The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals will meet for the second and likely last time of the 2017 season when the boys from the Steel City visit Paul Brown Stadium on Monday Night Football.
To get you ready for the game, here are the nuts and bolts of the huge AFC North grudge match about to ensue:
A Tweet-length scouting report of the Bengals
A.J. Green, who’s responsible for eight plays of 20 or more yards this season, plays for the Bengals. (On a related noted, Pittsburgh’s secondary has allowed eight plays of 20 or more yards during the past seven quarters.)
A longer scouting report of the Bengals
I knew this would happen! I knew the Bengals would begin to figure things out eventually. I was 100-percent sure the Bengals would rebound from their 0-3 start and make a run at the AFC playoffs, inspiring hope for future and, most importantly, saving Marvin Lewis’ job for yet another season.
The Bengals are now 5-6 after making easy work of the (admittedly bad) Broncos and Browns in Weeks 11 and 12, respectively. As a result, they now sit just a game back in the AFC Wildcard race.
Balance has been the name of the game for Cincinnati, as per usual. They made Joe Mixon the focal point of their offensive attack over the past two weeks, giving the rookie running back just shy of 50 offensive touches. Quarterback Andy Dalton has luxuriated in his reduced role, throwing for just over 350 yards collectively during the past two weeks, but tossing five touchdowns and accounting for zero turnovers.
Shifting to a more Kansas City Chiefs-like offensive philosophy has proved to be a prudent move for Cincinnati, which has one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. For context, Dalton has been sacked 28 times (sixth-most in the NFL) and Mixon is averaging an almost unbelievable 3.2 yards per carry (the second-worst mark in the NFL among running backs with 100 or more carries).
To my knowledge, Vontaze Burfict has not committed any murders.
The neatest match-up: Cincinnati’s defense vs. Pittsburgh’s nighttime offense
The Steelers are good in prime-time, which is an accurate statement. At a certain point, a tendency becomes a hallmark. And I think an 8-game sample size is sufficient to demonstrate that Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown become legitimate football metahumans when performing in that coveted 8:30 time slot.
The second-neatest matchup: Le’Veon Bell vs. everyone
Bell—who has openly criticized Burfict on numerous occasions for playing dirty, mocked Green for choking out Jalen Ramsey as part of a touchdown celebration, and nearly stiff-armed Dre Kirkpatrick into retirement—is not a fan of Joe Mixon. There is a very palpable Naya Rivera vs. Kim Kardashian West beef afoot. Mixon thinks he can do “way more” than Bell. Bell thinks Mixon is copying his running style and choice of accessories. The whole thing is super ridiculous, especially when considering that these guys are, in many ways, akin to the Spider-Man pointing at himself meme.
Still, it appears that Bell has selected Mixon as his nemesis, which means he’s likely going to be doing all he can to upstage his rookie counterpart. This bodes well for the Steelers’ chances, as there seems to be a pretty direct correlation between Bell’s usage rate and Pittsburgh’s success.
An important storyline: Cameron Heyward’s DPOY case
Now, I should make this clear: I do NOT believe that Cameron Heyward will win Defensive Player of the year, but I do think he deserves some consideration for this honor.
His case has grown considerably stronger over the past two games, as Heyward has collected four sacks, extending his team lead to nine in the process. His nine sacks also rank first in the NFL among 3-4 defensive ends, which is a distinction that will likely keep him from making his first career Pro Bowl, an honor he deserves more than any player on the Steelers not named Antonio Brown, David DeCastro or Le’Veon Bell.
Given its demonstrable issues in creating running lanes and protecting Andy Dalton, it’s very likely Cincinnati has created a game plan directing the football away from Heyward as much as possible. This should provide Heyward with a nice stage on which to prove his worth to a national contingent of Pro Bowl voters.
Three interesting things (plus one bonus thing)
- Cincinnati’s first-round pick John Ross has zero catches this season.
- Jeremy Hill’s yards-per-carry average is, against all odds, even worse than Mixon’s this season. He sits a distant third on Cincinnati’s running back depth chart. I remain convinced that Hill’s fumble in the 2015 Wildcard game effectively ended his career.
- In 16 career Monday night games, Roethlisberger is 12-4. In those games, however, he’s thrown 3,124 yards, 22 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. That amounts to an 84.9 rating, which is approximately 10 points below his career average. Statistically, he is Jay Cutler.
- This appeared on one of the Bengals sites: “It’s no secret that Burfict is under the microscope of the league and its many officials. We’ve seen it help lead to penalties and even ejections that were uncalled for.” I thought this was amusing.
Prediction: Bengals 28, Steelers 21
This is not to generate controversy, I promise.
Here are some things to consider:
- The Bengals are playing at home.
- The Bengals likely need to win out in order to force a win-and-you’re-in default playoff game against Baltimore in Week 17.
- Marvin Lewis, at this point, is probably coaching for his job. The same is true for his coordinators.
- The Bengals have lost their last five games to the Steelers and eight of their past nine. They’ve gotta win one of these eventually.
Maybe I’m reaching, but a desperate division rival playing in their home stadium is gonna be a tough out for any team.
None of this is to suggest that the Steelers will mail it in because they are “looking ahead” to their own showdown with New England. Indeed, the Steelers have plenty on the line this Sunday and in the weeks ahead, as securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs could be what ultimately enables them to surmount the monolithic challenge posed by Tom Brady and his Patriots. Regardless, I think the Bengals will do just enough to remain in the playoff hunt for another week.