The Pittsburgh Steelers bring their 6-game winning streak into Cincinnati on Monday night to do battle with their AFC North arch-rival, the Bengals. For the first time in more than a month (since their Week-8 win in Detroit), Pittsburgh will face an opponent starting a veteran, first-string quarterback. Ordinarily, because that quarterback is the wildly inconsistent Andy Dalton, you’d feel pretty confident about this matchup. Dalton currently ranks No. 25 in total quarterback rating in the NFL, placing him in the same neighborhood as Eli Manning and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston. The fact that the Bengals are currently suffering disarray on their offensive line, plus an injury-plagued linebacker corps, would only tend to heighten the expectation of a seventh-straight Pittsburgh win to push their record to 10-2.
But we’ve seen enough of this 2017 Steelers team to know that, what seems like easy pickings in the pre-game analysis, frequently turns into a nail-biting, cardiac affair on the gridiron. Given the further circumstance that this game will be played on the road versus divisional rivals who recoil at the mere sight of black-and-gold uniforms, it seems risky to predict anything other than a close, hard-fought battle under the lights at Paul Brown Stadium.
This brings us to the following Three Keys to Victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers:
Key No. 1: Establish the run early and stick with it
Given Cincinnati’s patchwork linebacker crew, the Steelers’ offensive line ought to be able to open up some running lanes for Le’Veon Bell. If No. 26 has a big Monday night toting the pigskin in the Queen City, it’ll make the Steelers’ passing attack all the more effective and will spell big trouble for the Bengals.
Key No. 2: Pressure Dalton and force mistakes
One thing we know about Andy Dalton—when he’s under pressure, he’s prone to large and costly mistakes. Pittsburgh’s front-seven needs to take advantage of the inexperience on the Bengals’ offensive line by knocking Dalton down and generally keeping him off-balance throughout the game. But absent pressure and given time to survey the field, Dalton is every bit as capable of exploiting the Steelers’ defense as those less-experienced quarterbacks Pittsburgh has struggled to stop in recent weeks.
Key No. 3: Ben must continue to spread the ball around
While Antonio Brown had a monster game against Green Bay last Sunday, Ben was also targeting Le’Veon Bell (88 yards), Martavis Bryant (40 yards), Jesse James (32 yards) and Eli Rogers (21 yards). With JuJu Smith-Schuster returning to action in Cincinnati, there’s no reason why Ben needs to focus primarily on No. 84 who, of course, will be drawing the heaviest defensive coverage. By using his full stable of talented receivers, Ben can keep the sticks moving and also keep Cincinnati’s depleted defense on their heels.
This looks like the kind of game that wouldn’t be a surprise whether it was a Steelers’ blowout or another fourth quarter, down-to-the-wire affair. It all depends on which Ben Roethlisberger and which Steelers’ offense shows up at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday night. Thus far in 2017, we’ve seen more of the plodding, misfiring Black-and-gold offense than the offense that blew the Tennessee Titans out of Heinz Field in the second half of the Week-11 game. But strictly counting on the Bengals’ extreme hatred towards the Steelers to play a significant motivational role, a close game seems far more likely than a romp.