Pittsburgh might have the hottest offense in the NFL right now, and it's heating up at the right time. They will be the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. It's easier said than done but, the Bengals can play a part in keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs if they win on Sunday.
Of course that is going to be difficult. Not only can the Steelers score a lot points, even without Le'Veon Bell, but their defense gave the Bengals fits in their previous matchup, before the Bengals pulled off a touchdown in the fourth quarter that led to them winning the game. The Andy Dalton-led offense has been nearly unstoppable in 2015 with the exception of two games, one of which was the Week 8 contest in Pittsburgh. This is their chance for a statement win that also crushes Mike Tomlin's team's playoff hopes.
So let's look at the tape to bring you the players that you should watch for in the game that could give the Bengals their first sweep of Pittsburgh since 2009 and their second AFC North crown in three seasons.
1) Antonio Brown
You knew this was coming, the best receiver in football? Many people say so, and it's hard to argue. He was amazing last season and has been pretty good this year as well in spite of some really mediocre quarterbacks backing up Ben Roethlisberger. He only notched 6 catches for 47 yards and a score in Week 8, but Adam Jones is not playing and safety George Iloka is questionable to suit up. (THIS IS NOT HAPPENING, RIGHT?)
Since that Week 8 game, Brown has recorded 41 receptions for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns, including his demolition of the Oakland Raiders where he recorded 17 catches for 284 yards. Oh, and he added a return for a touchdown last week too against the Colts.
Cincinnati does not usually have their defensive players shadow any one receiver, but they had to do some in Week 8 because Dre Kirkpatrick has no business on stopping Brown. Leon Hall has a shot of playing on Sunday, but the secondary is really hurting and this is their most difficult test yet. The thing about Brown though, is not only what he does, but what his presence allows others to do. Just watch out what the Colts safety does thus leaving Martavis Bryant one on one against the cornerback.
And this is true most of the time, the Steelers have great secondary weapons in Bryant and Markus Wheaton and they take advantage of the extra attention Brown draws. With all the injuries in Cincinnati's secondary corps, this could be huge. He lines up anywhere and can hurt the defense in many ways. The Bengals are a zone heavy team, and their lack of athleticism at the linebacker position could be exploited.
Cincinnati desperately needs to get to Roethlisberger in order to have a chance at slowing down this offense.
2) Martavis Bryant
This guy is a playmaker. It helps to play alongside Brown, but, Bryant has 14 receiving touchdowns 17 games through his first two seasons as a pro. Not too shabby.
At 6'4" he is a different kind of player than Brown, and he is usually the designated home run target of Roethlisberger - he is averaging 20.1 yards per catch. The Steelers, like the Cardinals, love to throw deep and take their shots. Going back to his 68-yard touchdown against the Colts last Sunday, neither the safety nor the cornerback had a chance against him.
But he is not only a good highlight player, he is also becoming a very dependable guy in the Steelers' system.
And his ball skills are elite already.
Whoever covers him on Sunday is going to need some help over the top.
3) Cameron Heyward
I think outside of Geno Atkins, Cameron Heyward is the best defensive player in the AFC North. The former Ohio State defensive lineman is big, fast and strong. The unique combination that gets you far. He does not get much love because of the position he plays, 3-4 DE, but he already has 5 sacks and is the main force behind a defense that does not have much talent elsewhere.
But the Steelers' front seven was able to put a lot of pressure on the Bengals' offensive line in their Week 8 clash, and Heyward figures to be a key player all day on Sunday.
I wrote about how the offensive line wasn't elite against the Steelers in Week 8, noting that Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator was very smart and caused a lot of problems with their blitzes and postsnap adjustments.
Russell Bodine did not have a clue against Heyward.
He is a mismatch anywhere because he is very fast and has solid technique that allows him to overcome any counter the opposing line has for him.
4) Ross Cockrell
As many are expecting a shootout at Paul Brown Stadium come Sunday, the Steelers' second-year cornerback is one player to focus on. Apparently the Steelers got tired of Antwon Blake and will deploy him on Special Teams only, so it will be up to veteran William Gay, former Eagles CB Brandon Boykin and Cockrell himself to hold the fort against A.J. Green, Marvin Jones Jr. and Mohamed Sanu.
Cockrell, who started his career in Buffalo, did a good job in the Week 8 game, but really shined against the Colts this past weekend, breaking up two passes and allowing just two catches on five targets. He's been a pleasant surprise for the Steelers in their zone blitz scheme.
He's had some issues tackling - I feel you, Dre Kirkpatrick - and the Steelers' passing defense hasn't been good often, but if the Bengals manage to keep Andy Dalton clean in the pocket then Pittsburgh is going to need Cockrell to play as well as he was in the first game or against the Colts last Sunday. Or, if he has to try to cover Tyler Eifert isolated on one side, hopefully we don't see more drops like this.
5) Alejandro Villanueva
I picked Villanueva as a key player in Week 8 too, only because he was from my beautiful country of Spain. He had a good game against the Bengals despite having the tough task of replacing injured Kelvin Beachum at left tackle. Beachum was having a great season and Villanueva was more a feel-good story than a solid lineman. But the Army Ranger has delivered in a big way and has gotten accolades everywhere. Villanueva is a big part of a surprisingly good offensive line; after losing both Beachum and center Maurkice Pouncey it was easy to root against them. Better at pass protection than blocking for the running game, he will be one of the hurdles the Bengals will have to overcome if they want to stop the Steelers' offense.
He moves really well for his 6'9" stature, and some consider him the long-term solution to the blind side tackle position for the Steelers, which is amazing if you ask me, after spending so many years trying to get a chance.
I'm rooting for my countryman every single time, and I hope all the Bengals' sacks and tackles for a loss come from the other side on Sunday.
He is still learning, but he's gotten much smarter - football smart - with each passing game.