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What to Look For: Bengals vs Steelers

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The Bengals and Steelers meet twice in the next four weeks - two matchups that will go a long way in deciding the AFC North championship. Part I takes place in the Queen City where the Bengals have an opportunity to deal a crippling blow to the Steelers division title hopes.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It has been nearly a year since the Bengals and Steelers last met; a game Bengals fans would like to forget. On December 15th, 2013, the Steelers destroyed the Bengals in a game which saw Kevin Huber leave the stadium drinking from a straw, after taking what many felt was a dirty blindsided hit. While revenge is likely on the mind of the Bengals, they better come out focused on more than just revenge because while Sunday's game is huge for both teams, I believe this is a must win for the Steelers. A loss to the Bengals would essentially seal the Steelers fate in terms of the division. A loss Sunday would leave them 2.5 games behind the Bengals with just three games to play. A loss would also put the Steelers at 7-6 and greatly jeopardize their playoff chances as a whole. With that in mind, the Bengals better be prepared for a feisty Steelers team, playing as if they have nothing to lose. In general, the Steelers usually play well in big games like this...the Bengals, as we all know too well, do not.

Here's what to look for this Sunday when the Bengals and Steelers meet for round one...

When the Steelers Run the Ball:

Steelers Run Offense: 118.1 YPG (11th); 4.3 YPA (t-9th)

Bengals Run Defense: 125.1 YPG (25th); 4.2 YPA (t-15th)

Coming out of Michigan State in 2013, Le'Veon Bell was a highly touted running back, but failed to have a huge impact as a rookie. During the preseason I was one of the people who was not buying into the hype surrounding the Steeler's second year back, but 12 games into the season, consider me a believer. At 6'1" and 244 pounds, Bell is a slightly bigger and slightly more elusive back than the Bengals' impressive rookie Jeremy Hill.

Bell is second in the NFL with 1,046 yards rushing (Murray 1,606); he is tied for 15th in terms of receptions; his 65 receptions rank him second among running backs (Forte - 86) and second on the Steelers behind Antonio Brown; his 643 receiving yards also rank him second among running backs (Forte -724) and second on the Steelers to only Brown. While the productivity of Bell made the release of LeGarrette Blount a moot point, it does leave the Steelers with no proven backs behind Bell.

The key for the Bengals run defense will be the front seven. The Bengals need to dominate a suspect Steelers offensive line and minimize Bell's impact on the game. The Bengals defense in weeks 1-10 would not have been up to this task. However, the Bengals defense of the past three weeks has been remarkably better. Sure, Bell is much better than Mark Ingram, Alfred Blue and Doug Martin, but, in the three games since the return of Rey Maualuga and Brandon Thompson, the Bengals have not allowed more than 75 yards on the ground and opponents have averaged just 2.9 YPA. If the Bengals can take away Bell the way they took away Ingram, Blue and Martin, and force Roethlisberger to sling it 40-50 times, they can force Roethlisberger into turnovers (five interceptions in the last three games). If the Bengals can't force the Steelers away from Bell, turnovers will be hard to come by as Bell has zero fumbles on the season (281 touches).

Advantage: Push

When the Steelers Throw the Ball:

Steelers Pass Offense: 299.3 YPG (4th); 7.9 YPA (5th); 8 INTs (t-5th); 31 Sacks (t-20th); 102.7 Rating (t-2nd); 66.9% CMP (9th)

Bengals Pass Defense: 238.9 YPG (14th); 6.3 YPA (t-3rd); 12 INTs (t-10th); 15 Sacks (30th); 75.0 Rating (2nd); 59.4% CMP (5th)

Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback and is having a very good year - on pace for a career high in yards and touchdowns and next to a career low in interceptions. Toss in the fact that the Steelers have the fourth ranked passing offense in terms of yards and feature Antonio Brown, the NFL's leading receiver in terms of yards and receptions and second in terms of touchdowns, and it's easy to see why this is a dangerous passing attack. However, the Steelers have shown some weaknesses, as of late. While Roethlisberger has just eight interceptions on the season, he has five in his last three games - none of which were against good pass defenses (Jets, Titans, Saints).

The key for the Bengals pass defense will be twofold: 1) getting to Roethlisberger and not letting him extend plays, and 2) doubling Brown and forcing the Steelers to beat them with a receiver not named Brown. Easy to say, not so easy to do. No quarterback in the NFL is as dangerous on broken plays as Ben Roethlisberger. And, few receivers are as dangerous on broken plays as Antonio Brown. The best way for the Bengals to limit the impact of the broken plays will be getting pressure up the middle from Geno Atkins and Brandon Thompson and forcing Roethlisberger into the hands of Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry. If the Bengals let Roethlisberger extend plays, bad things will happen. As for Brown, the Bengals need to double cover him or bracket him all day and force Roethlisberger to beat them with someone else. The Steelers second and third leading receivers are their running back (Bell) and tight end (Heath Miller). Their number two and number three receiver only have 503 and 344 yards respectively (Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant). However, when they get close to the goal line, the Bengals need to keep an extra eye on Bryant, because the Steelers rarely run for touchdowns (5) and while the 6'4", 211 pound rookie out of Clemson only has 17 catches, six of those catches are for touchdowns.

Advantage: Steelers

When the Bengals Run the Ball:

Bengals Run Offense: 124.5 YPG (9th); 4.2 YPA (t-12th)

Steelers Run Defense: 105.6 (11th); 4.4 YPA (t-23rd)

Prior to the Week 9 matchup with the Jaguars, Jeremy Hill was scarcely used in the Bengals offense and the Bengals were ranked 16th in rushing YPG (111.4) and 20th in rushing YPA (4.0). In Week 9, with Giovani Bernard on the sideline, Jeremy Hill took all of the carries and five weeks later, despite missing their best run blocking lineman (Andre Smith), the Bengals rushing attack has jumped to ninth in rushing YPG (124.5) and tied for 12th in YPA (4.4). At this point it is clear that Hill should get the bulk of the carries and the Bengals should use Bernard where he excels - in the passing game and as the change of pace back.

While the Steelers are ranked 11th in YPG (105.6), that stat is deceiving. The more telling stat about this run defense is the fact that they allow an average of 4.4 YPA. The Bengals best bet for success on Sunday will be to run and run often for three reasons: 1) they are likely to have success running against this defense; 2) it will wear out the Steelers defense - an aged and dinged up unit; and 3) it will keep Roethlisbeger and Brown on the sidelines.

In fact, when I sat down with Neal Coolong this week of Behind the Steel Curtain, we talked about how to attack this Steelers defense and his advice for Hue Jackson was to run, run some more and then run again. With the losses and injuries the Steelers have up front, combined with Dalton's struggles last week, look for the Bengals to heed this advice and give the ball to Hill and Bernard early and often.

Advantage: Bengals

When the Bengals Throw the Ball:

Bengals Pass Offense: 219.1 YPG (24th); 7.1 YPA (t-20th); 13 INTs (t-23rd); 15 Sacks (t-2nd); 82.3 Rating (26th): 63.0% CMP (17th)

Steelers Pass Defense: 242.3 YPG (16th); 7.9 YPA (27th); 8 INTs (t-24th); 21 Sacks (26th); 98.6 Rating (27th); 62.0 % CMP (13th)

In the Bengals last home game, Dalton set quarterback play back about 20+ years with his 2.0 rating and after his putrid first half last week in Tampa, Dalton has come full circle. Dalton rarely has two poor games in a row and indications are he is feeling better this week, so I would expect "good Andy" to surfact against the Steelers. That is good news for the Bengals and their passing attack, as they will be going up against a secondary that is old and simply not very good.

Troy Polamalu is no longer the player he once was, and will provide the Bengals with opportunities to go down the field when he is inevitably out of position. The Steelers are also feeling the loss of veteran safety Ryan Clark who really covered for Polamalu when he was out of position. Mike Mitchell was supposed to be an upgrade with his youth and speed, but thus far has been a disappointment. And though Ike Taylor has had success against Green in the past, I wouldn't expect the same on Sunday. The Bengals receivers and running backs should be able to win the one-on-one battles against this once proud secondary.

More good news for Dalton and his cohorts is the fact that the Steelers defense ranks 24th in interceptions (8), 27th in YPA (7.9), 26th in sacks (21), and 27th in passer rating. If Dalton plays like "good Andy" he should have few problems moving the ball against this defense.

Advantage: Push

Special Teams:

Kickoff Returns: Steelers: 21.0 Avg (30th); 0 TD; Bengals: 27.4 Avg (5th); 0 TD

Punt Returns: Steelers: 7.2 Avg (24th); 0 TD; Bengals: 9.8 Avg (10th); 0 TD

Kickers: Steelers: Shaun Suisham: 21/24 (87.5% - 12th); Long 53 yds

Bengals: Mike Nugent: 19/25 (76.0% - 30th); Long 49 (1 blocked)

Punters: Steelers: Brad Wing: NET 39.4 (27th); Inside 20: 14 (29.8%); TB: 3 (6.4%)

Bengals: Kevin Huber: NET 45.5 (1st); Inside 20: 24 (42.9%); TB: 4 (7.1%)

Kick Coverage: Steelers: 23.8 Avg (15th); 0 TD; Bengals: 25.2 Avg (t-24th); 0 TD

Punt Coverage: Steelers: 8.1 Avg (t-14th); 0 TD; Bengals: 5.2 Avg (3rd); 0 TD

Special teams often has played a huge role in the Bengals/Steelers rivalry, and this year has the same potential. Sunday's game will feature two of the most exciting punt returners of all-time in Antonio Brown and Adam Jones. Though Brown hasn't had a great year returning punts, the Bengals only have to look back two years to see how dangerous Brown can be. A good game from Kevin Huber (and his new facemask) will be very important. Jones hasn't done much recently, but could get some opportunities going up against the 27th ranked punter and the 14th ranked punt coverage unit.

Advantage: Bengals

Coaching:

Mike Tomlin has 124 career games as an NFL Head Coach, a .629 career winning percentage (78-46), three division titles in seven years, a 5-3 career playoff record (.610), two AFC Championship appearances, one AFC Championship and two Super Bowl appearances with one Super Bowl ring. However, Tomlin has not been to the playoffs since 2011 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2010.

Marvin Lewis has 186 career games as an NFL head coach, a .527 career winning percentage (98-88-2), three division titles in 11 years, and an impressive 0-5 playoff record. For those of you counting at home, that is a playoff winning percentage of .000. While Tomlin hasn't won a playoff game since 2010, Lewis hasn't won a playoff game since, well, ever.

Advantage: Steelers

Key to the Game:

Turnovers. It sounds cliché, but it is true. The Bengals are the better team from top to bottom, but that won't matter if they start gifting field position to the Steelers. If Dalton plays the way he did in Tampa, Indianapolis or against the Browns, the Bengals won't stand a chance. Same goes for the Steelers. With a -4 turnover differential in 2014, it is easy to see why they have been so inconsistent. If the Bengals can squeeze a few extra possessions out of the Steelers, the Steelers will leave PBS with their division (and playoff) lives hanging in the balance.

Prediction:

The Steelers are 12-3 in Cincinnati since PBS opened its doors in 2000 and Marvin Lewis is just 7-16 versus his hometown team. Dalton isn't much better. In six games against the Steelers, Dalton is 2-4, but, he is 2-1 in his last three. These stats seem to favor the Steelers, but I believe they signal a time for change. I believe in the law of averages and I believe the Bengals are due for a run in this series.

Bengals 24, Steelers 20