It's time to stop thinking about that ugly win against Kansas City last Sunday. Sitting Pretty at 8-3, the Steelers look forward to welcoming the Cincinnati Bengals to Heinz Field, eagerly awaiting the challenge of a surprisingly competitive team. Led by youngsters Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, Cincinnati is only a game behind Pittsburgh and currently occupies the coveted 6th seed in the AFC playoff standings.
The game of course will be a rematch of the teams' week 10 meeting, when Pittsburgh held off the young Bengals and came away with a 24-17 victory. The much-maligned Willie Gay featured majorly on that day, as he was directly responsible for two crucial turnovers that sealed the game. Despite the loss, many on this site were impressed by the effort and competitiveness of these Bengals, picked by many experts to be one of the worst teams in the NFL before the season.
Of course, both teams have looked pretty vulnerable when we last saw them. While the Steelers laid a stinker against the Chiefs and barely snuck out a win (some may say it was really a loss), Cincinnati looked similarly lackluster in a come-from-behind victory against Cleveland. Both teams cannot be satisfied with their performances in week 12, which should make for a great game between two well-prepared opponents this Sunday.
Talking about the Bengals has become synonymous with talking about Green and Dalton, but their defense should not be overlooked. Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer is leading a unit that ranks 5th in overall defense this season. Especially the young and vicious front seven gave Pittsburgh plenty of problems when the teams first met, most notably harassing Ben Roethlisberger and - inadvertently - breaking his thumb. Sunday's game will provide plenty of challenges if the Steelers want to stay among the leaders of the AFC, and these Five Players to Watch are especially important in sweeping the season series against the Bengals.
5. Ryan Mundy, Strong Safety, #29, 3rd Year
4. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, #17, 3rd Year
Remember when Michael Bean was posting regularly about Mike Wallace's pursuit of 2,000 receiving yards? It seems like a long time ago, now that the 3rd year receiver is coming off a disappointing stretch as he averaged just 35.5 yards (less than 9 yards per catch) during the past two games. Sure, much of that is directly connected to the emergence of Antonio Brown, who has quickly become one of the most dangerous third down receivers in the league. But nerves have also played a role, as Wallace got into a scuffle with Kansas City players before last Sunday's game and dropped two potential touchdowns (one a 50+ yarder) later that afternoon.
In short, the last two weeks have supported Coach Tomlin's hypothesis that Wallace is still just a one-trick pony and that taking the long bomb away will more often than not take him out of the game. But let's not exaggerate the demise of one of the most promising receivers in the game quite yet. Quite likely, Wallace is experiencing that inevitable mid-season slump that was projected by so many fans on this site when he made his 2,000 yard prediction during training camp, and one good game could put him right back into the groove. And why shouldn't that game happen against Cincinnati? Zimmer's imposing defense relies on its front seven and a strong pass rush, but has been average against the pass - ranking 11th in total passing yards allowed per games and 28th in interceptions this season with 6. Their best cornerback Leon Hall is out for the season after injuring his Achilles Tendon in the first game against the Steelers, leaving the duties of defending Wallace to free agent acquisitions Nate Clemens and Kelly Jennings. If Roethlisberger is allowed enough time in the pocket and Wallace comes out sufficiently angry about his recent lack of production, the Bengals secondary could be in for a long day .
3. Maurkice Pouncey, Offensive Center, #53, 2nd Year
When Steelers fans are complaining about terrible performances from the offensive line, they usually don't include Maurice Pouncey in their complaints. The young center was drafted last year with the coaches intending to try him out at guard, but outplayed his counterpart Justin Hartwig to the point where the veteran was cut after training camp, and the rookie started every game of the season until the Super Bowl. Beyond improving the shaky offensive line, Pouncey was named an all-pro after the season, a rare feat for a rookie interior lineman.
But his second season has proved to be a little more challenging. I have been vocal in these posts about a drop in performance from the second year player, who has missed some assignments and made some mental errors that I didn't see last year. Some critics go further, clamoring that he shouldn't have made the pro bowl in his first season either. We as Steelers fans know the stability that Pouncey has brought to this line, and his recent lack of performance may well be explained with constantly changing linemen that make consistency impossible. He also missed the majority of the game against the Chiefs with a stomach virus that reportedly caused him to lose 12 pounds in one week. Despite these challenges, Pouncey needs to come up big against the Bengals after a constant defensive line rotation wreaked havoc in the Pittsburgh backfield the last time. Pass rushing defensive end Carlos Dunlap will likely miss yet another week with a nagging hamstring injury, but the inside line looks to be at full strength. A dominant game from Pouncey in both the run and the pass game would be a welcome sight for Steelers fans and Roethlisberger's still-sore thumb.
2. Ike Taylor, Cornerback, #24, 9th Year
1. LaMarr Woodley, Outside Linebacker, #56, 5th Year
Football is played by more than five players, you say? Of course it is! While these players will be crucial in sweeping the season series with Cincinnati, others will need to make an impact as well. Rashard Mendenhall might be able to build on his solid outing against Kansas City. If he doesn't, Roethlisberger's ability to throw despite a broken thumb will become even more important once again. The Bengals will look to establish the run, so the inside linebackers and defensive line need to play their best to hold the line of scrimmage. Who are your Five Players to Watch in the rematch against the Bengals?