When the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers hit the turf of Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, there will be a lot of fun matchups worth watching. It's an important game for both teams with the Bengals possibly securing an AFC North crown, while the Steelers need to keep their postseason hopes alive.
CB Leon Hall versus WR Martavis Bryant:
Thursday was an odd day for cornerback Adam Jones, who would get the start if healthy. On Wednesday, he had a cast on his foot, which has been bothering him the past few weeks. He Tweeted out a picture of the cast on his foot on Thursday morning, only to post another picture hours later with it cut off. Jones proclaimed himself out for Sunday, but this quick turnaround regarding the cast removal begs the question of whether he will actually be out of the lineup.
Because of injuries to Jones, Darqueze Dennard (now on Injured/Reserve) and others, Hall will likely step up and start, even though he's been nursing a back issue himself. Last year, Hall was notoriously torched by Bryant on a 94-yard touchdown reception to break the backs of the Bengals in a game that once stood at 21-21 in the fourth quarter. Hall will likely be responsible for Bryant and will need to use his veteran savviness to win the battle against the far bigger and more athletic Bryant.
After making a name for himself as a big-play threat in his first year, Bryant is having a nice follow-up campaign with six receiving touchdowns, 623 receiving yards and a whopping 20.1 yards-per-catch average. He, like the rest of the Steelers offense, is beginning to catch fire as the season winds down--the late-season hot streak is also a general Pittsburgh forte. Hall will need to be as physical as possible at the line to knock Bryant off of his long routes, while also utilizing safety help.
LB Vontaze Burfict versus LG Ramon Foster:
This isn't a matchup you would immediately think of, but it has more to do with the bad blood brewing over the past month. In these teams' first go-around in Week 8, star running back Le'Veon Bell was done for the year after a tackle by Burfict. Most who watched the play and have a rational thought process know the tackle was legal and wasn't a cheap shot. What chapped the Steelers further was Burfict's perceived celebration after Bell went down. The former Pro Bowl linebacker denied he knew Bell was injured and was caught up in the heat of the moment in his first game of the season.
Aside from Vince Williams using Twitter to physically threaten Burfict in some sucker-punch-fueled street fight, Foster also voiced his displeasure with Cincinnati's linebacker. While Foster and Burfict won't be going up against each other on a play-by-play basis, they'll clash helmets when Pittsburgh asks their linemen to get to the second level. Will Foster risk a penalty with a cheap shot, or will Burfict continue to push Cincinnati's defense to improve, as he's done since his return in Week 8 against these same Steelers?
WR A.J. Green versus FS Mike Mitchell:
"You're next," is what Mitchell told Green in the first 2015 contest after blowing up Marvin Jones across the middle. Even so, Green had the last laugh with 11 catches for 118 yards and a touchdown to help lead the Bengals to a victory. Green is likely to make plays on the weak Steelers corners, but Pittsburgh will double-team him often--likely with Mitchell. Did we mention it was Mitchell who collided with Green, resulting in him being diagnosed with a concussion in last year's regular season finale causing Green to miss the Wild Card game against the Colts?
Mitchell is fast, athletic and physical, but has sub-par football instincts--something safeties sorely need. Still, he can lay the wood and will likely be seeking out Green in some fashion. Furthering the interest in this matchup was Green's 306 receiving yards, 19 receptions and a touchdown grab against Mitchell and the Steelers in the two games last year. If the offense can get some semblance of protection, expect Green to get the better of this matchup, but Pittsburgh does have a knack of taking away an opponent's major weapon.
CB Josh Shaw versus TE Heath Miller:
There was a scary moment last week when Shawn Williams accidentally collided with rookie Josh Shaw, leading to him exiting the game in Cleveland. Shaw has been a full participant in practice this week and will likely be relied on heavily with Dennard on I.R. and Jones looking like he's out for Sunday. This might be a game where Cincinnati attempts to use his college versatility as both a safety and corner to cover a variety of weapons on a high-flying Steelers offense. It's been a little bit of trial-by-fire with Shaw, but the hope is that he'll show rapid growth. Shaw has impressed in limited showings, but this could be a big week for him.
The Bengals sat their star tight end, Tyler Eifert last week against Cleveland as he recovered from a stinger. Heath Miller of the Steelers also missed last week, but is ready to return against the Bengals. Regardless of his age, the score or venue, Miller always seems to provide a couple of big plays per game against the Bengals, and it may be Shaw tasked with covering him in nickel and dime formations, especially with George Iloka missing the past two practices with a groin issue. Hall has had some success against Miller in the past, so it's possible Shaw could make a play or two here against the veteran tight end.
LG Clint Boling versus DE Stephon Tuitt:
After signing a lucrative deal to stay with the Bengals this offseason, Boling has quietly put together another solid campaign on one of the better offensive lines in the NFL Boling has stood his ground often, while also moving around in formations and blocking at the second level. Sunday will be one of those days at the office where Boling will need to be stout at the point of attack in both the running and passing games.
Tuitt has really emerged as an effective defender with 4.5 sacks in his second professional season, while also giving fits in the run game. Boling won't be the only one responsible for blocking Tuitt, as Andrew Whitworth will likely help out, but with the many linebacker blitzes Pittsburgh throws out to opponents, Boling will need to continuously be on his toes.