opportunity for the Steelers to make up for past mistakes and remain among the top teams in the AFC. As a proven team, Pittsburgh is slightly favored in this game, and Dick LeBeau excels in confusing opposing rookie quarterbacks throughout his career as the Steelers defensive coordinator.
Let's face it: even a win in Cincinnati won't wash off the stink of last week's loss against Baltimore. But it would sure help many fans who were ready to jump off a bridge after the game feel a little more comfortable about this year's Steelers. Will they be able to cover up the smell with some Febreze? These Five Players to Watch will have to play on top of their games to pull out a much-needed win in Ben Roethlisberger's home state of Ohio.
5. Shaun Suisham, Place Kicker, #6, 7th Year
I'm sure I'm not the only one scared by the prospects on having to rely on Shaun Suisham to win a game for the Steelers with his legs. Mike Tomlin asserted as much when on Sunday against the Ravens, he opted against trying a 47 yard field goal with 2:30 left in the game that would have put Pittsburgh ahead by a touchdown. The try might have been into the vaunted open end of Heinz Field, but you bet that a better kicker at least attempts that kick. Tomlin's decision ended up coming back to bite Pittsburgh, and it looks like Steelers fans are left to hope that when a game moves into its late stage, Suisham will stand on the sideline with the outcome already decided.
That sentiment has changed drastically from 2010, when the Steelers decided to kick long-time kicker Jeff Reed to the curb after yet another escapade. The former Washington Redskin was brought in to replace Reed, and hit a near-perfect 15 of 16 field goals in finishing out the regular season. His performance was less impressive in the postseason, when Suisham made just 3 of 5 field goals including a crucial miss in the Super Bowl against Green Bay. He kept his job after a solid preseason, but has once again struggled since meaningful games began in 2011. As of today, Suisham ranks #30 of 33 place kickers in the NFL by making only 15 of his 20 field goals for a measly 75%. His five missed tries rank him last of all kickers. Sure, he is a solid tackler and in that respect a welcomed improvement over Reed, but what good is your second most important skill if your most important one doesn't fulfill the standard? The reason Suisham makes this list: I have a distinct feeling that the game against the Bengals will be decided by a field goal. If that is the case, would you want Suisham to have the game on his foot? I wouldn't, but he just might get a chance to at least somewhat change my worries on Sunday.
4. Ryan Clark, Free Safety, #25, 10th Year
The one player we will remember from last Sunday's loss against the Ravens will undoubtedly be Ryan Clark. Troy Polamalu's sidekick miscalculated on the most important play of the match, resulting in Torrey Smith's go-ahead touchdown with eight seconds left. What's more, he was given a hefty $40,000 fine for the hit pictured above, which has caused plenty of turmoil within the Steelers organization. Clark is known by Steelers fans and around the league as a hard hitter, and the NFL seems to think that he hits just a little too hard for its safety standards. Whether that's the case is a discussion for another day, but how Clark responds on the field just might determine the outcome of Sunday's game.
Up until Sunday's game the free safety seemed to be having one of his better years, accounting for the only interception by a Steelers defensive back this season and providing a solid last line of defense for LeBeau's unit. Clark actually leads the team in tackles right now, and has defended four passes as well. But against the Bengals, he will have to rebound after an emotional week in which he openly called out the commissioner for being fined on a hit that was deemed legal by Mike Tomlin and many experts. One could easily imagine a rough outing by Clark, and just the slightest hesitation or double-guessing will lead to an opening that the Bengals could exploit. That cannot happen though against an offense featuring A. J. Green, who sports 599 receiving yards (15.0 Yards/Catch) and five touchdowns his rookie season. Ike Taylor might be able to shut down the rookie but Clark, often playing in a deep zone to defend the deep ball, will get his share of helping on Green. How he shows up against a surprisingly strong Bengals attack might well determine the disposition of the entire team going into a tough divisional game.
3. James Farrior, Inside Linebacker, #51, 15th Year
Some found it advantageous to the Steelers that veteran linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior - In the midst of a somewhat mediocre season - was unable to suit up in the games against New England and Baltimore because of a calf injury. His backup Larry Foote played admirably well as a replacement especially against the run, yet the presence of Farrior, who calls the defensive signals and audibles on the field, was dearly missed during the final drive last week. After the match, players admitted that confusion over the defensive play calling indeed existed during the waning minutes of the game, and suddenly the calls for Farrior to return grew louder again.
Well, it looks like the 15 year veteran will be back against Cincinnati to stabilize the Steelers defense. He has participated fully in practice this week, and will likely move back into the defensive center to replace Lawrence Timmons who moves back outside in place of injured LaMarr Woodley. Farrior is coming off a 137 tackle, six sack season, and has followed that up with 45 tackles and two sacks so far in 2011. But after looking as fit as ever in 2010, he has once again had trouble covering tight ends and running backs in the passing game; invoking memories of a horrid 2009 season in which calls for his retirement could not be overheard. One game that I can't get out of my head happened against Cincinnati, when he was taken advantage of by Bengals backup running back Brian Leonard for the game-winning touchdown en route to a 18-12 loss. Farrior will look to avenge that game and as mentioned above, Dick LeBeau's defenses are predicated on confusing young quarterbacks. A big game from LeBeau's right hand on the field would make many a Steelers fan feel at ease.
2. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, #17, 3rd Year
Alright, Mike Wallace will most likely not crack his aimed-at 2,000 yards receiving this season. So what? The wide receiver is still having the best season of his young career, on pace to outperform every other receiver in Steelers history. And while teams have focused on taking away the deep ball towards him, he has opened holes in underneath coverage that other receivers such as Heath Miller and Antonio Brown have been able to take full advantage of. Number one receiver or not, Wallace has become an indispensable player for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.
Especially Brown has benefited greatly from the added intention on Wallace, eclipsing the century mark in receiving twice in the past three games - one of which came against possibly the best passing defense in football courtesy of the Ravens. But with his continued success, Brown will demand more attention in the near future that might once again ensure an open Wallace 40 yards down the field. Why not against the Bengals? Cincinnati ranks 10th in the league in opposing passing yards, despite ranking 4th in overall defense. Their number one cornerback Jonathan Joseph left this off season to join the Houston Rocket, and the team has seemed a little more vulnerable against the deep ball than they have in years past as a result. On the flip side, the Bengals will likely get their most athletic corner Adam Jones back, who might see some time against Wallace as the game progresses. I can easily see Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger testing this new Bengals secondary, looking for openings down field as a result of increased attention to Brown. If Wallace can make Cincinnati pay for man coverage with a long touchdown once or twice, this game will likely turn into Pittsburgh's favor.
1. James Harrison, Outside Linebacker, #92, 8th Year
Football is a team game, so it will take more than five players to win the game on Sunday. The Steelers would greatly benefit from a fourth consecutive 300 yard game by Roethlisberger or a 100 yard game from Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed surprisingly well against Baltimore. Ike Taylor will have his hands full with Green, and Troy Polamalu is visibly frustrated with his lack of turnovers so far this season. Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster will face a tough challenge against possibly the Bengals' best defensive linemen, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Who are your Five Players to Watch this week?