Anger between the Bengals and Steelers seems to be at an all-time high and it all comes to a head this Saturday night when Cincinnati hosts Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round. Concern is high in Bengaldom because of the historical struggled against the Steelers, as well as the health of the player at the most important position, but a decent amount of optimism remains.
We received some good questions this week and are featuring a few here. Send us your questions every week to have them answered in this weekly post!
@CincyJungle Will Dalton play?..... #1 question— Zachary Huber (@hubezack) January 4, 2016
It really is the number one question this week, isn't it? After enjoying an MVP-like season, it came crashing down with a fractured thumb in a freak play against the Steelers just under four weeks ago. It didn't require surgery, allowing the possibility for Dalton to return for the postseason, as most recovery windows were slated at 4-6 weeks.
We're now at the earliest portion of the recovery time frame and things look murky. It seemed like possible poetic justice might be a reality when Dalton had his cast removed earlier this week and made an appearance at Tuesday's practice, but he hasn't participated since. Aside from the team quietly looking as if their preparing with AJ McCarron as the starter, head coach Marvin Lewis has been mum about the situation this week.
There are gives and takes to either quarterback getting the start. Dalton is (likely) more talented than McCarron, he's more comfortable in Hue Jackson's offensive system and he has definitely taken the mantle of a true leader this season. A thing that has lacked since Dalton has left the lineup is increased pocket awareness and even decisiveness when it comes to reading more complex defenses, which the Steelers definitely provide this weekend.
However, McCarron provides a number of similarities in taking over for Dalton too. Though they haven't been running the read-option as frequently as they did with Dalton, McCarron can move well. He's scrambled for yards when plays have broken down and has eluded pressure at times. He'll need to use that ability against an aggressive and creative Pittsburgh front.
McCarron has also limited turnovers, as Dalton previously did, having only three in four games played. His only two interceptions came against the Steelers when he was thrown into a tough situation with limited snaps. And, while the fumble he committed against the Broncos was devastating, he's done well at taking care of the football as evidenced by his zero interceptions in three starts, against six touchdown passes. There's also the issue of Dalton potentially gathering rust over the past month.
However, another notable difference in the two starters is providing consistent output in the offense. McCarron has provided stability and wins in a tumultuous situation, but the offense has experienced major spurts of inefficiency. It didn't happen nearly as frequently with Dalton, so they'll need to find more consistency this weekend.
That's basically my way of saying to expect McCarron under center and not Dalton--at least for this week. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bengals take a page out of the Broncos' playbook from last week while having Dalton as the emergency backup because there are no tomorrows guaranteed in the playoffs.
@CincyJungle who stops Brown, he is the big danger?— KangarooColin (@ColinKangaroo) January 4, 2016
We talked a bit about this on Wednesday night with Geoff Hobson on the Inside the Jungle podcast, but it's a big task no matter how you slice it. Antonio Brown had one of the best seasons for a receiver ever, and is fresh off an AFC Offensive Player of the Month award for December.
Cincinnati's cornerbacks have had their ups and downs this season, so they'll need to bring their "A Game" against No. 84 Saturday night. Dre Kirkpatrick stifled some receivers, blew some coverages early in the year, but played relatively well in his first full season as an NFL starter. But, the biggest surprise for the once big-play corner was that he didn't grab an interception all season.
When you look at Brown's impressive 2015 game log, however, you'll note two of his lower receiving performances of the year came against the Bengals. In the two games against Cincinnati, Brown had 13 catches, 134 yards and a touchdown. Compare that to A.J. Green's 17 catches, 250 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers in 2015.
Hobson noted that Adam Jones likely provides a better matchup for the Bengals against Brown than does Kirkpatrick, and we tend to agree. While Kirkpatrick has the height and length advantages over Brown, the smallish receiver knows how to get past some of the bigger corners, while Jones can get scrappy going toe-to-toe with Brown, size-wise.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has utilized a philosophy for his unit this year, where takes away the deep ball and keeps passes in front of the group. He also manages to achieve this by minimally blitzing extra players, allowing their strong front four to get pressure at will. With Reggie Nelson's great amount of success against Ben Roethlisberger, the secondary should put up a good fight against Brown and Martavis Bryant.
The one player to watch, given Guenther's likely game plan, is Heath Miller. Guenther and his defense will likely concede the shorter passes and Miller will likely be relied upon by the Steelers to continuously move the sticks. Miller, as compared to Brown, had 20 catches for 171 yards in the two games against the Bengals in 2015, and some believe he's a tertiary option in Pittsburgh's offense.
Obviously, Brown will be a guy to watch, even on punt returns, but Miller is definitely another Steelers player to keep an eye on come Saturday night.
I hate the Steelers. I know that's not a question but it's super important. https://t.co/NIYEp6Z3ok— Mike Hudson (@mikehudsonsucks) January 4, 2016
It is important, Mike and you're not alone. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Bengals fans agree with you. If you need further validation, Cincinnati's Pro Bowl linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, also recently agreed with you. Enjoy your Wild Card weekend.