Q: With the Steelers sitting at 4-3 and the Bengals at 6-0, a loss on Sunday would leave the Steelers essentially four games back in the North. Does the team (and the fans) feel like this is a must-win game if the Steelers want to win the division?
A: Absolutely this has the feel of a must-win game, but not as dire as many might think. The fact is, the Steelers are in the driver seat for the postseason, but are behind the 8-ball in terms of the division. The Bengals have a lot to do with the feel of this game. The Bengals look like a team which isn't going to fold like in years past, which increases the focus and importance surrounding this game.
Q: The Steelers have had a boatload of injuries this year, particularly along the offensive line. How has the offensive line responded without starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum and four-time pro bowl center Maurkice Pouncey? And is there any concern with the line's ability to protect a presumably less mobile Ben Roethlisberger?
A: The offensive line has responded well, all things considered. Unfortunately, the process is ongoing as the team is now dealing with the loss of their starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum. If the team is doing anything particularly well, even without two of their 5 starting linemen, it is run the football. When in doubt, let the big men move forward, and they have been opening up lanes for Le'Veon Bell and company.
Q: With the injuries along the line and Roethlisberger presumably being less mobile, do you foresee the Steelers offense looking any different - i.e. utilizing more short/quick passes on Sunday?
A: Short and quick passes won't be any different from what Todd Haley likes to do. He has implemented this style of offense since he took over in 2013. If the team will be able to run the football with Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers will still take their shots down the field, but expect Roethlisberger to not be able to maneuver in the pocket as he usually does, making him more of a target in the pocket. Nonetheless, this offense is based on getting the ball into play makers hands and letting them gets yards after the catch. That said, the offense won't change much, in my opinion.
Q: The Steelers defense was the question mark for this team coming into the season. They have surrendered a lot of yards, but not a lot of points. In your opinion, how has the defense played thus far?
A: The defense has played about as well can be expected in some areas (the secondary) and exceeded expectations in others (the pass rush). The Steelers defense literally is a work in progress, and continues to show flashes of improvement on a weekly basis. This unit has had key injuries as well, and have had to overcome many of those will less than stellar players. The challenge Sunday will be great in trying to stop Andy Dalton and company at Heinz Field.
Q: If you were the Bengals coordinators, how would you attack this Steelers team on offense and defense?
A: Attacking the Steelers on offense is a tough task for anyone, and with Ben Roethlisberger returning to the lineup it becomes a "pick your poison" type of adventure. With everyone healthy, the Steelers have possibly the most complete offense in the NFL; however, if you are going to try to stop the Steelers' offense in Week 8 you will try and stop Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers have been winning the line of scrimmage, even against 8 men fronts with Bell in the backfield. Stopping Bell will force the Steelers to throw the football, and with Roethlisberger possibly not 100% that seems to be any opponent's best chance of success this week.
As for the defense, the Steelers defense is vulnerable to the pass. They are a bend-don't-break unit which gives up a great deal of yardage, but certainly tightens the screws in the red-zone. Staying balanced is the key to beating the Steelers defense. They will try and stop the two-headed monster running game of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard and force Andy Dalton to beat them with his arm. Being able to run the football, like the Chiefs did in Week 7, will prevent them from being able to pin their ears back and getting after the QB.
Q: On Sunday, the Steelers win if...
A: They can stop the Bengals running game, force two turnovers and convert on 75% of their red-zone opportunities. The Steelers have been a very opportunistic team so far in 2015, but they will need to convert yardage to touchdowns if they want to beat the 6-0 Bengals on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Q: On Sunday, the Bengals win if...
A: They are able to run the football and score touchdowns and not settle for field goals in the red-zone, as well as stop Le'Veon Bell. The Steelers aren't going to want to put the game on Roethlisberger's back, not this early on his return from his knee injury. Stopping Bell isn't easy, but if the Bengals can do it they will likely win the game.
Q: What is your prediction for Sunday?
A: Some may call it a "homer" pick, but this is a Steelers team which plays well at home, is running the ball with the best of them and has had the Bengals' number the past few seasons. Roethlisberger has a flare for the dramatic, and will likely make some big plays which will be the difference in this contest. Expect a high scoring game between two offenses which can score with the best of them, and defenses which are susceptible to giving up yard age and points. My score: Steelers 34, Bengals 31.