PZB's been hearing "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie all week. The song speaks to a general level, and that concept fits this tough Week 13 match-up between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Who's under pressure? The Steelers, needing to overcome Ben Roethlisberger's broken thumb and Maurkice Pouncey's illness to generate offense against a tough defense? Doing so would put them in the driver's seat and all but ensure they finished no worse than a wild card. Or is it the Bengals, slumping as of late but capable of comebacks from any deficit? A loss likely means they find themselves tied with either one, or some combination of the following contenders just one game back -- the Jets, Broncos and Titans. A win over the Steelers keeps them clear of the pack, and one big step closer towards clinching a completely unexpected playoff berth.
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Cincinnati did end up shutting Keith Rivers down for the season.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton says the foundation he and WR A.J. Green built early this season is the key to their success now.
PZB chooses to look at last week's 13-9 win over Kansas City optimistically. Rarely will a team go on the road and commit so many penalties, drop so many passes and execute so inconsistently without two of its best defensive players and pull out a win.
The theme last week was chaos emerging at the start of the Real Season for contenders. Chaos could have overtaken the Steelers last week, but they controlled it when they needed to.
This week is about pressure. The pressure of the return of LaMarr Woodley, the pressure needed to be put on QB Andy Dalton and the pressure of playing the first of two games in five games. Coming off the bye, and seeing the Ravens win earlier in the week, the Steelers tried to force the issue a bit too much. When will we see Pittsburgh's ace receiving corps fail to catch good throws so often? Or, fumble the ball inside the five yard line?
A few breaks went Kansas City's way, and credit them for exploiting them. They played hard for 60 minutes. Can't ask an under-staffed team to do any better than that.
The Steelers need to rise to the pressure of the shortened season, the soon-to-be-short week, the incredible intensity brought by Cincinnati's front seven and the difficulty of a quarterback throwing with a broken thumb.
Last week was tight, it'll be even more so this week.
Us Against The World
How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.
Was the league just tired of filling out the schedules, and decided to draw from a hat this year? It was curious enough the defending AFC champions get to start their season on the road at their arch-rival, but the end of this season is beyond ridiculous.
A home game against Cincinnati (teams that played each other just three weeks ago), followed by a short week and another divisional game against Cleveland. Back-to-back divisional games is fine, but not two games in five days against your rivals.
It gets even better after that. A road game at San Francisco on Monday night, followed by a Saturday game at home against St. Louis.
So the Steelers land at 6 a.m. ET Tuesday, and have four days to prepare for their next game.
Coaches make an issue of this all the time. There's no reason the league should schedule an Eastern Time Zone team at a Pacific Time Zone team (and vice versa) for Monday Night. They absolutely should not schedule the visiting team on a short week after that.
San Francisco went to Baltimore on a short week. They had 10 days after that before their next game. That's far better than having essentially a day of preparation cut off while on the red eye flight back home after the game. I'm sure they're fresh as daises when they land, and coaches always come up with their best game plans while crammed into three seats big enough for two people.
Opponent Spotlight: DT Geno Atkins
Atkins doesn't lead all AFC defensive tackles in Pro Bowl votes. Barring injury or the purchase of his own tickets, it isn't likely he'll go.
Chalk it up to typically under-the-radar Bengals notoriety.
But with a spot in CBS's early marquee game this week, and the possibly lighter-than-desired status of Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey, this could be the kind of breakout game he'd need, if he was interested in national recognition.
Atkins is being used both as tackle and an end in Mike Zimmer's beautifully simple defense. He gets pressure on the passer out of both, and can stop the run in either technique.
An increasing answer to today's rules-favored passing game is the versatile defensive lineman. The most obvious example is Giants DL Justin Tuck, and his performance in defeating the previously undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. There have been great pass rushing defensive tackles, guys who could have played at a high level if they played either position full time.
Historically, that positional change hasn't happened based on the down and distance, like Tuck did and like Atkins is currently doing. It gives the Bengals the ability to rely on pressure generated from, essentially, a base defense while dropping seven players into coverage.
If not for an insane individual effort from WR Antonio Brown in Week 9, the Steelers may have lost that game behind the steam of the Bengals constant pressure. Roethlisberger converted four 3rd-and-long situations to Brown, many of which came with a defender in his face.
The Steelers will have to account for Atkins on every passing play, and they will need a better performance in pass protection if they want to complete a difficult season sweep of Cincinnati.
Steelers Spotlight: OLB LaMarr Woodley
No defender was hotter than Woodley over the last four games he played before his hamstring popped (on a play that very well could have given him his third sack of the game against New England). Obviously, there's no way to tell if he'll still be playing at that level Sunday, but if he is, it could be the return of the Steelers defense to which fans are accustomed.
Ignore for a second the quarterbacks of the last two games the Steelers played, they have five interceptions in the last eight quarters. Two of those sealed games off. Those are the kinds of things championship teams do. It's difficult to come up with those turnovers without at least a reasonable pass rush, and with all due respect to Jason Worilds, he doesn't generate the attention from an offense Woodley does. The added element of surprise of the Steelers defensive intentions returns with Woodley, and the amount of turnovers in a game could finally consistently go in Pittsburgh's favor.
I See You
I see you, Ryan Mundy. It's not exactly rare superstar Troy Polamalu gets injured. In the past, though, the Steelers defense has fallen apart without 43 in there. Against Kansas City, you filled his role. You can't fill his shoes, because, frankly, no one can, but you stepped onto that field and made a difference by playing your game.
The Steelers are a shade above .500 without Polamalu on the field over the last few seasons. Most of that has been due to over-aggressive play on your part (the Oakland game in 2009 rings home). You dialed it down a bit, played within yourself and did an excellent job shutting down a Chiefs rushing attack that has shown some signs of ability recently.
I see you, Mundy (or as Al Michaels calls you, Monday), because you followed the Jason Worlids, and the Steve McLendons, and the Cameron Heywards of the defense in filling in admirably for a fallen starter. No offense, we don't hope to see you playing for an injured Polamalu any time soon, but we'll feel confident in our defense if you are called on again.
- Cincinnati has won four games when trailing by 10+ points at halftime (tied a league record)
- Ben Roethlisberger's passer rating at home is 102.7. It's 83.6 on the road
- Dalton-to-Green has accounted for five touchdowns so far this year, 4th highest rookie-to-rookie combination in league history