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Steelers vs. Bengals Week 7: The nuts and bolts of this AFC North grudge match

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A comprehensive overview of things you didn’t know you needed to know heading into Week 7.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Are statistics garbage?

No. No, they’re not. Statistics are awesome, and here’s why: you can manipulate statistics to fit any narrative.

For example, since 1980, 168 NFL teams have started the season 0-3. Of this contingent, only five rebounded to make the playoffs. That’s roughly a 3 percent success rate. The Cincinnati Bengals started the 2017 season 0-3, which should essentially take them out of the running.

Conversely, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-2 and well-positioned to make their fourth consecutive trip to the AFC Playoffs. In fact, the New York Times used math to pinpoint Pittsburgh’s playoff probability (my apologies for the alliteration). After running 47 quindecillion (that’s a 1 followed by 48 zeroes) simulations, the Times gave the Steelers an 80 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 70 percent chance to win the AFC North.

But probabilistic outlooks are notoriously surface-level and fail to consider factors underpinning a team’s current state. The Steelers, for instance, are a pair of Antonio Brown miracle catches away from potentially being 2-4. A reasonable argument could be made, however, that Pittsburgh should be 5-1, if not 6-0, based on the level of competition it has faced thus far.

The Bengals, on the other hand, lost to Houston and Green Bay by a combined seven points. As such, if you told me that Cincinnati was a 4-1 team wearing a 2-3 costume, I wouldn’t debate.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Sunday’s Steelers-Bengals tilt is significant, just like it always is, and that it’ll be a competitive game, just like it usually is. Let’s grab and expound on some notable storylines:

Problem solvers

Pittsburgh’s 4-2 start has, in many ways, been a microcosm of the NFL season to this point. Widely considered to be among the league’s top Super Bowl contenders, the Steelers have struggled to stop the run and have been unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities (they are converting only 50 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns). The former ailment contributed to their 23-17 overtime loss to a bad Bears team in Week 3, while both maladies operated concurrently in the Steelers’ laughable 30-9 home loss to the Jaguars.

The Steelers regularly under-perform against “lesser” opponents (though I’m not entirely convinced that Jacksonville qualifies, as they appear to be legitimately talented), but I think Pittsburgh’s 4-2 record is somewhat attributable to the sudden and frightening onset of league-wide parity. The Browns are pretty bad. So, too, are the 49ers. But after six weeks of football, there are, like, 23 teams within a game or two of first place in their divisions. Do you really believe the Philadelphia Eagles or Kansas City Chiefs are the best teams in the NFL? I don’t, but their current records say so. Do you really believe the AFC East is the best division in football? I don’t, but every team is .500 or better, and the Jets—who were supposed to be using the 2017 season to tank for the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft—honest to God almost beat the New England Patriots.

The Steelers might have just defeated the best team in the AFC, and they may be the current leaders of their division, but they, much like every other “contender,” have had their issues. These include their inability to stop the run (which has since been solved—at least for the time being) and Ben Roethlisberger’s general precariousness (which also seemingly has been solved, as exemplified by Ben’s “ol’ cowboy” declaration).

Cincinnati, meanwhile, was so historically bad offensively to begin the season that they canned their offensive coordinator several hours after their Week 2 loss to the Texans. They’ve since remedied those concerns, averaging 25ish points and 360ish yards in their past two games, both resulting in wins. This bodes well for their outlook, as the Bengals have been solid defensively (they’ve held every opposing quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers to under 200 passing yards and they’re currently ranked in the top half of the league in run defense). On offense, they’ve recently incorporated Le’Veon Bell-clone and rookie running back Joe Mixon into their attack, which should eventually give their running game a boost.

The Neatest Matchup: A.J. Green vs. Joe Haden and/or Artie Burns

The Steelers ranked 30th in the NFL in pass defense in 2016. In September 2017, Pittsburgh scooped up the recently-released Joe Haden from his own personal Dante’s Inferno, and as of this writing, the Steelers have the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

Truthfully, Haden has been mildly anonymous so far this season, which is precisely the qualifier you want attached to your team’s starting cornerback. The sample size of good receivers Pittsburgh has faced isn’t particularly voluminous, but the Steelers can only defend who they play, and Haden et al. have been defending the heck out of opposing receivers. A.J. Green is the best receiver they’ll see this season beyond their own practice facility, and they have to face him twice.

Here’s a statistic that I think is utterly goofy: in his past six regular season games against the Steelers, Green has averaged eight catches for 114 yards and has scored three touchdowns. The Bengals lost five of those games. Now, it appears that Pittsburgh’s secondary is considerably better than it was in any of those previous six meetings. So I’m interested to see how Green responds against a budding star in Burns and a player in Haden whom he considers to be among the best cornerbacks he’s ever faced, especially after being held to two catches for 38 yards in his last meeting with the Steelers, a game in which he was shadowed by the incorrigible Ross Cockrell.

The Second-Neatest Matchup: Vontaze Burfict vs. Everyone

Fun fact: the last time Vontaze Burfict played at Heinz Field was November 1, 2015. That day, it was his tackle that vaporized Bell’s right knee, causing Bell to miss the remainder of the season.

Since then, Burfict has emerged as arguably the most prominent on-field villain in the NFL, due in large part to his attempted assassination of Antonio Brown in the 2016 AFC Playoffs. Pittsburgh fans still boo Jaromir Jagr and Mike Wallace, so Burfict is not likely to be welcomed back to Pittsburgh with open arms. Subjectively felonious behavior aside, Burfict is a stellar football linebacker and he presents a whole host of problems for the Steelers’ offensive line and run game. Bell has rebounded terrifically from his frosty start to the season, but you can count on Burfict to be chasing him sideline-to-sideline like a rabid hellbeast.

Sunday’s game will be decided by...

Line play, which is an easy answer, but the correct one nonetheless. The Bengals created a cavernous maw on the left side of their offensive line by allowing tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler to bounce in free agency. As Whitworth and Zeitler were putting pen to paper with LA and Cleveland, respectively, Cameron Heyward continued rehabilitate his injured pectoral that cost him much of his 2016 season. With Heyward back in the fold, Stephon Tuitt having established himself as a legitimate star, and Javon Hargrave serving as the most unheralded member of Pittsburgh’s resurgent defense, the Steelers possess an undeniably formidable defensive line. If Pittsburgh can coax Cincinnati into being one-dimensional—namely, by mitigating the run game and forcing Andy Dalton to test the secondary—it should improve their chances to emerge with their fifth victory of the season.

On the other side, it’s Pittsburgh’s offensive line that should enable the Steelers to win time of possession, just as they did in their victories against Minnesota, Baltimore and Kansas City. Despite fielding one of the most talented collection of skill players in the NFL, the name of the game for the Steelers this season has been clock control. Playing this style of football is decidedly un-Todd Haley-like and it certainly lessens the visual appeal of the brand. But, on the other hand, it does—as proven by Pittsburgh’s 4-2 record—win games.

Three Big Questions

  1. Who is more likely to be on their respective team in 2018, Ben Roethlisberger or Marvin Lewis? A Super Bowl win could push Ben out that door; the same result would save Lewis’ job.
  2. What feat of sheer wizardry will Antonio Brown perform this week? He has, amazingly, ascended to a singular tier of receivers and is perhaps better than he’s ever been. I’m predicting a punt return for a touchdown. I feel like it has been a while (*checks* Yep, December 2015, otherwise known as the Crotch-first, Goalpost-jump game).
  3. Will the Steelers do anything differently to get Martavis Bryant involved in the offense? He’s been uncharacteristically nondescript this season, save for the trade rumors. While the Steelers obviously cannot complete a 40-yard pass on every play, they can make Bryant a focal point of their offense in the red-zone, where he’s received only three targets in 20 trips.

Conclusion

Sunday should be a mighty fine homecoming game for the Steelers, who will be seeking to wash away the stink of their Week 5 home loss to Jacksonville while simultaneously putting some distance between themselves and a division rival. More importantly, though, it should provide Roethlisberger and company with a proper stage to demonstrate the newfound stability of the offense (so long as there is newfound stability, of course).

Prediction: Steelers 23, Bengals 17

Miscellaneous facts: DO NOT take the over. It will be somewhere in the very low 40s and the Bengals and Steelers have combined to cover the over once so far this season; it does not seem likely that they’ll do so jointly. Per Oddshark, the Bengals are 1-6-1 against the spread versus Pittsburgh in their last eight games. The Steelers are currently 4-point favorites, so I’m comfortable with the aforementioned prediction.