The one offensive player that has hurt the Steelers the most when they have played the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2015-2016 NFL season has been A.J. Green.
In their first mathchup this season, Green posted 118 yards on 11 receptions and scored the go-ahead touchdown that won the Bengals the game. In the rematch, Green recorded 132 yards on six receptions and the Bengals' biggest offensive play of the season against Pittsburgh when AJ McCarron connected to Green on a 66-yard bomb.
The key however to slowing down A.J. Green should be obvious to the Steelers, as well as the fans who have clamored over this point for months: do not let Antwon Blake guard A.J. Green.
We get it, Blake is a short cornerback with not a lot of great cover skills which is the absolute worst matchup against a tall and talented receiver such as Green. While William Gay, Ross Cockrell and Brandon Boykin are not exactly giants in the secondary, each of them presents a better option to cover Green than what Blake brings to the table.
We take a look at some of the examples of when Blake should not have been covering Green and when we were glad that someone else was.
Sigh, let's get this one out of the way. Watch as Antwon Blake is late out of his break as he sees A.J. Green use a stutter step five yards away from him which allows Green to be in position to catch a great pass from AJ McCarron. It was a bad play, arguably the worst we saw all season, unless you consider the Terrelle Pryor play the worst.
This is about more than just coverage, it's also about tackling and defensive fundamentals. Watch Ross Cockrell as he is line up eight yards off Green, break on this pass but get into a perfect defensive stance for a defender looking to bring down a ball-carrier. Sink the hips, spread the feet, keep your head up and wrap him up. These quick passes would severely hurt Pittsburgh if they allow simple completions like this to go for big yards, but with tackles like this those liabilities are not at issue. William Gay makes a similar tackle in the second game on Green, but because we have to follow the three-GIF rule from the NFL, we will choose to highlight other plays.
Cockrell is not a perfect cornerback, but he displays solid fundamentals from the teaching of Carnell Lake. Here we have a red zone play where Andy Dalton was looking for Green on a fade to the pylon. What makes these plays so difficult is that the cornerback has to be ready for both inside and outside moves by athletic receivers who are trying to get open for their quarterback.
To work against that threat, you want to do your best to eliminate one of the threats entirely so that you can make a play on the other side. Here, Cockrell goes with Green's first step to the inside and jams the inside should so that an inside slant is not an option. After that, Green's fade route to the pylon can be easily defended by Cockrell who is still in position to defend an accurate pass.
Ultimately the Steelers know they have to take A.J. Green out of the equation of having a monster game. Part of that is having a successful pass rush, but another part is making sure that Green cannot pick on linebackers in open space or Blake in any space. Match him up with the likes of William Gay, Cockrell and Boykin. Those players can provide more of a challenge than what Blake does and force tighter windows for McCarron or Dalton to throw through.
Blake has made some big plays this season, including a red zone interception of Andy Dalton in the first matchup between these teams. Last year he even forced a fumble from A.J. Green on a big hit that sidelined the receiver for the rest of the playoffs. However he does not stack up well against the bigger playmaking receivers in the NFL, especially the likes of Green. Pittsburgh will keep Blake in the rotation of the cornerback position so that the rest of their corners do not get too tired as the game goes on, however the hope is that in that plan, they make every effort to have Blake lined up on other smaller receiving options or bringing heat on a delayed blitz.