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Steelers have established blueprint for a Bengals victory

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The team that runs the ball and controls the clock is the team that wins.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
Joe Mixon will be key
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Anybody who follows football knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers always seem to have the upper hand when they play the Cincinnati Bengals.

In fact, since the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era began in 2011, Cincinnati has beaten Pittsburgh a grand total of three times.

The Bengals won by a score of 13-10 on December 23, 2012, and then won their second straight against the Black and Gold when they came away with a 20-10 victory on September 16, 2013. Cincinnati won the first time the teams met in 2015, but that has been it.

Since that 2013 victory, the Bengals have lost eight of nine games to the Men of Steel, including the infamous Wild Card game that ended Cincinnati’s season in 2015. The Bengals’ latest loss came earlier this season with a 29-14 drubbing in Week 7.

The Bengals have only beaten a Pittsburgh team that had a winning record on one occasion during this period of time, and that came in 2015 when the Steelers finished with a record of 10-6.

In 2012, the Steelers were 7-7 before losing to Cincinnati, and a win against Cleveland in the final week of the season let them finish the year at 8-8.

Then, in 2013, Pittsburgh was 0-1 before its loss to the Bengals, and they eventually fell to 0-4 before rebounding to win eight of the last 12 games, including a victory in the second meeting with Cincinnati, to once again finish the season at 8-8.

So, the question then becomes, what does it take to beat the Steelers? And what has Pittsburgh been doing on a consistent basis that makes it so difficult to overcome?

Certain things hold true in nearly every one of the contests between the two teams. Win the time-of-possession battle by running the ball somewhere close to 30 times, regardless of the success of that running game, and stop the other team on third down, and you will probably emerge victorious. If you are unable to accomplish either of these first two, simply field a dominant defense that turns the tide of battle in your favor, or watch your quarterback single-handedly take over the game.

Let’s take a look at each of these games and examine the winning formula. We’ll start with the Bengals’ victories.

In the first victory of the Green-Dalton era, on December 23, 2012, Cincinnati relied on its defense to put its offense in a position to win. And the offense came through when Dalton’s 21-yard pass to Green in the final minutes set up Josh Brown’s winning 43-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.

Neither offense played particularly well in this one. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 14 of 28 passes for 220 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, good for an overall rating of 58.6.

Leon Hall returned Roethlisberger’s first interception 17 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter to stake the Bengals to an early lead. Then, with Cincinnati trailing late, Reggie Nelson stepped in front of an overthrown Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the Pittsburgh 46 with 14 seconds left in the game. Dalton found Green down the right sideline on the next play, setting up Brown's winner.

For the game, Dalton was only slightly better than Roethlisberger as he went 24 of 41 for 278 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, and an overall rating of 58.8. Dalton also got sacked six times, and spent most of the afternoon running for his life. And he did not get any help from the running game, which finished with just 14 yards on 16 carries, the second-lowest total in franchise history.

While the Steelers did not see a lot of success from their running game, either, they did continue to pound the ball, and finished with 95 yards on 31 carries.

The Bengals did get an outstanding individual performance from Green, but Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown basically cancelled him out. Green had 10 catches for 116 yards, while Brown finished with five receptions for 97 yards and the Steelers’ only score.

Fortunately for Cincinnati, its defense was there to pick up the slack. The Bengals sacked Big Ben four times on the day, the most sacks they have recorded on Roethlisberger. Geno Atkins dominated with two sacks, Michael Johnson had one and Carlos Dunlap got credit for .5 sacks and Cincinnati allowed Pittsburgh to complete just two of 14 third downs.

Time of possession was nearly even with Pittsburgh owning a slight 31:45 to 28:15 edge. The Bengals had 16 first downs, and went four of 15 on third down, while the Steelers finished with 15 first downs. Both teams had three turnovers.

The win, the Bengals’ first over the Steelers since 2009, boosted Cincinnati’s record to 9-6 and allowed it to clinch a playoff berth for the second straight season. Prior to that year, the only other time the Bengals had made the playoffs in consecutive seasons came in 1981 and 1982, six years before Green was born. Pittsburgh was eliminated from the playoff mix with the loss.

It also marked the first time that Cincinnati had made the postseason in two straight non-strike years.

The answer, then, in the first Bengals’ initial victory was defense – force key turnovers, stop the Steelers on third down and stay close in time of possession.

In the Bengals’ second victory, on September 16, 2013, quarterback play was once again fairly even, and the game turned on Cincinnati’s success on the ground. The Bengals finished with 127 yards rushing on 34 carries for an average of 3.7 yards per carry, while holding Pittsburgh to just 44 yards on 16 carries.

Dalton went 25 of 45 for 280 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions, good for an overall rating of 81.7, while Roethlisberger finished with 20 completions in 37 attempts for 234 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and an overall rating of 73.1.

Giovani Bernard, in his rookie season, proved to be the difference-maker in this one as he ran for one touchdown and caught a short pass from Dalton that he turned into a 27-yard touchdown to put the game out of reach.

Fellow rookie and first-round draft pick Tyler Eifert also came up big with a 61-yard reception that set up Bernard’s 7-yard touchdown run, the first of his NFL career.

Cincinnati’s success on the ground helped it to pile up 407 yards against one of the league’s toughest defenses. The Bengals held the ball for more than 35 minutes, rolled up 22 first downs and went 7-for-17 on third down. The Steelers, meanwhile, managed 14 first downs and went three of 12 on third down.

So, the keys to the second victory were controlling the time of possession by running the ball over 30 times, and running it well, converting on third down and keeping the Steelers from doing the same.

Neither quarterback played well in that first game of 2015, which the Bengals won by a score of 16-10. Dalton finished with 23 completions on 38 attempts with a touchdown and two interceptions, good for an overall rating of 64.7. Roethlisberger went 28 of 45 for 240 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, with an overall rating of 57.8. Both quarterbacks got sacked three times.

Green had a nice game with 11 catches for 118 and one touchdown, but his efforts were offset by Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller, who caught 10 passes for 105 yards.

The difference once again proved to be Cincinnati’s defense. Although the Steelers ran for 118 yards on just 19 carries with an average of 6.1 yards per carry, the Bengals were able to keep them out of the end zone for most of the afternoon. Cincinnati slogged to 78 yards on 23 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per carry. Pittsburgh had only a slight edge in time of possession, 30:09-29:51, and had 21 first downs to 16 for Cincinnati. Nevertheless, Bengals’ defenders held the Steelers to just three of 11 on third down.

Once again, the keys to victory for the Bengals proved to be to run the ball in order to keep the time of possession close, and to stop Pittsburgh on third down.

Now, let’s take a look at the Pittsburgh victories and see what happened.

Pittsburgh won the most recent meeting between the two teams in convincing fashion, thanks in part to a dominating performance by Roethlisberger, who completed 14 of 24 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns and was not sacked. His passer rating of 117.4 was nearly double that of Dalton, who was 17 of 30 for 140 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Green was limited to three receptions for 41 yards.

Le’Veon Bell provided the perfect complement to Roethlisberger as he ran the ball 35 times for 134 yards and helped Pittsburgh build a 35:15-24:45 edge in time of possession. The Steelers rolled up 420 yards in total offense to only 179 yards for the Bengals, and finished with 21 first downs to 11 for Cincinnati.

Not to sound like a broken record, but the keys to Pittsburgh’s victory were simple - control the time of possession by running the ball over 30 times, and running it well, dominate in the passing game and make no mistakes.

In the first game the teams played in 2016, a 24-16 Pittsburgh victory, quarterback play was just about even. Dalton finished at 31 of 54 for 366 yards and a touchdown and an overall rating of 84.3, while Roethlisberger went 19 of 37 for 259 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, good for an overall rating of 78.5. Both quarterbacks were sacked once.

Green managed only two receptions for 38 yards.

And the Steelers once again owned the ground, compiling 124 yards rushing on 36 carries, while the Bengals were held to 46 yards on 18 carries. Pittsburgh owned a 32:55-27:05 edge in time of possession and went seven of 17 on third down, while Cincinnati converted only four of 16 third-down opportunities.

The keys to this game? Control the clock by running the ball at least 30 times and stop the Bengals on third down. And make sure that Green is a non-factor.

In the second game of 2016, The Steelers’ came away with a 24-20 victory behind another stellar day from Roethlisberger, who completed 21 of 36 passes for 286 yards and one touchdown, good for a passer rating of 93.1. Dalton went 16 of 27 for 146 yards and an interception and managed an overall rating of only 60.3. Both quarterbacks were sacked once. Green did not play.

Pittsburgh continued to pound the ball on the Bengals, rolling up 97 yards rushing on 29 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. Cincinnati averaged 2.7 yards per carry on 28 attempts. Once again, the Steelers owned the time of possession, rolled up 382 total yards to only 222 for the Bengals, and had a 26-19 edge in first downs.

Once again, Pittsburgh won by controlling the clock with its running game while playing stellar defense.

Quarterback play was pretty even in the second game of 2015, won by the Steelers by a 33-20 count. Roethlisberger went 30 of 39 for 282 yards and an interception and was sacked twice en route to compiling a passer rating of 85.6.

A.J. McCarron, filling in for the injured Dalton, was 22 of 32 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and had a passer rating of 90.6. McCarron was sacked three times. Green had another good game with six receptions for 132 yards, but Brown countered with seven catches for 87 yards.

Pittsburgh was not nearly as successful on the ground as in other games, but kept plugging away. The Steelers finished with 84 yards on 28 carries and an average of three yards per carry. Cincinnati averaged 4.0 yards per carry, but only ran the ball 16 times.

Pittsburgh’s insistence on sticking with the ground game, even when it seemed ineffective, helped lead to a big 35:47-24:13 advantage in time of possession. Pittsburgh went eight of 14 on third down while Cincinnati converted on three of eight chances.

But there we see that winning formula. Run the ball close to 30 times, regardless of the outcome, and stop the Bengals on third down.

The Steelers won the first game of 2014 by a score of 42-21 behind another stellar performance by Roethlisberger. Big Ben completed 25 of 39 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns and was not sacked, and compiled an overall rating of 118.5. Dalton went 21 of 29 for 302 yards and two touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 128.8, but was sacked twice.

Green had another monster day with 11 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown, but Brown and Martavius Bryant offset that effort after combining for 13 receptions for 226 yards and a score.

Pittsburgh once again owned the ground game, which helped it build a 32:45-27:15 in time of possession. The Steelers ran for 193 yards on 31 carries for an average of 6.2 yards per carry, and Bell went off for 185 yards on 26 carries. Cincinnati managed 86 yards on 21 carries.

The Steelers out-gained the Bengals 543-408 and won the time of possession battle, 32:45-27:15. Pittsburgh had 25 first downs and went eight of 16 on third down, while Cincinnati had 16 first downs and was held to just three of 11 on third down.

There it is again. Run the ball around 30 times, control the clock and stop the opposing team on third down, and the result will be a W.

The first game of 2013 also went to the Steelers, this time by a 27-17 score. Roethlisberger won the quarterback battle by completing 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, good for a rating of 96.1 Dalton went 27of 38 for 221 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, and had an overall rating of 83.7. Dalton was also sacked three times while Roethlisberger stayed clean.

Green had another great game with eight catches for 82 yards, but Brown outdid him by catching seven passes for 128 yards and a score.

The Bengals actually had a big edge on ground after rushing for 116 yards on 29. Jeremy Hill racked up 100 yards on 23 carries, while the Steelers were limited to just 19 yards on 18 carries. Bell finished with 20 yards on eight carries.

The key to victory in this game was the play of Roethlisberger.

Pittsburgh won the second game of 2013 by a margin of 30-20. Quarterback play was once again about even, with Roethlisberger going 20 of 25 for 184 yards, one touchdown and an interception (95.2), while Dalton was 25 of 44 for 222 yards and two touchdowns (86.4). Both quarterbacks were sacked once. Green had nine catches for 93 yards, but his efforts were offset by Brown and Bell, who combined for 10 receptions for 116 and a score.

The Steelers once again broke 100 yards on the ground, finishing with 106 yards on 36 carries for an average of 2.9 yards per carry. That persistence contributed to a 31:36-28:24 edge in time of possession. Cincinnati had 57 yards rushing on 22 carries for an average of 2.6 yards per carry.

Once again, the Steelers ran the ball more than 30 times, which led to an edge in time of possession and yet another victory.

Pittsburgh won the first game in 2012 by a score of 24-17. Roethlisberger turned in another solid performance after completing 27 of 37 passes for 278 yards, one touchdown and an interception, and posted an overall rating of 91.9.

Dalton struggled mightily, completing just 14 of 28 passes for only 105 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Dalton’s passer rating was only 56.4. Green was limited to one catch, while Brown had seven catches for 96 yards.

The Steelers continued to dominate on the ground, rushing 29 times for 167 yards and an average of 5.8 yards per carry. Cincinnati managed just 80 yards on 21 carries. Pittsburgh’s dominance on the ground resulted in a 37:30-22:30 advantage in time of possession, and helped the Steelers outgain the Bengals by a margin of 431-185.

There it is again. Run the ball around 30 times and control time of possession, and good things are likely to follow.

Pittsburgh won the initial game of the Green-Dalton era by a score of 24-17 behind a strong effort by Roethlisberger, who connected on 21 of 33 passes for 245 yards and a touchdown. Dalton managed to complete just 15 of 30 passes for 170 yards, although he did throw for two scores.

Green only had one catch for 36 yards while Brown had five receptions for 86 yards. Rashard Mendenhall ran for two touchdowns, and the Steelers intercepted Dalton twice in the fourth quarter to hold on for the win. Pittsburgh had 24 first downs to 14 for Bengals and outgained the Bengals 328-279, which resulted in a 33:53-26:07 advantage in time of possession.

The Steelers won the time of possession battle, took advantage of Cincinnati mistakes and came out on top.

In the second game of 2011, which the Steelers won by a count of 35-7, Roethlisberger turned in yet another dominating performance by completing 15 of 23 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, good for an overall rating of 117.3. Dalton, meanwhile was only 11 of 24 for 135 yards and one touchdown (77.6).

The Steelers continued to own the ground and finished with 33 carries for 136 yards, while the Bengals managed 104 yards on 22 carries. Pittsburgh outgained the Bengals by a margin of 295 yards to 232 yards, and racked up 22 first downs to 13 for Cincinnati. The result was another win in the time of possession, 32:44-27:16,

Pittsburgh established a blueprint for success in that game that has carried over to today – run the ball around 30 times and control time of possession. It is a tried and true method that works nearly every time, and something the Bengals might want to consider if they hope to break out of their funk against the neighboring Steelers.