Six weeks after a defensive slugfest in the steel city, the Steelers come to the Jungle looking for revenge, while the Bengals look to close out the AFC North. Behind the Steel Curtain's Jeff Hartman tells us what to expect from the Steelers.
Q: Coming into this season, most expected big things from this Steelers offense, but the defense was a question mark. However, after 12 games, the Steelers are tied for seventh in points per game (20.0) and tied for third in sacks (35). Has this defense surprised you? And if so, what about the defense has surprised you most.
A: You are spot on when you mention the Steelers defense being a question mark. I, and most people who cover the team, didn't know what to expect from a defense with so many new pieces, and a new coordinator. Nonetheless, this team has been brilliant at times, and mind boggling others. The big key with the Steelers on defense is consistency. They hold the Colts to 10 points in Week 13, but got gashed by the Seahawks for 39 points in Week 12. The team is doing some different things in the back end of the defense, which could pay dividends for the team down the stretch.
Q: On paper, this looks like it should be a high scoring game. The Steelers rank sixth in terms of scoring offense (25.9 PPG), and in the four games since their last matchup, the Steelers have put up 30+ points and averaged 35.8 points during that stretch. The Bengals rank fourth in scoring (27.8), and have put up 30+ in four of their five games since these two last met, averaging 28.0 PPG during that stretch. However, the first matchup was your typical low scoring, physical AFC North game (16-10). Do you expect the rematch to be another low scoring defensive slugfest? Or do you see the offenses carrying the day this week?
A: The Steelers numbers are impressive, as are the Bengals, but a fans are wondering what could have been if Ben Roethlisberger hadn't been lost for four weeks with a knee sprain. Their numbers could be tops in the league; however, I have a feeling this game is going to be more wide open than the Week 8 matchup, and most likely more "clean". Week 8 saw a combined five interceptions between the quarterbacks with several stupid penalties and botched snaps which altered the score. I think this game will be more high scoring than the previous matchup.
Q: With the amount of weapons the Steelers have on offense and the rate at which they are putting up points, stopping this offense seems impossible. But, where are the weaknesses of this Steelers offense and how can the offense be slowed?
A: There aren't many weaknesses in this unit. They are deep at all skill positions and have one of the best QBs in the league; however, if there is a weakness it is along the offensive line. The Bengals did a great job with Geno Atkins putting pressure on Roethlisberger up the middle against backup center Cody Wallace. I look for Cincinnati to exploit that matchup, as well as Alejandro Villanueva, the team's backup left tackle. If Roethlisberger has time, he will pick any defense in the NFL apart.
Q: The Steelers have been plagued with injuries all season. How do they look (healthwise) coming into this rematch?
A: Outside of the previous injuries to Le'Veon Bell, Kelvin Beachum and Maurkice Pouncey, the team is relatively healthy. Roethlisberger is as healthy as he has been since prior to the knee injury in Week 3, and the only injuries of note heading into the Bengals game is to Heath Miller (ribs) and William Gay (concussion). They are hopeful both will play this week, and other than that, this team is a healthy group.
Q: The Steelers have given up 35+ points in two of their last four games (Oakland and Seattle). How were the Raiders and Seahawks able to exploit this defense?
A: It was simple. Protect the quarterback without keeping extra bodies in the help and abuse the Steelers' porous secondary. What was interesting was the unique approach the team deployed in their most recent game against the Colts. They only rushed three or four players with regularity, electing to drop everyone into coverage and force Matt Hasselbeck to beat them with his arm. The plan worked, and Hasselbeck admitted he wasn't prepared for such a defense. The Steelers might try a similar philosophy against the Bengals in hopes to stop the run and force Dalton to beat them. The only other constant between the Oakland and Seattle game is those teams rarely made a mistake. The Steelers thrive off of turnovers, and if they don't get them they can be had.
Q: How do you see this game playing out on Sunday and what is your prediction?
A: I see this game being a lot higher scoring than most might think after the 16-10 score in their last meeting; however, I think the Steelers are going to come out early and take shots to get an early lead. They want to make the Bengals one-dimensional, and getting a healthy lead could do just that. It will be tough sledding at times for both teams, but this is going to be an offensive showcase, in my opinion. I do like the Steelers to get some revenge in this game and put the champagne back on ice for the Bengals who will have to wait another week before clinching the AFC North. I'll say Steelers 34, Bengals 31.