Amidst all the animosity lies a couple worthy matchups who’s significance predates recent events between the two franchises. The importance of these individual face-offs are significant in determining the outcome of the game, but the relationships between the players make them all the more interesting. Let’s start with the most notable one:
WR A.J. Green vs. CB Joe Haden
Long before the Steelers had Haden lead their secondary, the rivalry between Green and him raged on even in college. When Green’s Georgia Bulldogs played Haden’s Florida Gators, it was always must see SEC-action. Haden was actually a teammate of two other players mentioned in this article.
When they began meeting in the NFL in 2011, it was Haden that routinely got the best of Green with his masterful work as a press-man corner. It took Green years to perfect his release against press coverage, and now he possesses one of the most effective releases at the line of scrimmage.
Last year, Haden never got the chance to go up against Green in the one game they played each other. Later in the year, Haden missed the Steelers second game against the Bengals and Green scored twice along with accumulating 77 yards receiving.
The Steelers also generally play a lot of zone coverage, similar to the Bengals, so the number of times these two go man-to-man may be limited. But when they do, there will be an extensive history behind each route.
RT Bobby Hart vs. LOLB T.J. Watt
I was going to include Hart in last week’s matchups piece because he was supposed to face Dolphins left defensive end Cameron Wake all game. As it turns out, Wake missed the game with injury and Hart had a solid day against a more inferior pass rusher Charles Harris. Hart will have a much more nuanced adversary on Sunday.
Last week against the Falcons, Watt doubled his sack total to six after sacking quarterback Matt Ryan three times, beating right tackle Ryan Schraeder multiple times in doing so. Watt’s ability to drop his hips and bend around the arc is very dangerous when he can get to the edge quickly. He obviously has the genetics of a dangerous pass rusher, and last week’s performance against a regularly stout pass protector could be his breaking-out point. Hart will have his hands full once again protecting Andy Dalton’s front side.
LDE Carlos Dunlap vs. RT Marcus Gilbert
Injuries and a suspension on Gilbert’s end prohibited these two former Florida Gators from facing each other last year, but Gilbert has reclaimed his starting spot at right tackle this year with a solid first five weeks.
Dunlap and Gilbert won a Sugar Bowl together for Urban Meyer’s 2009 Gators squad, and have been rivals ever since Gilbert entered the league in 2011, a year after Dunlap broke the Bengals single-season rookie sack record.
Gilbert has been a solid pass protector and his matchup against his former teammate with four sacks on the season will be critical. What’s also notable is how successful the Steelers are running off the right edge of their offensive line.
67% of their attempts when running right behind Gilbert have been successful, and they’re averaging 7.5 yards per carry when doing so. Dunlap will have to have a complete game against Gilbert.
NCB Darqueze Dennard vs. SWR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Cornerback William Jackson could very well be sitting out for this game, so his rematch with wide receiver Antonio Brown is in doubt. But that’s not the only matchup worth paying attention to when the Steelers have the ball.
Many fans on both sides would like to see Smith-Schuster and linebacker Vontaze Burfict meet again in some manner, but Burfict won’t be the one facing off with the Steelers young receiver in the slot multiple times during the game, Dennard will. The vast majority of Smith-Schuster’s production has come from the slot this season, much like it was during his phenomenal rookie campaign.
The Bengals will try and operate out of their nickel defense as much as possible to best defend their passing attack, and Dennard will have to try and limit the separation Smith-Schuster gets down the field, who happens to lead all Steelers in average separation this year.