Just four short weeks ago, the Bengals and Steelers clashed in the Queen City, piling up more than $100,000 in fines and setting up a rubber match - in the playoffs. Our friend Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain joins us again to talk all things Steelers.
1. From a yards standpoint, Ben Roethlisberger has had an incredible season, averaging nearly 330 yards per game. However, he has also thrown 16 interceptions in just 12 games - his most since throwing 23 in 2006 - and a 16 game pace of 21. What is behind the high number of interceptions? And is their concern over Ben's interceptions entering the playoffs?
Ben Roethlisberger is one of the last true "gun slinger" quarterbacks in the NFL. The Brett Favre type quarterbacks have been replaced with 'game managers' or the 'cerebral' attacking quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Roethlisberger takes chances, and at times really dumb chances. Roethlisberger has been playing at an elite level, but his reliance on Antonio Brown has become evident in the past month of the regular season. Are the interceptions a concern entering the playoffs? Absolutely. The Steelers nearly let the Browns in the game in Week 17 due to an Antonio Brown fumble and two Roethlisberger interceptions. If the team continues to turn the football over, it will be another brief stint in the postseason.
2. Steelers fans, players and national media seem to be quite confident the Steelers will win this weekend. Quite honestly, who can blame them? Ever since the Bengals opened Paul Brown Stadium, the Steelers have owned the Bengals in Cincinnati (14-3). In fact, during that period, the Bengals record against the Steelers is better in Pittsburgh (6-10) than it is in Cincinnati. Combine that with the Bengals struggles in primetime and the playoffs, and it seems like a bad matchup for the Bengals. That being said, do you believe the Steelers may be overconfident entering this game?
I don't think the players will be overconfident. The Steelers haven't won a playoff game since 2010, and got beat in a similar situation in 2014 at home against a division rival. Steelers fans, however, are plenty confident in their favorite team going into Paul Brown Stadium against a backup QB, but I think this game is going to be a lot closer than most think.
3. It sounds like DeAngelo Williams will be out/limited this week. How does his injury change the offense?
Williams has been a tremendous stop gap in the absence of Le'Veon Bell. With limited snaps from Week 4-8, Williams nearly rushed for 1,000 yards and was impactful in the receiving game as well. Throw in the fact he is a tremendous pass protector with blitz pickups, he will be missed if he cannot suit up on Saturday night. I don't see him playing, the injury he suffered would limit his skill set, and that is good news for the Bengals' defense going against the Steelers' offense.
4. Antonio Brown has had an amazing season, and in my opinion, is currently the best receiver in the NFL. Against Denver and Cleveland, Brown had 29 receptions for 376 yards and 3 touchdowns - an absurd average of 14.5 receptions, 188 yards and 1.5 touchdowns. However, between those two games, Baltimore held him to 7 receptions and just 61 yards and no touchdowns. Was it something Baltimore did that week? Or did he and Roethlisberger simply have an off week?
I would chalk the Baltimore game up to he and Roethlisberger having an "off day", but he still caught 7 passes. He is an amazing player to watch on a weekly basis, but if you want to look at a team taking him out of the game, look at what the Seattle Seahawks did with Richard Sherman. You have to play tight man-to-man coverage and get physical with Brown at the line. The problem is, when the Seahawks took Brown out of the game, Markus Wheaton had over 200 yards receiving. The Steelers passing attack is lethal when clicking on all cylinders, but in my opinion, you can't really "stop" Brown with the new rules in the NFL on contact with receivers. Instead, you just want to try and minimize his impact on the game, like the Ravens and Seahawks were able to accomplish.
5. If you were the Bengals offensive and defensive coordinators, how would you attack the Steelers offense and defense respectively?
Offensively, slowing down the Steelers without DeAngelo Williams just became a lot easier. I would drop two safeties deep, taking away the deep pass, and force the Steelers to try and wind a slow, grind-it-out, style game with very unproven running backs. By forcing the Steelers into third and long situations, it is time to pin your ears back and get after Ben Roethlisberger. This is the recipe for success against the Steelers offense, especially if Williams doesn't play.
Defensively, the Steelers are much more vulnerable in the secondary. The Ravens gave the blueprint, and that is running the football and moving the chains. The best defense against the Pittsburgh offense is keeping them off the field. Long, time consuming drives which equate in points will be huge. Once the defense has been lulled to sleep, then take your shot on Pittsburgh's shoddy secondary.
Prediction: How do you see this game unfolding? And what is your score prediction?
A lot of my prediction relies on whether Williams plays or not, but right now I like the Steelers in this matchup. Some are saying it could be a blowout due to AJ McCarron being at QB, but if he protects the football it will be a really close game. McCarron is used to big games, so I don't think the environment will make much of a difference. Nonetheless, I like the Steelers to win a close game, I'll say Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 21.