We're only four weeks away from the end of the season and the Bengals are on the precipice of clinching the AFC North division crown. All they need to do is beat the Steelers, although that is probably easier said than done. The Bengals are currently three games ahead of the Steelers, so it would seem unthinkable that they would lose all four of their remaining games and control of the division, but that won't stop the Steelers from giving the Bengals everything they've got this week.
A win this Sunday will also keep the Bengals in serious contention for for the AFC's #1 seed and allow Bengals fans extra bragging rights over a season sweep of the Steelers, en route to a full division sweep. Tensions already look as heated as ever for this week's rivalry game, but one of the biggest storylines of this week still might be the prospect of two high-flying offenses going head to head.
Last week: 37-3 win vs Cleveland Browns.
It was another dominating win for the Bengals over their in-state rivals last week in Cleveland. Combining the scores from both games this season, the Bengals have thrashed the Browns by a score of 68-13, leaving little doubt as to who is the better team between the two. The Bengals will be looking to complete another sweep over the Steelers this week, but their 16-10 win in Week 8 suggests a much less dominating performance than what we saw against the Browns.
As good as the Bengals' offense was last week, they actually had two players who had really poor games that were overshadowed by so many other great performances. Those players were Ryan Hewitt (-3.0) and Russell Bodine (-4.6), who check in as the worst players at their respective positions this week, per PFF. PFF grades have not been kind to Hewitt or Bodine this year, but it hasn't stopped the Bengals' offense from ranking as one of the NFL's top 10 offenses throughout the season.
The Bengals' dominant form last week follows a trend this season, and it lands the Bengals at #3 in PFF's power rankings after Week 13. The Bengals' dominant offense has received quite a lot of attention this year, but certain defensive stars like Adam Jones (+86.7) have not quite received the amount of attention that they deserve this season. In fact, he has been so good that PFF ranks him as one of the 10 best defensive players about to hit free agency.
Last week: 45-10 win vs Indianapolis Colts.
The Ravens and the Browns have combined to make the AFC North look like an easy division to win this season, but the 7-5 Steelers have held their own in spite of some significant challenges. The Steelers made a statement that they won't go away easily with their dominating victory over the Colts. The commanding performance landed them at #7 in PFF's Week 13 Power Rankings.
In a 35 point win, it's hard to find much to criticize with a team's performance. But, Jacoby Jones earned himself a benching in the second half for an awful performance in the return game that allowed the Colts to have a momentary respite of hope. He only had two return opportunities, but he muffed a punt and fumbled a kick. He earned a spot as PFF's worst returner in the NFL last week as a result.
Keys to the Game
One of the biggest stories for each team this season has been the play of their quarterbacks. Andy Dalton (+86.1) checks in at #5 and Ben Roethlisberger (+99.9) checks in at #2. Dalton is leading the lead on quick three-step-drop touchdowns (10), although he also can be extremely productive when given time to think about the play. Last week, Dalton recorded a perfect passer rating (153.8) when not faced with a blitz. Roethlisberger has thrived with connecting on big plays. His 993 yards on deep throws ranks third in the NFL, and he's only played in eight of the Steelers' 12 games so far.
On the defensive side, each team has their own way of dealing with quarterbacks, although the Bengals have been more successful than the Steelers. Perhaps the most telling stat is the Steelers' bottom 10 ranked passer rating allowed (96.3) and the Bengals' top five ranked passer rating allowed (81.1). However, when the two quarterbacks met earlier in the season, Dalton recorded his second-worst rating of the season (64.7) and Roethlisberger recorded his worst as well (57.8).
If there is one pass rusher that will make an impact in this game, it will probably be Geno Atkins. Atkins recorded the highest score of all Bengals players last week against the Browns (+7.7) and it was primarily due to his performance in the pass rush. He ranks ninth in the NFL in total sacks (8.0) and he tied with Aaron Donald for the best at his position last week, so you could say he's having a pretty good year. And then there's Carlos Dunlap who has even more sacks on the season (9.5), although that only ranks as the fourth best at his position.
The Bengals sacked Ben Roethlisberger three times last time they met and it made a big difference in his productivity, but it could be hard to replicate that performance. That's largely because the Steelers have two offensive linemen in Ramon Foster (+15.2) and David DeCastro (+13.6) who are the 12th and 14th highest rated guards in the NFL. DeCastro has only allowed one sack and one hit on the entire season, but both came against the Bengals when these teams met in Week 8.
The running game could be a big factor this week. There is quite a lot of potential for a quarterback duel of epic proportions with cornerbacks Antwon Blake (-23.8) and Dre Kirkpatrick (-18.3) respectively bringing down each team's pass defense, but both teams have been experiencing a running back revival as of late.
Despite Le'Veon Bell being lost for the season after their last matchup in Week 8, DeAngelo Williams (+83.2) has filled in nicely in the Steelers' backfield. On the flip side, Jeremy Hill has been having a rough season this year and has only really stayed relevant as a touchdown vulture, but his performance last week (+3.2) showed that he still has plenty left to give. His punishing downhill running style helped a lot last week as he only averaged 0.1 yards per carry before being hit by the defense. But, he managed to put together an average of 3.5 yards after being contacted, which combined for a respectable 3.6 yards per carry.
This game has the potential to turn into a shootout, but both teams are likely to want to establish the running game and potentially catch the opposing team over-committing to the pass. This game might come down to which offense can put together the most complete performance, because it's likely to be close either way.