We all know how important Saturday's Bengals vs Steelers game is. More than moving on to the next round, there is an 800-pound gorilla riding on the shoulders of every player, coach, and fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. The playoff failures that have followed the Bengals since the dawn of the Andy Dalton era are immense, and tossing that gorilla would do the team wonders. Who better than the Pittsburgh Steelers to exorcise the Bengals' demons against? Despite the Bengals' regular season success, most people would still argue that the Steelers are the class of the AFC North.
We all also know exactly what the Steelers are good at, what they're not so good at, and what they're going to attempt to do. As Deangelo Williams is doubtful and reportedly out for Saturday, it is safe to assume that Ben Roethlisberger will be asked to throw the ball all over Paul Brown Stadium. So, who is going to need to perform at a higher-than-normal level to win this game?
1) AJ McCarron
I know that this is so obvious, and I know that I typically do not use quarterbacks in this, but this is the most important game for the Bengals this season and I'm making an exception. I don't want anyone to think McCarron is capable of going out and putting up a 400/4/0 stat line, but I don't think the Bengals need him to do that. We need efficiency, third down conversions, and no turnovers. If he can't light it up, he can't shoot the team in the foot. He needs to simply take what the Steelers' pass defense gives him (which may be a decent amount!) and keep cool under pressure. I fully expect the Steelers to bring a lot of pressure. Their secondary isn't great, and McCarron hasn't dealt with pressure very well.
2) Reggie Nelson
With George Iloka back in the lineup, Nelson has his running mate back, but he also has a guy that is almost certainly not going to make a huge play. Luckily for us, all Nelson does is make big plays. Nelson has been a turnover-forcing machine, and the Bengals will absolutely need to win the turnover battle on Saturday. In addition to the big plays, Nelson will also be a part of the effort to keep the trio of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Markus Wheaton in check. That is no easy task, but Nelson is the Bengals' best safety right now and will have to be up for it.
3) Tyler Eifert
I could've gone a lot of ways here. I considered A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, or Mohamed Sanu. However, I ultimately realized that the Bengals could still feasibly win if any of those guys don't have a great game. If Eifert doesn't have a great game, the Bengals likely won't have scored enough points to sniff a victory. Eifert is the best red zone weapon in the NFL, period. When the Bengals are in the red zone, they will absolutely have to score as many points as possible while there. If that happens, it will likely be because of Eifert (although McCarron does seem to have an affinity for Green fades).
4) Dre Kirkpatrick
We all know how poorly Kirkpatrick has played at times this year. We've watched it with our eyes, and PFF confirmed it for us. With that said, Kirkpatrick has played better in the second half of the season, but he will be put to the test on Saturday. The Steelers are all too familiar with him and his propensity to give up big plays. One of those big plays could easily be enough to sink the Bengals' chances, especially without Andy Dalton under center.
5) Vontaze Burfict
Over the past few weeks, Burfict has played like a man possessed. In the last four weeks, Burfict has racked up 29 tackles, seven assists, two interceptions, and a sack. You could not expect any more from a healthy player, let alone someone rebounding from knee surgery and multiple concussions. He is the soul of this defense and its most important player. He, along with Adam Jones, will bring the attitude necessary to matchup with the Steelers' intensity. They also need to keep that intensity controlled, but, that's exactly what the Bengals need. It's also important that the Bengals keep Burfict on the field for the duration of the game. If a stupid penalty or unfortunate injury sends him to the locker room or puts the defense in a bad spot, that could dissipate hope of moving onto the divisional round.