Seeing is believing. Nothing sums up the game this weekend more than that. We can roll out the stats and look microscopically at footwork and play design, but how do you really feel about the game? It's all football psychology going into this one.
Andy Dalton feels a little shaky at the moment. His comfort in the pocket has become a fragile issue for him this season and last week's debacle can only add to his panic and maybe even turn his hair more orange. His best receiver, the all-everything godsend, A.J. Green, has slowed down. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is suddenly our best offensive player in large part to the improved run blocking. All of this spells out pass-protection. It's the most vital element to their success as a team. When Dalton has time, like any decent passer, he's fine. Get him comfortable and in rhythm and the Bengals can compete with anyone.
This week, though, is not just anyone.
There is little need to further espouse upon the cunning brilliance of Dick LeBeau and his defensive-strategic mastery within these pages of football lore. We, who know anything about anything, have lauded this sage wizard with the utmost of praise and he remains omitted from the seething hatred Bengal fans direct toward Pittsburgh and its football team. Most of that has to do with his strong Bengal ties as the defensive coordinator here in the good ol' days and later as the head coach in the darkest of days. He is perhaps the greatest defensive mind in the history of the league and has a mustard-yellow blazer in his closet for a reason. You simply cannot dislike Dick LeBeau.
He will certainly release the hounds against Dalton and test Andre Smith on the edge. Last week, Brandon Graham went through Goo like he was Slimer from Ghostbusters and I imagine LaMarr Woodley is dreaming of doing the same. Keeping backs in to chip and help out on edge rushers might be imperative until Smith can prove he can hold up one-on-one. It only takes one bad read in protection to change the game and, at this point, the season.
As porous as the offensive line has been the past two games, their run blocking has really grown up right before our eyes over the course of the season. Green-Ellis has redeemed himself to some degree from his awful showings earlier in the year, but most times, any back could run through the giant running lanes this line has provided of late. Old men in rocking-chairs will tell you that good defense and a running game is what matters most in cold-weather games late in the year, and while I'm not sure that's entirely true, I do think it keeps games close.
At this point we all know the three goals Marvin Lewis wants to see accomplished in every game: win the turnover battle, win on third down, and limit explosive plays. His whole philosophy on the game seems founded upon these three factors and he has assembled his team accordingly. With the hopeful return of Cedric Peerman to the lineup, and knowing Marv like we do, I would expect them to lean on the running game for as long as they can afford to. Marvin wants to see caution above all else. It has prevented his better teams from being dominant but has also allowed some bad teams to finish with respectable records. Jay Gruden has helped shake things up as far as predictability and playing it safe goes, but in such a huge game, I think it's Marvin's instinct to limit the risks and play not-to-lose.
That isn't what Pittsburgh will do. Ben Roethlisberger is pure sandlot. He's bigger than the other kids so you can't tackle him, he scrambles around like he's evading cars on the interstate and he has proven that he can stand in the pocket and win games that way too. He does invite sacks with his willy-nilly style of play and the best a defense can hope for is to get him on the ground when they touch him. Defensive backs have the biggest challenge of the day as they will be asked to cover three very speedy receivers for longer than usual as Ben makes the majority of his big plays on the run and out of the pocket. I expect the Steelers to try a lot of quick outs, slants and shallow crosses in order to get the ball in the hands of their kick-return like receivers. Safety play becomes especially important against such speed.
Despite winning five of their last six games, it feels like the Bengals are experiencing some problems, but it's become obvious that nearly all of those problems stem from poor pass protection. The Steelers appear to be dealing with a much more systemic flaw. This is the second time this season the Bengals face a Pittsburgh team in the throes of a losing streak. One can sense a disconnect in the offense that hinders an otherwise very talented group. Injuries to the offensive line are partly to blame, but the vision that Big Ben and Todd Haley shared for the season hasn't at all shaped up to form. It seems there is a lot of frustration around the Steelers at the moment and that things are tense. Sometimes that can be motivating, but in sports it seems the looser and more easy-going team stands the better chance.
Cincinnati is the underdog coming into this one, but I think the Steelers are the more dysfunctional team. I think it could be an ugly game that Pittsburgh gives away. Even though it would solidify a playoff birth for the second straight season, it still wouldn't be enough to convince most people that the Bengals are any good. And they might be right, but neither are the Steelers, and, for at least a week, that would be good enough for us.
Bengals 17, Steelers 13
Mojokong—not the average dragon to slay.