Steeler week is here! I've spent the last couple days visiting Behind The Steel Curtain and have left there dazed, confused, and slightly angered. These are the emotions the Steelers' fanbase typically elicits from me, so I don't know why I expected anything more. Alas, the Bengals face a team that is as hot as anyone in the NFL and has the personnel to take advantage of an ailing secondary. At this point, it looks as if the Bengals' starting cornerbacks will be Dre Kirkpatrick and Josh Shaw, with Reggie Nelson and Shawn Williams at safety. Those four will be matched up with the likes of Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, and Heath Miller, who's returning from a rib injury. I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't concerned about those matchups.
Beyond that, the Steelers have Stephon Tuitt back for this round against the Bengals. Considering that the Steelers racked up three sacks and two interceptions in their Week 8 loss to Cincy without him, Andy Dalton will have to play as clean of a game as possible despite the possibility of facing even more pressure.
1) Dre Kirkpatrick
Kirkpatrick has not built up a lot of trust in me up to this point, but he may be the most important Bengal not named Andy Dalton this week. The Steelers have been throwing the ball all over the place, and Kirkpatrick is likely going to be the #1 cornerback this week unless Adam Jones has really been fooling us this entire week. Luckily, Kirkpatrick has been playing better over the past couple weeks, but this receiving corps is vastly superior to any that he has seen in that timespan. The Bengals don't need him to be a shutdown guy, but if he can be a solid tackler and not allow any big plays, that'll go a long way in helping the Bengals secure a season sweep over the Steelers.
2) Reggie Nelson
How Nelson continues to fly under the radar absolutely baffles me. Even casual NFL fans who still base all of their opinions solely off of traditional counting stats have to see that the guy is leading the NFL in interceptions. He has easily been the Bengals' best defensive back recently, and even more responsibility will be put in his lap against the Steelers as he may very possibly be without his most talented peers in George Iloka and Adam Jones. Nelson can help keep a lid on big plays while creating big plays of his own, whether they are in coverage or when he is blitzing. It does help that he has played pretty well against Big Ben over his career.
3) Geno Atkins
If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, then we'd all have a merry Christmas. Unfortunately, they are not, just like the Bengals are not likely to shutter the Steelers' air attack solely through the play of the secondary. Stopping the passing game is always a combined effort between the coverage and rush, and with a weakened secondary, more responsibility will be placed on the pass rush, which starts with Geno Atkins. Atkins is coming off of a Herculean effort last week which earned him a +9.2 PFF grade. It's not optimal to ask a guy to perform like that on a consistent basis, but the Bengals will need him to collapse the pocket on a regular basis to make Roethlisberger as uncomfortable as possible. Luckily, if there's a guy who can do it, it's Atkins.
4) Tyler Eifert
Let's discuss this the most logical way possible. 11 of Eifert's 12 touchdowns have come inside the red zone (The other came from 22 yards out). Eifert did not play against the Browns. The Bengals were two of five in the red zone against the Browns. The Bengals will have to convert red zone possessions into touchdowns to beat the Steelers. Tyler Eifert is set to play against the Steelers. You see what I'm saying here?
5) Jeremy Hill
The most frequent mention in this column is back again. Hill is slowly building some momentum with two consecutive good games under his belt. If you haven't been able to tell, the Steelers' passing game is the only real fear I have in this game, but it is a very legitimate threat. The best way to counter that, even better than plain old good defense, is to keep their offense off of the field. If Jeremy Hill has a good day on the ground, there is no reason not to ride him for all he's worth. The seconds he chews off the clock will be nearly as important as the yards he will hopefully be racking up.