The Steelers have scored 72 combined points in their last two games against the Bengals, and those have come on big plays, methodical drives and special teams. This Bengals defense has been up and down all season, both from a production standpoint as well as from an injuries perspective. It picked Peyton Manning off four times in a Monday Night win over Denver in Week 16, but Manning also completed 28 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Denver scored 28 points in the loss, and had the ball with four minutes left in the fourth quarter with the chance to take the lead. It's still the league's ninth-ranked scoring defense, but the Steelers have played outstanding ball control offense recently, not having turned it over in three games.
His Name is Still Dalton
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has lost four of five career primetime games, including Week 15 last season at Pittsburgh. The win over Denver was the first of his career. Dalton has typically fared well against the Steelers, if nothing else, playing an efficient game and limiting turnovers. The key fumble that opened the floodgates against the Steelers in Week 14 was largely blamed on running back Jeremy Hill after the two appeared to bobble an exchange in the third quarter. With a banged-up A.J. Green (more on him in a minute), Dalton may have to rely less on him; he's averaging better than 16 targets a game in five contests against the Steelers. That's a lot of offensive looks to spread around.
The Steelers saw the Chiefs' dink-and-dunk game plan fizzle out inside the red zone, as the Steelers held their opponent without a touchdown for the second time this season (Jacksonville in Week 5). They registered a season-high six sacks; something they'll need to bring into this game against one of the league's best pass protection units. Their 20 sacks allowed speaks to good protection as well as Dalton's ability to get rid of the ball on schedule (second lowest time to pass in the league behind Manning). A limited offensive game plan with an injured Green may affect that. The Steelers had three sacks of Dalton in Week 14, including two from back-up outside linebacker Arthur Moats, who was filling in for an injured James Harrison. Harrison will play against his former team in the re-match.
Green's target rate soars to epic proportions against the Steelers, and although it's very understandable why any team would want to get him the ball, the arm injury he suffered against Denver may lead to problems with ball security. Giving him the ball as often as they typically do may expose him to critical fumbles in what should be a tight game. A game plan featuring rookie running back Jeremy Hill makes sense, which would also be the Bengals fighting the strength of the Steelers - the league's sixth-ranked run defense - with their own strength - the league's fifth-ranked rushing offense. The Chiefs also have a high-powered running game, but the Steelers shut that down while allowing shorter passes. Kansas City moved the ball, but they were ineffective in the red zone. Pittsburgh has one of the best red zone defenses down the stretch (Steelers have allowed a touchdown in just 33 percent of their opponents' red zone trips).
It's All About Benjamin
Boil it down simply, pass protection being equal on both sides, which quarterback are you taking? Ben Roethlisberger at home on prime time for a division championship, or Andy Dalton on the road in prime time? Roethlisberger is having the best individual season of his career, and has played well despite a limited running game the last two weeks. This game is largely on him and he's done plenty to justify a feeling of confidence. Denver was taken somewhat by surprise by a heavy dose of dime defense run by Cincinnati. Manning hadn't seen much of that from the Bengals in their previous 14 games, but with that trick revealed, Roethlisberger will be ready for it. If Cincinnati wants to run dime frequently against Pittsburgh, look for the Steelers to run frequently on the edge. Either way, it's an advantage because of Roethlisberger's ability to recognize a familiar defense.