While the other two games between the Steelers and Bengals were entertaining, the third go-round in the Wild Card round of the playoffs between the clubs is for all the marbles. Win and move on to New England for the Bengals or Denver for the Steelers, or, lose and feel the sting until September.
There is no love lost between the two teams and with so much emotion in this game on Saturday, players will be giving it all on the field. Each team is missing valuable players because of injury, so these individual matchups will be even more heavily scrutinized than usual.
P Jordan Berry and K Chris Boswell vs WR/KR Brandon Tate:
Because of a foot injury to Adam Jones in the past few weeks and months, Tate has been the sole return man for the Bengals. It's kind of a tortoise and the hare type of deal between Tate and Jones returning kicks, with the veteran corner often providing big sparks for Cincinnati in some of their biggest games and the Tate being less flashy, but more reliable in ball security. Because of Jones' importance as a defensive player and his big upcoming duties this weekend, we might not see too much of him on special teams Saturday night.
Berry and Boswell will need to be sure to not out-kick their team's coverage and pin the Bengals deep in their own territory to make life miserable for AJ McCarron. With the chips seeming to be stacked against the Bengals on Saturday, they might need big plays from surprising places. No other player would surprise Bengals fans more than Tate, who is averaging 22.9 yards per kickoff return and has a long punt return of 18 yards in 2015.
RDE Stephon Tuitt vs LG Clint Boling:
Obviously, Boling will have help from Andrew Whitworth on Saturday night and will also assist Russell Bodine against nose tackle Steve McLendon, but he'll be going up against the disruptive Tuitt often. Whitworth will also be going up against some of those pesky pass-rushing linebackers the Steelers employ, so Boling and Tuitt will face-off in a battle of two very similarly-built players (Tuitt is 6'6", 303 pounds, Boling 6'5", 305).
Regardless of their player attrition, Pittsburgh always knows how to find a way to pressure the quarterback and get penetration against the run. Tuitt has been one of Pittsburgh's best defensive players in 2015, racking up 6.5 sacks, four stuffs and one interception that has been heard 'round the world (against Andy Dalton where he fractured his thumb). If the Bengals are to have a chance this weekend, the offensive line will need to be stout at the point of attack, giving McCarron time and paving lanes for the backs.
RT Marcus Gilbert vs DE Carlos Dunlap:
Remember Gilbert? He's the guy whose Christmas wish was granted with a playoff draw of the Bengals, calling them "chokers" over Twitter (he's since deleted the remark). Gilbert is on record saying he thinks the Steelers have the best offense in football and certainly many of the numbers back that up. Pittsburgh's offensive line has allowed 33 sacks this season (just one more than Cincinnati's line in 2015), and have surrendered five sacks in two games against the Bengals.
Dunlap is having a career year in 2015, garnering 13.5 sacks--one of which was in the last game against Pittsburgh. While Dunlap may not have the ability or prowess of some of the league's true elite pass-rushers, he frustrates offensive linemen with his ability to do everything well. Aside from being able to get to the passer pretty regularly, he is also capable against the run and even drops into coverage from time-to-time. We'll see how Gilbert's wish plays out in a tough matchup against the Pro Bowl snub.
S Mike Mitchell vs TE Tyler Eifert:
Another lovable character in a cast of many is Mitchell, who before the last game a month ago chirped about blood being spilled and not that of the Black and Yellow. True to his word, Mitchell injured a Bengals player with a questionable shot to the head of Eifert. It caused a concussion, forcing the Pro Bowl tight end to leave the game and miss two others after it. If you remember, Mitchell also caused a concussion of A.J. Green in the regular season finale last year, also causing him to miss the Wild Card game against the Colts.
Mitchell's reputation is that of a dirty player who attempts to hurt receivers while not always having the best ball skills for a safety, but he has been a bit of a turnover machine in 2015. He finished the year with three interceptions, two forced fumbles and two recoveries, dispelling some of the stereotypes. Eifert has been a magician in the red zone with 13 touchdown receptions in as many games played, but also has moved the sticks well with 38 of his 52 catches going for a first down. But, will he be gun-shy about going across the middle with Mitchell on the prowl? How will Eifert hold up if he's asked to block Mitchell downfield?
TE Heath Miller vs LB Vincent Rey:
The Bengals' defensive game plan will almost undoubtedly center around limiting the long bombs to Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, who also present interesting player matchups this week. But, with the Steelers down to Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman at running back, while also feeling confident about their high-flying passing offense, Ben Roethlisberger will probably be winging it around the field Saturday night. And, if the Bengals are successful in limiting Brown and Bryant, Miller will be a focal point of the offense to move the sticks.
Miller had 20 catches for 171 yards in the two games against the Bengals this year, which is impressive for a player way down on the totem pole, in terms of Big Ben's favorite receiving options. Complicating the issue is a season-ending knee injury to linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, who was known as the most rangy of the position group. While Cincinnati might also line up cornerback Leon Hall on Miller (which has worked well in the past), the heady Rey will also have to help in coverage. Rey is a coach favorite in Cincinnati, but it can't be more of the chase-and-tackle type of performance this Saturday. The veteran linebacker will need to disrupt passes and make plays against a formidable Steelers offense.