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Steelers Present a Tough Test For Bengals

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Andy Benoit, from Football Outsiders, details five keys to the game on Sunday night.

Matthew Stockman

We love to use Football Outsiders on this site, mainly because their articles are so informative. One of their talented journalists, Andy Benoit, went into the film room to give us five key points for Sunday night's game.

The Bengals offense vs. the Steelers defense will obviously be a key match-up on Sunday night. The Bengals have had trouble running the football this season. Bernard Scott had a good set of carries against Miami a couple of weeks ago, but tore his ACL. Cincinnati has to rely on BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has struggled to find running lanes and has also struggled to hold on to the football. Cedric Peerman caught eight passes on Sunday in Cleveland, but many of those came in what some would call "garbage time." How are the Bengals going to win this game? Benoit thinks that they will have to win through the air:

"The loss of Jerome Simpson has left them with a hole at the No. 2 receiver slot. Replacement Armon Binns is a respectable blocker but lacks the explosiveness to consistently create separation. Brandon Tate continues to be a hit-or-miss downfield threat. Third-round rookie Mohamed Sanu hasn’t been able to earn regular snaps. To compensate, the Bengals have given their offense new dimension by upping the usage of darting second-year wideout Andrew Hawkins in the slot. Quite a few of Hawkins’ 25 receptions have come out of what amounts to inside smoke screens and short hitters in the flats. He’s averaging 54.8 yards receiving per game, 36.8 of which have been "run after catch."

Who ever thought that the loss of Simpson would leave the Bengals with a huge hole at number two receiver? Many wanted the Bengals to go out and sign a Robert Meachem or Pierre Garcon (who got way too much money). The Bengals coaching staff thought that Armon Binns or Brandon Tate could handle the number two job, but neither one of them has been consistent enough. And like Benoit said, Binns cannot win enough to be the number two option that Cincinnati needs across from A.J. Green. Benoit gives us something that Jay Gruden could do to slow down Pittsburgh's pass rush:

"The quick-paced Hawkins plays naturally alleviate the stress on Cincinnati’s over-sized pass-blockers. The Steelers’ pass-rush may be in slight decline -– LaMarr Woodley has continued to fight hamstring problems and James Harrison has declined –- but Dick LeBeau knows how to manufacture pressure with Fire-X blitzes. He has the AFC’s best inside blitzing linebacker in Lawrence Timmons. Expect LeBeau to be aggressive this Sunday, as Dalton was very over-reactive to pressure looks from the Browns last week. A great way for Gruden to discourage LeBeau from sending Timmons through the A-gaps could be to hit Hawkins quickly in the flats."

Benoit also takes a look at the A.J. Green vs. Ike Taylor match-up. Taylor struggled against Tennessee but has been one of the most underrated corners in the league for the past few seasons:

"The Bengals offense would be completely dormant if not for the downfield acrobatics of the burgeoning second-year receiver. The Steelers like to have Taylor shadow the opposing team’s No. 1 target, and last year, that certainly included Green, whom Taylor battled well. Last Thursday night, Taylor struggled in isolation coverage at Tennessee, but in Pittsburgh’s two wins, he was outstanding against speedy, slender receivers in Santonio Holmes and DeSean Jackson. Taylor’s lankiness and physicality matches up well to this type of receiver. Green is a slender, fast type. He's also more dangerous than anyone Pittsburgh has faced, especially if Dalton continues to gradually improve his sub-par deep ball. Letting Taylor go one-on-one with no safety help this week would be a significant risk –- particularly with Troy Polamalu out of the lineup."

Speaking of star safety Troy Polamalu, many expect him to be out of action until around mid November. Polamalu is one of the smarter players in the league and is great at disguising the defense and causing turnovers. With Dalton's recent run of interceptions and fumbles, Polamalu missing this game is certainly a blessing. Benoit thinks that the Polamalu injury hurts the Steelers most in run defense:

'Not only is Polamalu one of the league’s best at reading offensive tackles in order to sniff out run plays -- most safeties only know how to read ball carriers -- he’s rangy enough to allow safety Ryan Clark to consistently sit back in centerfield. That, among many things, makes Pittsburgh less vulnerable to play-action. Clark’s chemistry with Polamalu is the most underrated element of Pittsburgh’s defense. When that tandem is severed, Clark has to become more of a force player against the run, which means the Steelers get weaker at free safety."

The Steelers run game has struggled to get off to a fast start this year. Rashard Mendenhall recently came back to the team, but is still rusty. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Rainey and Baron Batch got looks at running back while Mendenhall was injured. While reviewing film, benoit noticed some tendencies from the Steeler offense:

"There have been bouts of confusion along the offensive line regarding basic run-blocking concepts. There’s been predictability to the rushing concepts, as Pittsburgh has consistently run to the heavy sides of overloaded surfaces or has kept everything between the tackles. The predictability was almost certainly a product of Rashard Mendenhall’s absence, as the heavy-footed Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer made for a lethargic one-two punch."

The Steelers have a great passing game. They can go to Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Heath Miller, or Emmanuel Sanders at any point. The Steelers are most successful on third down. They have converted a league high 52 percent of their third downs, they are also 54 percent successful on the road. While the Steelers can throw it with any team in the league, they struggle with pass protection:

"Until injuries struck from all directions in Week 6, this line had been enjoying rare continuity. That doesn’t mean it was enjoying great success, though. Left tackle Max Starks tends to have trouble with edge-benders on the outside. Left guard Willie Colon, though good on the ground, has had trouble with lateral movement. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who is expected to miss Sunday’s game with an ankle injury, is still developing. Can the Bengals take advantage? They should inside, as they have the best all-around 4-3 defensive tackle in the game right now in Geno Atkins. Colon will need help against the third-year star. But even with Atkins, and even with Carlos Dunlap and his nimble burst on the outside, Cincinnati’s pass-rush has been eerily quiet the past few weeks. Zimmer is more than willing to compensate with safety blitzes -– even of the Cover-0 variety -- but that’s obviously a significant gamble against a sandlot magician like Ben Roethlisberger. If Roethlisberger extends the play, the Bengals are toast. While Cincy’s secondary has gotten decent zone play at cornerback despite a rash of injuries, it doesn’t have enough outside speed and quickness to sustain prolonged coverage against the likes of Wallace and Brown."

The fifth and final point that Benoit makes it probably his best point overall. It is simply, Roethlisberger's greatness. Big Ben does a great job keeping plays alive with his feet and by brushing off defenders that kinda look like they want to sack him, but then don't. Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in practice on Thursday but says he is okay. Could he be trying to show the Sunday night crew that he is a warrior that can play through anything? Probably. We will also most likely hear Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth bring up the plethora of injuries that he has played through over the years. But his drama queen like tendencies don't make him any less great of a football player. Check out the football outsiders article, as Benoit has a few screen shots that depict just how good Roethlisberger is.

A Bengals victory on Sunday night will not get them into the playoffs, but a loss may unofficially knock them out. A Bengals win would also put more pressure on the Steelers, as a 2-4 record would make it difficult to reach the playoffs. One thing is for sure, Bengals fans need to be loud on Sunday night. I do not want to hear Al Michaels say something like, "If I didn't know any better, I would say we were in Pittsburgh, Cris".