There are a myriad of factors which could ultimately decide the outcome of the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals Week 14 game. The Steelers ability to pressure Andy Dalton, Todd Haley keeping the Pittsburgh offense balanced with DeAngelo Williams to protect Ben Roethlisberger and even the porous Pittsburgh secondary being able to slow down the dynamic Cincinnati passing attack.
With all those factors playing a role, the ultimate factor, or 'X-Factor', would be the Steelers' ability to take advantage of a Bengals secondary which has been decimated by injury.
The Bengals are decimated in their secondary - probably the worst spot to be hurting when playing this Steelers team.
To start the season, the Bengals secondary was their deepest position, featuring five first round players (Adam Jones, Leon Hall, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and Reggie Nelson) - all of which were playing at a top level. Through the first nine weeks, that depth stayed intact. Unfortunately for the Bengals - fortunate for the Steelers - the Bengals have burned through that depth rapidly the last few weeks. Coming into this game, Dre Kirkpatrick is the only healthy starting corner (and he has been their weakest corner thus far).
The biggest injury is Adam Jones (foot). PFF currently has Jones ranked in the top 10 at the cornerback position and he has clearly been the Bengals best corner thus far. While I don't believe he can shut down Antonio Brown - I don't think any corner can - his speed, quickness and aggressiveness makes him the only corner on this team (and one of the few in all of the NFL), who has a chance to cover Brown.
The corner who would take his place, 2014 first round pick Darqueze Dennard, was lost for the season three weeks ago with a shoulder injury. Their nickel corner, Leon Hall, will play, but has a nagging back injury that kept him out last week and limited him this week in practice - in fact, he probably would not play if they weren't so thin at CB at the moment. Starting opposite Kirkpatrick will likely be rookie fourth round pick, Josh Shaw - who himself left mid-game last week with a scary back injury. The fourth corner will be a rookie, Troy Hill, who was just pulled off the practice squad last week and had to play about 50% of the snaps due to the injuries above. To make matters worse, the Bengals rangy, hard hitting safety, George Iloka, who missed last week (groin), is listed as questionable, and if he does play, he will be less than 100%.
Needless to say, I don't think this injury laden secondary can cover the Steelers explosive receivers and the Steelers have to be licking their chops.
The ultimate question is whether the Steelers can take advantage of the banged up Cincinnati secondary. The biggest factor in this equation likely won't have anything to do with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant or Heath Miller. In fact, it has everything to do with the Pittsburgh offensive line protecting Roethlisberger and giving him the time to throw the football down the field to the Steelers deep wide receiving corps.
In the Week 8 game against the Bengals, Geno Atkins and company were able to get to Roethlisberger, to the tune of 3 sacks, several QB hits and hurries and three interceptions by No. 7. If the Steelers offensive line can protect Roethlisberger there is no doubt Pittsburgh will be able to take advantage of the Cincinnati defensive secondary, but actually getting it done could result in the Steelers propelling their record to 8-5, or dropping closer to mediocrity and 7-6.
The Steelers and Bengals kickoff at 1:00 p.m. EDT in Cincinnati, OH.