Both teams enter the game on losing streaks. Pittsburgh has dropped two straight while the Bengals have lost five in a row. It’s December in the NFL, which means both teams are banged up as well. Cincinnati will play without dynamic rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, who was lost for the season in their week eleven contest against Washington with a knee injury. Running back Joe Mixon and offensive tackle Jonah Williams are also out. The Steelers are missing several key pieces on defense, especially at linebacker, and are thin along the offensive line. While Burrow’s injury has the most significance, both teams will need solid play from a host of reserves to be successful.
This game has huge playoff implications for the Steelers. They can lock up the AFC North with a win, which would guarantee them a home playoff game. They are still in position to finish as the top seed in the AFC, which would earn them the conference’s sole bye, but they likely need to win out and have Kansas City stumble to do so. A bye would be nice, but given the way the Steelers have played the last two weeks, getting back to playing sound football and, in the spirit of Austin Powers, finding their mojo again must come first.
Cincinnati has seen their season come to a screeching halt. They upset Tennessee in week eight to improve to 2-5-1. That followed narrow losses to playoff contenders Cleveland (37-34) and Indianapolis (31-27). The Bengals were competitive, playing hard and had found their franchise-quarterback in Burrow, who was living up to the hype as the top overall pick in the 2020 draft. After just eight games, Burrow looked like a veteran. Cincinnati wasn’t good yet, but with Burrow in the fold they showed promise.
Then, following a week nine beat-down by the Steelers where Burrow was sacked four times in a 36-10 defeat, he tore his ACL and MCL against Washington. Burrow had surgery on the knee and, according to head coach Zac Taylor, is expected to make a full recovery in time for the 2021 season. The ship has sailed on 2020, however, as the Bengals are averaging just 10 points per game and are -7 in the turnover department with the unheralded Brandon Allen as Burrow’s replacement.
Let’s take a closer look at these two teams as we head into Monday night’s match-up and outline some of the keys to victory for the Steelers.
The state of the Steelers
The state of the Steelers is a matter of perspective. The view from within the organization suggests the team needs to execute better, play more physically, be accountable and honor their “next man up” mentality. If they do these things, they will be fine.
From outside the organization, it’s a five-alarm fire. National pundits are writing Pittsburgh off and the fan-base is apoplectic. The Steelers can’t run or throw the ball. They can’t catch it or kick it. They’re fielding a JV team on defense. Everyone should be fired. Randy Fichtner should be fired twice.
Where is the truth? As in most cases where perspectives and passions clash, it’s probably somewhere in the middle. The Steelers are certainly struggling on offense, where they’ve abandoned the run game and where the short and intermediate passing attack that replaced it has been stymied in recent weeks. The Steelers have gone from averaging 29.8 points per game in their first ten contests to just 17 in the last three. They look disheveled offensively and need to either execute their pass-happy scheme better or find an alternative.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom, however. The defense, which has been ravaged by injury, is holding up. Last week, they limited a Buffalo offense that was third in the league in passing and sixth in points-scored to just 19 points and 238 passing yards despite missing starters Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, Joe Haden, Vince Williams and Robert Spillane. The situation at linebacker was so bad the Steelers inserted converted safety Marcus Allen into the lineup and blitzed him on nearly every snap to mask the fact he is not a true linebacker. Buffalo didn’t move the ball with much success until the second half, when they managed to get the NFL’s leading receiver, Stefon Diggs, isolated in coverage against Haden’s replacement at corner, Cam Sutton.
Some questioned why Diggs was allowed to operate against Sutton and was not shadowed by Steven Nelson. The answer is because the Steelers almost always play their corners to one side of the field and rarely have them swap. Nelson plays the right side, Haden (or in this case, Sutton) plays the left. The safeties occasionally trade sides according to the placement of the football, with Terrell Edmunds playing to the field and Minkah Fitzpatrick to the boundary (this allows for pre-snap rotations that often put Edmunds into the alley as an extra box defender). But because Haden and Nelson are roughly equal in coverage, and because perimeter players often get comfortable aligning to one side of the ball, the corners are stationary.
The Steelers had already made so many adjustments to compensate for the reserves in the lineup that tweaking the scheme to allow Nelson to follow Diggs may have been too much. Or perhaps they simply believed Sutton was up to the task. Fault them if you will. It’s an easy criticism in hindsight.
Haden and Vince Williams are likely to return against Cincinnati, restoring some stability to the unit. Linebacker Avery Williamson, acquired in a trade with the Jets in week nine, was excellent against Buffalo, recording a team-high 11 tackles. Allen held up too, with eight tackles and a tackle-for-loss. The defense is still championship-caliber, even with Bush and Dupree gone for the season.
Offensively, it’s a different situation. As I wrote about here, I don’t believe the Steelers can go deep into the playoffs without re-establishing their run game. They buried it week eight at Baltimore and it is yet to be exhumed. How they might do so is a matter of conjecture. The offensive line is banged up, James Conner can’t stay healthy, Benny Snell has been quiet and Anthony McFarland was benched last week. Jaylen Samuels has gotten 27 snaps each of the past two weeks, his largest number of the season, which suggests he may take on a bigger role going forward. Samuels is not the key to an effective rushing attack, however. The key is commitment. For the Steelers to run the football adequately again, they’re going to have to emphasize the run in practice and in their game-plan.
How will Pittsburgh adjust on offense against Cincinnati in an attempt to get back on track? That’s the question of the week as we head towards Monday night.
The state of the Bengals
Cincinnati, at 2-10-1, has the third-worst record in the league behind the New York Jets and Jacksonville. A win over the Steelers would do wonders for their morale, but, in the big picture, they could use the high draft slot more.
Should the Jets and Jaguars claim the top two picks, they are virtually guaranteed to take quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State (probably in that order). That would leave Penei Sewell, the offensive tackle from Oregon, for the Bengals at #3. Sewell is the highest-rated offensive line prospect in years. His draft stock is so high that he opted out of playing this season because he was already a guaranteed top-five pick after competing as a sophomore in 2019. Sewell is just 20 years old and would be ideal for Cincinnati as a blind-side protector for Burrow, who was sacked more than any quarterback in the league other than Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz before being injured.
The play on which Burrow was hurt underscored Cincinnati’s pass protection woes. Left guard Michael Jordan was too high out of his stance and gave up vertical leverage to Washington’s Jonathan Allen. Allen bull-rushed Jordan into the backfield, where Jordan made the reckless decision to throw Allen to the ground. This move is strongly discouraged for obvious reasons - namely, the inherent danger of hurtling a defender at the feet of a stationary quarterback. Allen collapsed into Burrow’s knee, while defensive end Montez Sweat, who had beaten Bengals’ tackle Hakeem Adeniji around the left end, hit Burrow high. The result was ugly.
With such a huge investment in Burrow, it’s impossible not to think the Bengals will do everything they can to acquire Sewell to protect him. I’m not suggesting they will tank on Monday night. Cincinnati-Pittsburgh games are usually hard-fought, if not always competitive, affairs. However, with six four-win teams just above the Bengals in the standings, their incentive to lose in pursuit of the highly-coveted Sewell is far greater than a feel-good late-season win over the Steelers. It may be a good time for Cincinnati to turn things over to their youngsters and see which ones can play.
On the other side of the ball, Cincinnati is 28th in the league in yards per play, 29th in takeaways and 30th in sacks. The Bengals have been particularly bad at giving up explosive plays, defined as those of 20+ yards. They rank 31st in yielding explosive pass plays and 32nd in explosive runs. The Steelers have averaged just 5.2 yards per pass the past three weeks, which, projected over an entire season, would rank dead last in the league. Their reliance on short passes is astounding, as evidenced by Roethlisberger’s week 14 distribution chart from NextGen stats:
Of his 37 throws against Buffalo, only nine traveled more than ten yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Of those, just three were complete and only Roethlisberger’s touchdown to James Washington flirted with the notion of being “explosive.” It’s no wonder the Steelers have relied so heavily on the short pass - they’ve simply been unable to throw it deeper down the field. A Cincinnati defense not immune to giving up big pass plays may provide a great opportunity to throw vertically, which in turn could loosen the defense and open up the run game. Two birds, one stone.
If there was an ideal landing spot on Pittsburgh’s schedule for this particular game, here it is. The Steelers can clinch the AFC North, reinvigorate the offense and feast on defense against an inexperienced quarterback and a poor offensive line. They can’t squander the chance to regain both momentum and confidence with a poor performance. They must re-assert themselves if they expect to contend in the playoffs. Monday night’s contest is the perfect opportunity to do just that.