At 5-7-1 the Bengals have very, very slim odds to grab a postseason berth. However, the Bengals have an extremely good chance to ruin the Steelers’ postseason hopes. That alone is enough motivation for players and fans alike to come alive at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday afternoon. With that in mind, the Bengals are going to need some major performances from these players if they want to get the win over their hated divisional rivals on Sunday.
1) Jeremy Hill
Hill has a dismal per carry average in 2016 when you take away his two games against a horrendous Browns defense. That said, the Bengals aren’t going to beat the Steelers on Andy Dalton’s arm alone. There’s going to need to be a better run threat for Cincinnati than they’ve showed in most games this year to keep the opposing defense honest. I expect Hill to get a lot of work early and his first quarter success will likely be indicative of how the game goes the rest of the way. If Hill can find success, Dalton will likely stay on his feet often and have success with play action in the passing game. If he can’t then Andy will likely be running for his life more often than our eyes can handle. If Jeremy wants to make a case as to why he should remain on the Bengals roster past his rookie contract then this would be a really great opportunity for him to step up.
2) Jake Fisher
I have a feeling Fisher is going to see an increase over his rather light workload against the Browns. For the most part he handled the Browns well, and I think Marvin Lewis will want to see what Jake can do against a real division rival. If that’s the case then he’s going to need to show that he can identify some of the complex blitz packages and looks the Steelers are capable of giving. There’s no better litmus test for a young tackle than this and at 5-7-1 there’s really no reason not to give him the opportunity. Pittsburgh also has some young pass rushers that could give Fisher a hard time. Speed has shown itself to be the weak point in the Oregon product’s game so far, as he’s too often beaten to the point of attack on pass plays by the defender. I’ll eagerly be watching his kick steps in film to see if he worked on it at all during the week.
3) Vontaze Burfict
I think this one could go without saying, but then again it wouldn’t probably be criminal if I didn’t mention him. From the last six weeks we know that Burfict is playing some of the best football of his career right now. I expect nothing to change in that aspect for 55. What’s going to be crucial for Vontaze in this game is what he WON’T do. I expect him to play aggressive and get after the football with haste, that’s what he does. But I also expect the Steelers veterans to goat him into some stupid retaliations at some point early and often. It’ll be solely on him to show that he can play in a highly emotional game without becoming overwhelmed. For all of the wonderful things Burfict has shown he’s capable of on a football field, this is the one thing we’ve yet to see from him.
4) Dre Kirkpatrick
Dre has been doing an absolutely amazing job covering Antonio Brown the past few years. In fact, it’s getting to a point where I don’t really consider Brown an X-Factor during Steeler week anymore. That should speak volumes in itself. Captain Kirk needs to continue bringing some of that Pro Bowl caliber play on Sunday against 84. The Steelers have their “Killer Bees”, but if Dre can swat one of them out of the equation then the contest becomes immensely more winnable. You won’t be able to completely eliminate him, but if you can keep him under 80 yards and out of the endzone there’s no reason Cincinnati can’t win this game.
5) A.J. Green
After injuring his hamstring on the first pass attempt against the Bills in Week 11, it’s possible A.J. Green will be returning this week. While it’s not yet clear whether he’ll suit up, if he does, he’ll be looking for a triumphant comeback to the playing field. I expect him to play on Sunday, but I doubt we see a full body of work from him this week. However, even on a snap count, it’s going to help to have the best damn receiver in the NFL on the field for Cincinnati. It’ll be interesting to see what matchups he sees from the Steelers secondary, who to their credit, did a nice job of handling Green in Week 2. Unfortunately for them, that seems to be an exception and not the rule, as you can’t slow down Green forever. His ability to attack and high point the football in the air is unmatched in this league, and as five Cleveland defenders showed this year - sometimes you can’t stop it even when you know it’s coming.