The 6-0 Cincinnati Bengals are coming to Heinz Field Sunday in a huge AFC North showdown. The 4-3 Pittsburgh Steelers can not afford to have their record drop to .500 if they have serious hopes of claiming their second consecutive division crown.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with Scott Bantel of Cincy Jungle, SB Nation's Bengals website, to talk about the upcoming game from the opponent's point of view. We go behind enemy lines to get the low down on the grudge match from the Bengals' perspective.
Marvin Lewis is a coach who has had tremendous success in the regular season, but hasn't won a playoff game in his time with Cincinnati. Have fans of the Bengals reached the end of the road with Lewis, and would you consider this season to be a "win or you are fired" year for the head coach?
If it were up to the fans, Lewis would have been gone years ago. He has certainly proven he can win in the regular season, as evidenced by the Bengals making the playoffs five of the last six years, but his 0-6 record in the playoffs has fans frustrated to put it mildly. In defense of Lewis, he has completely changed this organization - from talent, to culture, to perception, etc. When he took over the Bengals, he inherited the laughing stock of the league and an owner - Mike Brown - who couldn't live up to the success of his legendary father (Paul Brown) and who was stuck in his penny pinching ways and owning a team for the sake of profit (as opposed to winning). Lewis has been the guiding force in leading the Bengals out of the NFL basement and into the yearly playoff contender they have become. For that, fans should be grateful. But, to your point, the question becomes has he taken this team as far as he can and is it time for a new voice? The fans would say yes. If they don't make a deep run in the playoffs this year, I would say yes as well. However, the organization is loyal to a fault and has stuck with much less successful coaches. With Lewis leading the organization in wins, playoff appearances and consecutive playoff appearances, I doubt this management team would fire him.
Approaching the game, if you were the Steelers' offensive and defensive coordinators, what would your game plan be to stop the Bengals offense and defense?
Much like defending the Steelers, defending this Bengals offense is tough because they have so many weapons. If I am the Steeler's defensive coordinator, I would focus on taking away Andy Dalton's favorite target, Tyler Eifert, and shutting down the run, forcing Dalton to beat you with his receivers on the outside. It is definitely easier said than done, and no one has been able to accomplish that yet, but that would be my focus.
If I am Todd Haley, I would give it to Le'Veon Bell early and often. The Bengals defensive line can get after the quarterback, but the run defense - especially at the linebacker position - has shown some vulnerabilities. The Bengals defense is much improved since last year, but think about this, in their two matchups in 2014, Bell lit up the Bengals for 205 yards rushing on 34 carries (6.0 YPC), 130 yards receiving on 12 receptions and three touchdowns ...and he left the second game early with a knee injury. So, if I were Todd Haley, I would make the Bengals and Paul Guenther prove they can stop Bell.
The Steelers are 4-3 and really need this win Sunday to keep any hopes of winning the division alive. Are the Bengals and their fans view this game as a possibility to knock the Steelers' out of the division equation? And how long will their hot streak last, or is it the case of waiting for the other foot to drop?
I think this game is definitely more crucial for the Steelers because as you said, if they lose and drop to 4-4 and let the Bengals get to 7-0, their hopes for the division are all but gone. However, a win by the Steelers keeps things interesting in the division. Because of that, I think the Bengals players and fans recognize the magnitude of this game. A win for the Bengals wouldn't "technically" seal the division, but it would change the focus from winning the division to getting a bye and perhaps home field advantage.
As for how long the hot streak will last, I don't think this is a streak at all. This is a really good football team and many in football believe the Bengals have the best roster and most balanced team in the NFL. Does that mean they are the best team? Absolutely not. But, they don't have any glaring weaknesses. They have a top five offensive line, a top five tight end (Tyler Eifert), the best running back duo in the league, a top five receiver, one of the better number two receivers (Marvin Jones) and Andy Dalton is playing great. On defense, they have five first round players in the secondary who are all playing up to their ability, they have a top five defensive line, one of the best defensive tackles (Geno Atkins), the current sack leader (Carlos Dunlap) and they have the ability to rotate eight defensive lineman with little drop in play. The weakest link is the linebacker position and that is what I think the Steelers will attack. But, between this matchup and the next time these two teams meet, the Bengals play Cleveland, Houston and Saint Louis at home and Arizona and Cleveland on the road. I think they will be favored comfortably in four of those five games, which makes this game all the more important for the Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger looks to be prepared to start Sunday against Cincinnati. Roethlisberger has had tremendous success against the Bengals, why do you think that is, and what frustrates fans the most about No. 7 for the Steelers?
What frustrates fans? Can everything be my response! You are right, Roethlisberger has had great success against the Bengals and drives Bengals fans (and all opposing fans) crazy. I think the first part is simply that he is really damned good. Bengals fans don't want to admit it, but the guy is good. The other thing that has killed the Bengals in the past when it comes to Roethlisberger is his ability to escape sacks, extend plays and make big plays on those broken plays. With the exception of 2014, the Bengals defensive line has been very good and been able to get to Roethlisberger, but not get him on the ground - a problem not unique to just the Bengals. When that happens, more often than not, Roethlisberger makes them pay. Roethlisberger's mobility this weekend could be a key, because if he extends plays, he will find open receivers.
How do you see this game playing out, and what is your prediction?
I am torn on this one. During my preseason picks, I had the Bengals losing this game. However, the Bengals actually play the Steelers better in Pittsburgh than they do in Cincinnati and the Steelers injuries/weaknesses happen to line up with the Bengals biggest strengths. The injury to Maurkice Pouncey is huge this week because Geno Atkins is back to his pro bowl level and has been overwhelming centers. The injury to Kelvin Beachum is also big because the Bengals defensive ends are doing a great job of pressuring quarterbacks. Combine those with a presumably less mobile Roethlisberger, and that is an advantage for the Bengals. Lastly, the Steelers secondary is probably their weakest link and the Bengals wide receivers/tight ends are their biggest strengths. As a result, I think the Bengals win this one in a close, high scoring and entertaining game. However, I am not confident with this pick, and if Bell gets going for 130+ all-purpose yards, that will spell trouble for the Bengals.
For the best information on the Steelers and Bengals game from the Bengals' perspective, check out Scott and the rest of his staff at Cincy Jungle.