The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals will square off for the third time this season in the AFC Wild Card round on Saturday night. Leading up to the game, I was fortunate to get to sit down with Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle (SB Nation's Bengals website) to talk about this game from the Bengals' perspective.
You can see the interview below, and if you are looking for the best coverage of this playoff game, from the Bengals' perspective, be sure to check out Cincy Jungle for the latest and greatest news coming from Paul Brown Stadium.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals garnered over $100k in fines in Week 14. Do you think the "chippy" play will continue in the playoffs, or will the teams be more focused on the game?
I don't. I certainly think it will be a very physical game - as all AFC North games are - but, at least from the Bengals perspective, I don't think there will be any chippy play. After their last matchup, the Bengals talked about how they let emotions get in the way and how they need to cut that stuff out and it has been talked about again all this week. More importantly, the referees are going to have a short leash for that sort of behavior in this game. They will be very well apprised of what happened the last time these two met, and in what should be a good game, neither team can afford to give up 15 free yards (or lose a player).
There aren't many changes coaches can make when going against a division rival in the playoffs, but what would be a few offensive and defensive wrinkles the Bengals might deploy to make an impact in the game Saturday night?
The biggest change will be an offensive game plan catered to AJ McCarron's strengths. Nothing is more difficult for a backup quarterback than getting thrown into a game with zero first team reps, and that is exactly what happened to McCarron a few weeks back. Given the situation, McCarron played pretty admirably against the Steelers - 280 yards and 2 touchdowns - but his two interceptions were the key to the Steelers win - leading directly to 14 Steelers points. Since being prepared as the starter, McCarron has protected the ball and has 0 interceptions in his three starts.
With McCarron, the Bengals will lean a little more on the run game and take calculated shots down the field. McCarron throws a very nice deep ball and if the Steelers bring an extra defender in the box, he will take shots down field to A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. The other change will be the involvement of Tyler Eifert. In their last meeting, Before being knocked out with a concussion in the first drive, Eifert was on pace for a big day - 2 receptions for 42 yards. If Eifert stays healthy on Saturday, his presence changes what this offense can and will be able to do.
With McCarron at quarterback, what are the limitations fans have on him, in terms of passes thrown, etc., to be successful in the game. Or is it a "go and cut it loose" mentality with the backup QB?
McCarron has played very well since replacing Andy Dalton - 6 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 97.1 rating, 64.4 QBR, and he is completing 66.4% of his passes. As I mentioned above, his only two interceptions came against the Steelers when he took zero first team reps. That being said, Dalton has 80+ NFL starts under his belt compared to McCarron's 3. As a result, the Bengals have trimmed the play book (not a ton, but enough), relied more on the run game and unbalanced lines and have not asked him to win the game. As a result, McCarron hasn't had to take many risks. The key for the Bengals is to not get behind big and allow this trend to continue. If the game is close, I expect the Bengals to try and keep the ball away from Ben and the Steelers offense by utilizing the run and then taking strategic shots down field.
The Steelers secondary is among the worst in the league. Will the Bengals try to attack the secondary with Green, Sanu and Jones, or will they attempt to grind out the clock, and avoid a shootout with the Steelers, with the running game of Hill and Bernard?
Yes and no.
The Bengals strength is their passing game and they can certainly exploit this Steelers secondary - they compiled 339 yards passing, despite McCarron playing all but a few minutes. However, doing so is a catch 22. The Bengals are still starting a backup quarterback with three NFL starts, and the more you throw, the quicker you give the ball back to the Steelers offense (whether you score or not) - which is not what they want to do. As you know, the best defense against Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and crew, is to keep them off the field. You do that with the run game and long extended drives. As a result, as long as the game is close, I expect the Bengals game plan to be heavily skewed to the run game and Eifert. If they can draw the Steelers safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, then they will sprinkle in a few deep shots to try and capitalize on mismatches.
How do you see this game unfolding, what is your prediction?
These two played a close, physical game in Pittsburgh earlier this year and if it weren't for Dalton's injury, I think their last matchup would have been very close as well (it certainly was physical). With McCarron now prepared to start, I see a very similar trend - a close and physical game. While many believe this game will turn on the quarterbacks (and primetime/playoff curses), I think it turns on the offensive and defensive lines. If the Bengals can protect McCarron and get to Ben - which I think they can - I like them to win at home in a close, hard fought game. Bengals 24, Steelers 21.