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The Steelers have relied on their defense to take away the Bengals run game and have suffocated them to victories each of the last three times these teams have met. The Steelers are perilously thin in their secondary, so it will be interesting to see how the Bengals attack.
The top guns of the AFC North have had their way with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. In two years at the helm of Cincinnati's emerging offense, he's 0-6 against the Steelers and the Ravens. If Cincinnati is to advance to the playoffs, he'll pretty much have to do what he's failed to do so far in his career; beat both of them, and in consecutive weeks.
That starts Sunday in Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Steelers Tickets).
The playoffs more or less hang in the balance for the Steelers as well. A win would give them a sweep of the Bengals this season, thus giving them an ever-important tiebreaker as the AFC's final wild card is up for grabs.
When the Bengals have the ball
The Steelers defense has locked Cincinnati down through most of their last four meetings, and much of that has been due to Pittsburgh's ability to make the Bengals one-dimensional. That dimension has been Dalton getting the ball downfield to uber-talented wide receiver A.J. Green.
The Bengals ran around, over and through the Steelers on an opening drive that covered 80 yards on 15 plays, capped off by a 5-yard touchdown run by Cedric Peerman. They got another touchdown off a Steelers turnover, but after that, their drives went interception, kneel-out, field goal and five straight punts. They ran 17 plays, gaining 28 yards on those final five possessions.
They didn't have a chance to get back into rhythm on the ground, but that's something the Steelers shouldn't expect in this game. They will continue running, come hell or high water, due to previous experiences against the Steelers' pass defense.
One factor they'll have working for them is the decimation of the Steelers' secondary. Week 16 could mark the second time in two weeks they'll be without two of their top three cornerbacks - Ike Taylor has a fractured leg, and Cortez Allen missed the Steelers' Week 15 loss at Dallas. Keenan Lewis was injured against the Cowboys, and missed Wednesday and Thursday practices this week.
The Steelers placed cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke and left guard Willie Colon on injured-reserve this week, and signed cornerback Justin King along with activating running back Rashard Mendenhall off the non-injury reserve/suspension list. King may log a lot of snaps this weekend, depending on the status of Lewis, as CB Josh VIctorian was exploited by Tony Romo and the Cowboys in Week 15.
The Steelers should expect a lot of the shorter crossing routes the Cowboys and Chargers have used during the Steelers' two-game losing streak. Green's ability in the vertical game is certainly a concern, but peppering Pittsburgh's thin secondary and forcing them to tackle has worked recently, and it keeps Dalton - 10th in the NFL with 14 interceptions - from turning the ball over as frequently as he has this season.
When the Steelers have the ball
It wouldn't be a shock to see the Steelers put Mendenhall back on the field one week after his suspension for skipping the Chargers game (he was deactivated and did not show up at Heinz Field). The loss of Colon has been devastating to the Steelers' running game, but more than anything, the lack of rushes (back-to-back 17 rushes for 69 yards games) was a combination of the score (blowout loss to San Diego) and game plan (40 passes to 17 carries against Dallas).
They need to get back to the offensive balance they had during a four-game winning streak in the middle of the season. That streak started after destroying the Bengals on the ground in a Week 7 win in Cincinnati.
Not coincidentally, that was the first game Colon and rookie right tackle Mike Adams started in the same game. The Steelers rush for 4.72 yards a carry when those two start and complete a game, and just 3.18 yards per carry when they do not. Adams looks to return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 12 at Cleveland.
Not that Roethlisberger isn't throwing well; he's on pace for a career-low in interceptions, and has five touchdown passes in his last two games. Much of it is due to to what appears to be a reversion to a style of play he had last season when the Steelers crumbled in a similar fashion to how they appear to be ending this season. He's hanging onto the ball much longer than he was earlier in the season, and the offense isn't moving well. They've lost the time of possession battle in each of its last two games - and three of its last four - after leading this category in 10 of their first 11 games (losing it by three seconds to Tennessee, which is virtually a tie).
The Steelers have to regroup and get back to the fundamentals, and despite some controversy fueled by Roethlisberger's comments about playcalling after the Dallas loss, are fully capable of leaning on veteran leadership to prepare for a beatable opponent.
This game will ultimately define the Steelers' season, even with slide that has seen them lose four of five down the stretch. They've had enough time without Taylor in the starting lineup to figure out what is needed, and the offense can return to the form it had earlier this season.
They can, so the question becomes, will they choose to do so?