As many predicted, the AFC North has come down to the final week of the regular season. What may not have been so predictable a few months ago is the fact that both the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have clinched playoff berths and that the Week 17 re-match is more about bragging rights and postseason seeding.
When we produce this weekly feature, it's easy to get caught up in specifics areas and/or dive deep into analytics when coming up with the five, but sometimes, the biggest keys are the most obvious. This week's are a blend of both.
Causing Turnovers And Sacks:
See? Utilizing the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) works for the first key. In the first go-round between the two teams, the Bengals had zero sacks, zero turnovers and, not surprisingly, minimal pressure on Ben Roethlisberger overall. The result of that? Well, the Steelers had 543 total net yards, a 50% third down conversion rate, and had the ball five and a half minutes more than the Bengals did. For Cincinnati to be successful, an effort like this can't be replicated at Heinz Field.
In the two games since the 21-point loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals have had five quarterback sacks and have forced six turnovers. While maintaining the average of 2.5 sacks and three turnovers per game would almost certainly get them a victory against the Steelers, it may not need to be that high. Maybe two a piece? One and three? Whatever the equation is, the defense that has played inspired football the past two weeks will need to arrive in The Steel City.
Utilizing The Versatility Within The Two-Back System:
Since Week 9 against Jacksonville, rookie running back Jeremy Hill has assumed a bigger role. Whether it was because of injuries to Giovani Bernard, or the overall ineffectiveness of the smaller back between the tackles on a regular basis, a conscious move was made to feed the big boy. In the eight games since, Hill has six touchdown runs, four 100-yard rushing performances (all over 140 yards), and a 5.6 yards-per-carry average. Not surprisingly, the Bengals are 6-2 in that span.
Meanwhile, after resting injuries and his "demotion", Bernard has been particularly effective the past two weeks, as a runner and receiver. He has combined for 184 yards (115 rushing, 69 receiving) and a touchdown catch. Along with the improved defense, Bernard and Hill have been the key to the big wins the past two weeks. With A.J. Green nursing a sore arm, Mohamed Sanu falling off of the map for the past few weeks, and the ups and downs that come with Jermaine Gresham, relying on these two and them being able to perform at a similar level would be preferable.
Avoiding The Pittsburgh Snowball Effect:
When adversity has hit the Bengals in this match-up, they tend to let it pile up on them with each self-inflicted wound being magnified. If you want to look at the lone turnover in the game earlier this month, that could be evidence. In 2011, an A.J. Green injury and two fourth quarter interceptions by Dalton led to a loss in the first meeting that year. In the second game, a blocked field goal in the first quarter and a 45-yard pass interference penalty on Chris Crocker led to an embarrassing 35-7 road loss.
Call it "organizational culture", or what you'd like, but the history shows that the Steelers simply know how to avoid mistakes and overcome them more effectively when facing the Bengals, than does Cincinnati. It's reflective in the series record under Marvin Lewis and other tidbits in fans' memories over the past decade-plus. Opposing coaches have been on film recordings telling their players to "Punch them (Bengals) in the mouth. They won't fight back", as that's the reputation that Cincinnati has built for themselves against the likes of the Steelers.
As our own Josh Kirkendall correctly noted on Friday, the Bengals need to avoid costly mistakes, in general. The quotes from Andrew Whitworth and George Iloka in Kirkendall's post, two guys familiar with the mindset of the locker room in games like these, show how fragile the confidence level can get with Bengals players when the you-know-what hits the fan. If a big play goes against the Bengals on Sunday Night, they will need to employ the intestinal fortitude that was on display Monday Night against the Broncos. If there was confidence that was gained from the victory over Denver, use it to turn the snowball effect from a semi-frequent issue, to a rarity.
Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell:
Going back to the simple aspects of the formula for a win, containing and/or stopping Bell will be huge. In the three touchdown loss at home three weeks ago, Bell had 235 total yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage. Sure the two Steeler receivers that cracked 100 yards receiving didn't help, but the total inability to stop Bell in any fashion absolutely crippled Cincinnati on the afternoon.
Since giving up 193 rushing yards against the Steelers, the Bengals have averaged 69 yards rushing yards per game the subsequent two weeks. Perhaps Bell's performance was a wake-up call to Paul Guenther and his defensive unit, be it motivation-wise or scheme-wise, but they have played exponentially better since then. Missed tackles can't be accepted and someone shadowing him in the passing game will also be required.
"Out-Steeler" The Steelers:
As long as I write for Cincy Jungle, put up this weekly piece and cover the Bengals/Steelers rivalry, I will always point to this. If you're unfamiliar with the phrase, "out-Steelering the Steelers" basically refers to going toe-to-toe in a heavyweight fight and out-slugging the bully. One could say that the Steelers won the last match-up via the pass, given the 350 yards and three touchdowns through the air. There's validity there, especially with a 94-yarder to the resume, but the near-200 rising yards was very Steeler-like, especially when the bulk of it came from the physical grinder in Bell.
Since getting roasted on defense at PBS, Guenther's unit has swarmed to the football, pressured the quarterback and caused turnovers. Playing physical on both sides of the ball and showing who's who will ultimately win the crown of the toughest division in football. Want to hear something interesting? Since Lewis took over as head coach of the Bengals in 2003, the Bengals have three AFC North crowns. The Steelers and Ravens have four apiece. For the Bengals to balance the scales, they will need to be the more physical team on the road.