Perhaps the biggest reminder of what this team has already lost, is the five times that defensive tackle Geno Atkins dropped Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the last three seasons. Generating a sack in each of his previous three meetings against the Steelers, Atkins' overall presence has been a catalyst for the defense's recent successes against their division rival.
Last year, during Cincinnati's week 16 berth-clinching victory over the Steelers, Atkins earned AFC defensive player of the week for generating two quarterback sacks, including a forced fumble that was recovered by Pittsburgh -- we broke down Atkins' performance here. Along with the five quarterback sacks against the Steelers dating back to 2012, Atkins is averaging nearly three additional pressures per game.
Unfortunately, Atkins suffered a season-ending ACL injury against the Miami Dolphins and won't play against the Steelers this weekend. Who will fill in for the pressure-inducing threat to Roethlisberger this weekend? Answering such prophetic questions requires knowledge beyond the historical match-up between these two teams.
Michael Johnson is always good for one, having recorded at least a shared sack in six of the previous seven games he's played against the Steelers (4.5 total in his career). Carlos Dunlap has played five career games against Pittsburgh, with 1.5 quarterback sacks in his career. Not that impressive. But when you consider that Dunlap has scored multiple hits and decent pressure (just not getting to the quarterback) with a handful of batted passes, he's an effective presence.
That's the goal.
"Ben has obviously always had a great knack for keeping plays alive in the pocket and out of the pocket, so we've got to continue to rush soundly," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We've got to plaster him when he moves. You can’t sleep on him because he’s got a big arm, and can get the ball way down the field when you don’t expect it to if he breaks free when trapped."
This isn't new. And Cincinnati is hardly exclusive as former victims of Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays. If you're a member of the secondary, stay on your assignment. If you're a member of the defensive line, "plaster him". Cincinnati currently ranks No. 11 with 36 sacks while the Steelers have allowed 40 this season, tied for 26th in the NFL.
Yet, his ability to extend those plays has also been the catalyst of an inordinate number of sacks that he's taken over the years. For example, the next time that Roethlisberger takes a sack this season, it'll be the sixth time in eight seasons that he's been dropped 40 times or more in a season -- the other two were seasons impacted by injury. The ten-year veteran has taken 551 drops this season and pressured on 171 of those passes and a 49.3 completion rate on throws that he gets off.
When he's not under pressure, Roethlisberger is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes with 16 of his 24 touchdowns scored. For example, after taking 30 sacks in the first ten games this season (13 touchdowns in that span), Roethlisberger's protection has solidified with four combined sacks in the previous four games, allowing Roethlisberger to string together a run of 11 touchdowns and no picks during that four-game stretch. Along with the protection schemes, Pittsburgh's supporting cast is generating momentum.
"Actually, the Steelers' offense has come on as of late, and it's created some thought of keeping it intact moving forward," said Neal Coolong with Behind the Steel Curtain. "Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are both free agents but it looks like they may be able to get Maurkice Pouncey back with four guys who started the previous year."
"A lot of it is running through QB Ben Roethlisberger, which shouldn't be a surprise. They're getting high level play from Antonio Brown, improving play from Heath Miller and great all around production from Le'Veon Bell. They're throwing well, and while their running numbers aren't good, they're utilizing something of a run-by-throwing approach. Roethlisberger is throwing short, keeping his team in manageable situations and we're starting to see better overall production."