With three quarters of 2015 in the books and five tough losses on their record, every game for the Pittsburgh Steelers is now crucial. But this week's showdown on the road with a bitter rival will be the barometer for the remainder of Pittsburgh's year. It's not a secret that these clubs abhor each other, and the battle on the field can get very ugly. The Steelers need a win plus some help to further their quest for the playoffs. A loss has the potential to be absolutely debilitating. While there are so many key factors to watch for in this game, here (in no particular order of importance) are the matchups to watch.
Key Matchup #1
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs S Reggie Nelson
There's no way around it, Cincinnati has one of the toughest defenses in the league. They have difference-makers up front, in the middle and in the secondary. Not only are the Bengals topping the charts in terms of least points-per-game allowed, with an average of 16.3, but they're 10th overall in yards-per-game allowed, ninth versus the run and 13th against the pass.
The aspect of the game in which they've truly earned their stripes is in the Red Zone. Inside of the 20, they're the third stingiest defense in the league, allowing teams to convert at 44% and leading the league by allowing only 27 opportunities in the Red Zone. That's an average of 2.25 trips per game. The Steelers have the second-best ranking in the NFL on offense. But they're averaging only 3.35 trips to the Red Zone and converting 57% of those journeys into touchdowns. But the Steelers have the ability to stretch the field and try to score with the long ball and keep Cincinnati from holding them to three.
Ben Roethlisberger is playing some of the finest football of his career this season, even after missing parts of seven contests this season. His worst performance of the season was on November 1st against Cincy at Heinz Field in his first game back from his initial injury. He wasn't back to form after the long layoff and he was intercepted three times.
Two of Ben's picks that day ended up in the possession of Reggie Nelson. Nelson has interceptions in his previous four games and leads the entire NFL with seven. However, Nelson will be left on the proverbial island, with most of the Bengal defensive backs currently banged up. But Ben will have a full complement of weapons at his disposal on Sunday.
Key Matchup #2
RB Deangelo Williams vs Vontaze Burfict
Ramon Foster was quite vocal after the first AFC North showdown in November regarding Burfict's celebration after knocking Le'Veon Bell out for the season for the second year in a row. Vince Williams went as far as tweeting out his anger with what most would view as a threat. David Decastro simply commented that the two teams just don't like each other. Burfict is a big element in that animosity.
Burfict has only been back for a handful of games, but still has amassed 38 tackles in that time. He's a fast, explosive and punishing defender. The Steelers need to account for him at all times. The ninth-ranked run defense of the Bengals is led by AJ Hawk and Rey Maulaga, but the presence of Burfict on a defense full of impact players can be a game-changer.
Williams has proven to be one of the best free-agent grabs in Steelers lore and he's been a key cog in the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack. With 697 yards for a 4.9-yards per carry average and six TDs, Williams has extended drives with first downs and long runs. He has busted off a plethora of long runs this season and has been a complete back this year. His rushing, receiving and blocking have made him pivotal to the team's success.
Expect these two to meet head-on early and often on Sunday.
Key Matchup #3
LB Ryan Shazier and Anybody That Wants To Help vs TE Tyler Eifert
During his press conference this week, Mike Tomlin mentioned that Eifert "can't be covered in a vacuum". Translation: "He's Gronk-equivalent. Let us Pray".
Eifert has become "state-of-the-art" at tight end. He has 46 catches for 522 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year. He is on track for 16 scores this year, which would leave him one shy of Rob Gronkowski's 2011 record. With an average of more than 11 yards per reception, Eifert can shred defenses and extend drives, much like he did in the first outing at Heinz. Eifert is slated to return after missing last week's game due to a stinger.
When Ryan Shazier is healthy, he can dominate the entire field. But staying healthy has been the biggest chink in Ryan's armor. He needs to stay healthy, chuck Eifert to knock him off of his route and get some help. The Steelers have struggled with the tight end all season long. In four of their five losses, they couldn't stop a top-level TE. The culprits include Gronk, Travis Kelce, a Jimmy Graham and Eifert.
Eifert is the guy that most likely can put a dagger through the heart of the Steeler's playoff hopes, so they'll need that armor to be impenetrable on Sunday.
Key Matchup #4
The 4-Corner Rotation vs QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green
The "Red Rifle" is having his best season. But much like the team that he leads, his star has notably faded in the playoffs. That's probably why the fair-weather fans in Cincy booed him at an MLB All-Star event. But nonetheless, Dalton has 25 touchdown passes against six picks on the year. The eighth-ranked passer in the league has potent weapons in the form of Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Mo Sanu, Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. But the game-breaker of the group is A.J. Green.
Green has 515 yards in the last four games against the Steelers. He has thoroughly dominated Pittsburgh. But in their last game, Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell kept him in front of them at all times and most of his catches were short passes. With Brandon Boykin and William Gay joining Blake and Cockrell in the rotation, look for the Steelers to continue to allow the short stuff, get in Green's grill and try to keep him from burning them deep.
Key Matchup #5
WR Antonio Brown vs CB Dre Kirkpatrick
Brown seems to be on his way to another 120+ season of catches. He's the most dynamic receiver in the game today. But the one guy that held him to the least amount of yards this year when Roethlisberger was his quarterback is Kirkpatrick. The rookie corner held Brown to 47 yards and a score last time out. But with most of the Bengal secondary spending the week in the tub and Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton thriving, Dre will have very little help and Brown isn't likely to forget recent history. That could be dangerous for Cincy and the goalposts.
More Notable Matchups
LB Lawrence Timmons vs RB Giovanni Bernard and RB Jordan Hill
LDE Stephon Tuitt vs RG Kevin Zeitler
The Steelers Beleaguered Kick Coverage Unit vs KR Brandon Tate
LT Alejandro Villanueva and LG Ramon Foster and RT Marcus Gilbert vs RDE Michael Johnson, RDT Geno Atkins and LDE Carlos Dunlap