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Week 8 Bengals vs Steelers: Top player matchups to watch for

The Bengals and Steelers clash in Pittsburgh for a critical AFC North game. There are talented players everywhere for both squads, but here are some of the top head-to-head matchups we'll be looking out for.

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One of the biggest games of the Bengals' season comes on Sunday and they seem healthy after the bye week. While Steelers fans scoff at the big deal Cincinnati fans make of "Steelers Week", the Black and Yellow can't deny the 6-0 start to the season and who currently resides atop the division.

Any time you face the Steelers, it's going to be a bruise-fest. However, the most recent incarnation of Pittsburgh's roster seems to have more flash at the skill positions than meat on defense and in the trenches. We run down the list of some of the top individual matchups this Sunday.

Defensive End Michael Johnson Versus Left Tackle Alejandro Villanueva:

When the Bengals signed Johnson this offseason after a one-year break in Tampa Bay, the team, fans and Johnson all rejoiced at the reunion. While No. 90 hasn't stood out on the stat sheet (just one sack in six games), the whole defensive line has improved from 2014 and his return has had a lot to do with it.

He'll be going up against the huge, athletic backup left tackle, Villanueva. At 6'9" and about 330 pounds, Villanueva has stepped in for injured starter Kelvin Beachum and played decent football. He has a neat story about him, as he did multiple tours for the Army in Afghanistan, but he has yet to fully show that he is a dependable starter. He'll have his hands full with the 6'7" Johnson, who can affect a quarterback in a variety of ways. Undoubtedly, the Steelers would love to have a good day from Villanueva as Ben Roethlisberger is possible as coming back to the field.

Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins Versus Center Cody Wallace:

Pittsburgh experienced another big injury on the offensive line when Pro Bowl center Markice Pouncey suffered an ankle injury and hasn't played a game yet this season. Wallace has stepped in his place with mixed results. He's done well in the running game when Le'Veon Bell returned after his suspension, but as Neal Coolong noted on this week's Inside The Jungle Podcast, sometimes the pass protection has been sketchy.

Atkins appears to be back. He's had a couple of quiet games this season, but overall he's had a huge impact on the defense. He's already surpassed his 2014 quarterback sack number this year and has been very disruptive. While Roethlisberger likes to improvise when pressure comes and is excellent at shedding off would-be tacklers, pressure up the middle and containing Bell will be huge assets to the Bengals' chances at winning.

Cornerback Adam Jones Versus Wide Receiver Martavis Bryant:

It's likely we'll see Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick switch up coverage responsibilities at times between Bryant and Antonio Brown, but this is a matchup many people will be watching. Bryant is a freak with good size and speed. Some are comparing him to Randy Moss, though he isn't there yet. Still, Bryant has the ability to burn a corner on a deep pass, or take a short route the distance.

Jones has been the team's top corner with two interceptions already this season, but he has also been a part of some shoddy tackling in the secondary at times. If Bryant is able to make catches, Jones and others need to get him down quickly, otherwise he could make a back-breaking play. Then again, it would just be nice if Jones was able to shut Bryant down, wouldn't it?

Tight End Tyler Eifert Versus Safety Mike Mitchell:

Last season, the Bengals didn't have the luxury of having Eifert to use against the Steelers, a weapon that could have definitely been used. A.J. Green had a career day when Cincinnati hosted Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium, but not having a big tight end and another deep threat in Marvin Jones had an impact. The same could be said with the season finale for the division crown at Heinz Field last year.

Coolong called Eifert "the second-best tight end in the NFL", obviously placing him behind Rob Gronkowski, and the stats are backing that proclamation. Eifert has six touchdown catches in as many games so far in 2015, and an astounding 21 first downs on 28 catches so far. One of the guys tasked with keeping an eye on Eifert is safety Mike Mitchell.

The seventh-year player has had ups and downs in his career, but has tremendous athleticism. His instincts have come into question at times and the Steelers pass defense is currently ranked No. 27 in the NFL. Mitchell is sure to have assistance in covering Eifert, but as we've seen so far this season, many defenders have had trouble covering Efiert--ranging from corners to safeties to linebackers.

Punter Kevin Huber Versus Wide Receiver Antonio Brown:

We've talked about the importance of special teams and the "head-on-a-swivel" mindset earlier this week, but we need to re-affirm the concept here. Though he hasn't had an exorbitant number of punt attempts this season, thanks to a potent offense, Huber has had a Pro Bowl-like season this year with over half of his punts (12-of-23) going inside the opponent's 20-yard line. He'll need to do more of the same and/or kick the ball out of bounds to disallow Brown the opportunity to gouge the Bengals once again.

While he's been a Pro Bowl receiver the past two seasons, Brown has also sparked the Steelers with big special teams returns. Whether it's a questionable jumping right foot to the face of then-Browns punter Spencer Lanning, or two punt return touchdowns against the Bengals, he's been a pain for teams in the AFC North. Aside from keeping his eyes peeled for vengeful Steelers linebackers seeking crack-back blocks, pinning the Steelers deep in their own territory and suffocating Brown will be a key to a win. So far in 2015, the Bengals' special teams has been a big factor in their 6-0 start.

Linebacker Vincent Rey Versus Running Back Le'Veon Bell:

File this one under "obvious". Even though Vontaze Burfict returned to practice on Thursday, it seems somewhat unlikely that he'll suit up on Sunday against the Steelers. That being said, it puts Rey in the limelight once again. While he's filled in admirably over the past year for Burfict in the wake of all of his injuries. Still, the Bengals' defense hasn't been the same since Burfict has been out of the lineup (as well as Mike Zimmer's departure, but that's a different story for a different time).

Even with missing the first two games of the season because of suspension, Bell is the fifth-leading rusher in the NFL so far this season. He's averaging 5.0 yards per carry, while the Bengals are No. 17 in the league against the run, in terms of rushing yards per game. Rey will likely be getting the start once again, and is the team's leading tackler (tied for No. 8 in the NFL), but many of those have come after yards have been gained. Bell will get a lot of carries to keep the Bengals' offense off the field and will be a security blanket target with Ben Roethlisberger's likely return.

Kicker Mike Nugent Versus the Elements:

While "the elements" don't provide an individual matchup, Nugent has a battle ahead of him with what the city of Pittsburgh and its stadium provides. Swirling winds, chewed up grass and the crowd noise will likely make for a tough afternoon for the veteran kicker.

As we noted in a previous post, Nugent is just 1-for-3 on field goal attempts at Heinz Field. Long range attempts won't be advised, especially with impending rough weather possibly heading to Pittsburgh on Sunday. After a shaky start to the season, Nugent has converted his last four field goal attempts. Similarly, after a streak of making 12 straight field goals over ten straight games in 2014, Nugent's streak broke in Week 17 against the Steelers at Heinz Field.

Points are always at a premium against the Steelers, so Nugent will need to be on point. The other looming challenge is with the PAT rule change, which won't be easy in this venue or these and elements seeming to be around the bend.

Cornerback Leon Hall Versus Tight End Heath Miller:

One of the most iconic plays for the Bengals in the past few years was Hall's 2012 pick-six on Roethlisberger where he jumped a pass intended for Miller. The play helped to propel the Bengals to postseason and began to seal the Steelers' fate as an 8-8 team that season. It also began to cement the idea that Hall was going to be an effective slot corner for the Bengals over the next couple of years.

Incredibly, the Bengals are going into Week 8 of the 2015 NFL season with a very healthy team. Burfict returned to practice and the only guy listed on the injury report was Hall with a back issue. Even though Darqueze Dennard had his first pro interception against the Buffalo Bills in Week 6, the Bengals will still likely be relying on Hall's veteran savviness this week against the Steelers, if he's healthy enough to play. In the slot, Hall will be lined up against Miller, the longtime AFC North villain, as well as the shifty Markus Wheaton, who can create major issues for a defense.