It's Steelers week, part two! The Cincinnati Bengals will host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday afternoon, a game where a Bengals win means a clinched division. A Bengals loss, meanwhile, is two-toned. It keeps the Steelers alive in the division (though just barely), but more importantly at this point, it affects the oh-so-delicate state of the AFC seeding. Today, we debate the key points of this game, and where each team has advantages that could tilt this AFC North heavyweight contest.
Alex: Kyle, thanks for sitting down with me today for this important game. There's a lot of things we can look at this game. The first is momentum, in my opinion. The Bengals are coming off a 37-3 victory over a dysfunctional Cleveland Browns team, while the Steelers manhandled the Indianapolis Colts, 45-10. Both teams have been hot of late, even going back to Cincinnati's offensive showdown against Arizona. That's part of the reason why I believe this game could be world's apart from the defensive slug-fest we saw the first time these two teams met in Week 8. My opening question for you: Whose momentum carries over the most in this game, and do you think this game ends up being a shootout?
Kyle: Hey Alex, my answer to your question is: yes and no. I definitely think that this game on Sunday will end up being much more of an offensive battle than the last one was. If you'll recall, Andy Dalton recorded his second worst passer rating of the season when the two met in Week 8 (64.7) and Roethlisberger recorded his worst (57.8). Yes, both teams have the ability to get a lot of high level production out of their quarterbacks and, yes, this game is probably going to be higher scoring than the last one (it almost certainly can't be lower). But I don't think the defenses are getting enough credit here for contributing to those recent blowouts. Since the two met in Week 8, the Bengals have held opponents to 10 points or five times, and the Steelers have done it twice.
My first question for you revolves around the Bengals' injuries in the secondary. The team has been having a great season so far and a lot of it has to do with the team avoiding major injuries to key players throughout the season. This week, the Bengals see Adam Jones listed as doubtful to play with a foot injury, Leon Hall as questionable with a back injury, George Iloka as questionable with a groin injury, Dre Kirkpatrick as probable with a knee injury, and Josh Shaw as probable with a back injury. That's a lot of players from a unit that will be relied upon to stop the Steelers' most dangerous weapons, their wide receivers. How big of an issue is this? Can Reggie Nelson make the same kind of impact that he did last time (two interceptions and two pass deflections) with such limited support from the rest of his unit?
Alex: Kyle, that's actually part of the reason why I think this game carries the potential of turning into a gun-slinging competition really quickly. The injuries in the secondary worry me, especially after seeing the last two offensive games from the Steelers against the Seahawks and Colts. Reggie Nelson has seemingly had Ben Roethlisberger's number in recent years, but that's one player in a secondary tasked with stopping on of the most underrated quarterbacks of our era -- and that's not an overstatement. Relying on one player to make a difference is akin to throwing numbers in a hat and relying on luck. Not a good look here. Obviously, that's not what the Bengals plan to do, but the injuries are forcing their hand quite a bit. You better believe that Big Ben will be eyeing the deep ball to Antonio Brown and Martavius Bryant.
Therefore, I'm not necessarily sure if this should be a question of whether Nelson can make a difference as much as whether or not a depleted secondary as a whole can. The answer is no, but to what extent? Against this injured secondary, I'm taking Roethlisberger.
That having been asked, should this game result in a shootout, which offense are you taking?
Kyle: That's a hard question to answer, Alex. These two teams are SO similar in terms of how many weapons they have available for very, very good quarterbacks. The Steelers have potentially the best wide receiver trio in the NFL with Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, and Martavis Bryant while the Bengals also have a great trio in A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, and Marvin Jones. The Bengals and Steelers both have certain offensive linemen who are playing great like Andrew Whitworth and Ramon Foster and inconsistent linemen like David DeCastro and Andre Smith. They also have great stand-in running backs in Giovani Bernard and DeAngelo Williams who have both been having fantastic seasons in the face of issues with the starter at their position, whether it be injury or lack of productivity.
But, to answer your question, I think the Bengals have the edge here, at least in terms of numbers. The Steelers have been dealing with numerous injuries on their team all season such as Kelvin Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey, and Le'Veon Bell. The Bengals, on the other hand, have seen a resurgence from Jeremy Hill of late and should be getting Tyler Eifert back. On top of that, Ryan Hewitt and Rex Burkhead have been serviceable wild card options this season and they've even seen some offensive production from players like Brandon Tate and Tyler Kroft. If anything, I think the Bengals will have the numbers to outlast the Steelers in a game that is sure to take a significant toll on both teams. This game is going to come down to whoever can perform in the fourth quarter, and that's been the Bengals' specialty this season.
That leads me to my next question, Alex: which quarterback is more primed to lead their team to victory this week? I'm not talking about weapons, I'm talking about the quarterbacks themselves. Roethlisberger has the experience and the historical success, but Dalton has health and a season's worth of momentum on his side. Who do you think is in the better position?
Alex: I would agree that the Steelers and Bengals both have two of the best wide receiver sets in the game.
To answer your question, I have to preface with this: I think that whoever has the last possession will win this football game. Simply put, these offenses are too good -- both of them. Combine that with injuries to the Bengals secondary and inconsistencies all over the place with Pittsburgh's equivalent and I think you have an equation for a crazy fourth quarter.
You're right in saying that the Bengals have had great success at the ends of games in 2015. You're also right to point toward Roethlisberger's experience as a veteran in these situations. Breaking this down to a game between Dalton and Big Ben -- right now, with the way both are playing -- well, that's just about the toughest question you can ask me. I'm taking Roethlisberger. Part of the reason is because of the injuries in the Bengals' secondary. Part of it is because when I pick the Bengals to lose, good things seem to happen. Shhh.
Regardless of which team, and which quarterbacks, specifically, performs better in the fourth, I think this will be a fantastic game to watch. Think Cardinals vs Bengals, with a lot more "blood on the field."
Final question: To steer away from the quarterbacks, I'd like to focus on the role of DeAngelo Williams on the Steelers. We know that Bernard has been a consistent difference-maker and that Hill is finding his stride, but what kind of role do you expect Williams to play in this game?
Kyle: I expect Williams to play a wild card kind of role, much like he has played all season. When these two teams last met, he came in to replace the injured Le'Veon Bell and saw limited action. Aside from two particularly active games against the Raiders and the Colts, he's usually carrying the ball about 15-20 times per game. If the Bengals allow more runs like his 55 yarder in Week 8 then he can dictate the pace of the game, but otherwise he's probably just going to be used to carry the load when Roethlisberger's arm needs a break. Expect Roethlisberger to throw around 40-50 times.
On the Bengals' side, which back do you think has the better game this week, Alex? Jeremy Hill has been coming alive lately, but Giovani Bernard has rarely failed to impress in any given game this season. Do the Bengals ride the shifty speedster or try to establish the tough grinding power back who has the potential to make defenses sweat?
Alex: I think you try to ride the hot hand first, which is Jeremy Hill at this point in the season. Bernard has been a little quiet, but I'm going to gamble and say he comes alive. He has a great track record against the Steelers, going all the way back to his rookie year (and apart from his game against them in Week 8).
The reason for picking Bernard here is that I love his ability to make plays in the flats and as a short yardage receiver against this porous Steelers secondary. While Bernard has maintained a high average per carry, his ability as a safety valve for Andy Dalton is what truly makes him such a valuable asset to this team. Furthermore, it also plays into the Steelers' 27th ranked pass defense, whereas Hill may have trouble against the 6th best rush defense in the NFL.
That being said, I expect the Bengals to continue attacking with both running backs in this game to see if they can establish the ground game. If they can, it will go a long way in maintaining a strong passing day.
Alright -- prediction time! Who do you have?
Kyle: I have to go with the Bengals here. I've been saying all season that I feel like this is a season that the Bengals are going to sweep the Steelers, and that specifically has to do with having more available offensive weapons to rotate and distribute the ball to and a more practical defense. The Bengals might give up big plays and forget to finish the process of a tackle here and there, but they've got the top scoring defense in the NFL by 14 points.
They're only allowing 16.3 points per game. Save for the defensive debacle in Arizona, the defense hasn't allowed more than 10 points in any individual game since Week 6 in Buffalo. That includes their Week 8 excursion to Pittsburgh. As long as the Bengals' offense can outlast the Steelers like I expect them to, I'm expecting a final score somewhere in the range of 35-28. What about you?
Alex: I'm torn on this prediction. My general rule of thumb with the Bengals and Steelers the last few years is that they split the series. And I have to go back to when I said that I expect the team with the last possession to win the game.
It's the inconsistencies with these two teams that makes this such an intriguing game. The Bengals' offense was on fire until they traveled to Pittsburgh earlier in the season. Can the injured Bengals' defense find similar homefield success? It leaves a lot of questions, so I'm going with a prediction more on the crazy side this time around. I think the Steelers win this game, 37-31, in overtime. 31-31 in regulation, and the Steelers score a touchdown to open up overtime.