Thankfully, the football gods have blessed us with the return of Bengals football. Last weekend, while much less stressful, made for an empty week. I wandered around my place of employment lost, empty without a Bengals win to carry me to the next weekend. Everything was a shade darker this week. I'm sure most of you can share similar stories of borderline depression. But we've almost made it friends! Our reward is the most important game of the season thus far. Not only is it just our second divisional game, against the second place AFC North team, but it's the Steelers. I expect to see a lot of irrational hatred this week.
Ben Roethlisberger is probable to play and the Steelers will have their full arsenal of offensive weapons at Big Ben's disposal. I'll just go ahead and say it: Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown scare the absolute crap out of me. Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, and Heath Miller make for one of the best supporting casts in the NFL as well. No matter who lines up against them, this group will give opposing defenses headaches. It's not all bad though, as the Steelers defense is not great. They rank 24th in yards allowed per game and 27th in passing yards allowed per game, but they've managed to hold opponents to 18.7 points per game. The pass defense has been their weakest link, and William Gay and Will Allen are each dealing with injuries. Of note, the Bengals have yet to score less than 24 points in a game this season.
The following five players could be key in minimizing the Steelers' strengths and taking advantage of their weaknesses. As usual, Andy Dalton is not included among these players because it's obvious that he will be key.
1.) Adam Jones
As I said above, Antonio Brown is scary. He is a small guy who is as quick and elusive as any player in the league right now. He is exactly the type of player that we do not want Dre Kirkpatrick covering. I think that task will mostly fall into the hands of Jones, who has the best set of attributes to keep pace with Brown. Make no mistake, Brown is probably going to get his with Roethlisberger back, regardless of who is covering him. Knowing that he is going to make catches, Jones' tackling ability may be the most important thing. He has displayed a willingness to tackle over the past few years, but he has been sloppy at times this year. A missed tackle on Brown can turn into six points very quickly.
2.) George Iloka
Iloka has been dinged up all year, and his play has showed it. He hasn't been a liability, but he hasn't been performing at the level we've grown accustomed to from him. The bye week came at a good time for him, and I believe he'll benefit from it. That will be key as his tackling in the secondary and coverage ability will be crucial on Sunday. He'll be covering numerous receivers who are all threats in their own ways, as well as Heath Miller, who seems to always make timely conversions against the Bengals. Additionally, there will be times when Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell break a tackle and get free. I don't want it to happen, but it probably will. Iloka has the ability to turn possible touchdowns into much less harmful first downs.
3.) Giovani Bernard
The Steelers' pass defense is not great, and injuries have compounded that problem. I would expect the Steelers to combat that by trying to pressure Andy Dalton all afternoon. Gio can help that in two ways. First, his blitz pickups have been wonderful all year, and they will need to continue to be great against the Steelers. A blitz that doesn't get to the QB typically ends well for the offense. Second, there will be many times when he is operating in the flats instead of blocking. If he can make the Steelers pay with his ability to create yards after the catch, the Bengals' offense should continue to hum.
4.) Domata Peko
We complained and complained about this guy all offseason. He has surprised just about everyone with his play this season, and that will need to continue this weekend. Peko is important to the defense's ability to stop the run. When the opposition is lining up against one of, if not the best running back in the NFL, it goes without saying that defending the run will be important. The Bengals' rush defense has been less than adequate this year, so it would be asking a lot for them to shut Bell down. But if they can limit him and make a few timely stops, that may be enough. Peko's ability to attract blockers will be key in allowing a subpar linebacking corps to make plays.
5.) A.J. Green
With William Gay either limited or not playing at all, A.J. Green should absolutely feast. He should be trending on Twitter and all of your friends should be talking about him on Facebook. Chad Ochocinco will be ready to mail him his HOF jacket. The city of Pittsburgh should have a 4000% increase in cases of PTSD. What I am saying is that A.J. Green better have a hell of a game. If he doesn't, things are likely not going well for the good guys.
BONUS: Oh shit, is Vontaze Burfict going to play?!? Probably not, but maybe!