This Bengals team is 8-3-1 for a reason.
They've put together an impressive season to this point largely on the strength of a balanced offense, but one that relies on its running game. That is paced by perhaps the best one-two punch in the NFL, second-year running back Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill.
The Bengals have invested heavily in their running game, much like we pointed out this off-season, and none have the dual impact of the Bengals' backfield. Hill is the balanced back with good power and vision, and Bernard is the explosive runner, a threat in the passing game as well.
That's a concern. The Steelers struggle to stop the run overall and will be challenged up front due to a depleted defensive front-seven that will play its first game without either Brett Keisel or likely James Harrison (doubtful with a knee injury).
The Steelers will need an above-board performance from rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who's likely to take a full complement of snaps in the wake of Keisel's season-ending injury last week against New Orleans.
It seems as if second-year OLB Jarvis Jones will get the nod in place of Harrison and, with a roster move still likely today as Jones is activated from IR-recall, it won't take Bill Walsh to design a Bengals' game plan that will focus heavily on running behind left tackle Andrew Whitworth right at Jones. Testing his stamina and technique after such a long layoff seems appropriate, not to mention the fact Jones isn't exactly the best run-stopping outside linebacker in the NFL anyway.
If and when the Bengals aren't running the ball, it's a good bet that between one-third and half of all their passes will go to wide receiver A.J. Green. He's been featured extensively against the Steelers, having at least 15 targets in the team's last three games against them (2-1). Green is as difficult an assignment as there is in terms of coverage, and technique is often irrelevant with the combination of size and explosive leaping ability he possesses.
In the past, the Steelers have used one cornerback on Green and, due to his talent and the difficulty secondaries have with such a matchup, throwing him the ball likely means, at worst, nine catches with many of them in the 15-18 yard range. The Steelers' secondary was shredded by Drew Brees and the Saints in the team's 35-32 loss in Week 13. While the Bengals may not have the same kind of passing firepower the Saints do, quarterback Andy Dalton has shown enough to be concerned in the sense of the weapons he has at his disposal, and he should have adequate protection in this game.
The Steelers will have to bracket coverage on Green and play him physically while trying to narrow the passing window, particularly on third down, against a streaky Dalton.
Dalton's best game is a controlled and metered passing attack. He doesn't get the ball deep downfield particularly well, but he can get himself in a rhythm and lead a few long drives per game. The Steelers' defense is ill-equipped to be on the field for considerable stretches and, with Cincinnati's defense playing as well as it has during the last three games (only 36 points allowed in three wins), this may come down simply to the amount of turnovers the Bengals' offense has. One or less and their chances are pretty good of controlling the tempo and the outcome.
But if the Steelers can rattle Dalton and fill the running lanes, they have enough offensive firepower to eek out a tight win in a lower-scoring game.