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Behind Enemy Lines: How Cincinnati can exploit Pittsburgh’s dominant defense

We were able to get Jeff Hartman’s thoughts on the Steelers and Bengals matchup this week.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have put together a pretty impressive season so far despite stumbling their way to victory last week against the Dallas Cowboys.

We caught up with Jeff Hartman from Behind the Steel Curtain to get his thoughts on this Sunday’s matchup, and if the Cincinnati Bengals actually have a shot at an upset.

Patrick Judis: There is obviously quite a bit in the way of Ben Roethlisberger playing this Sunday with two knee injuries and facing COVID-19 protocol after having close contact with Vance McDonald. How important is he to this offense, and how confident are you if Mason Rudolph has to start?

Jeff Hartman: Let’s put it this way. Ben Roethlisberger is the straw which stirs the Steelers’ drink. Period. Without Roethlisberger there is no way the Steelers are nearly as dynamic, versatile, or effective. Think back to the last two games (at Baltimore and at Dallas) where Roethlisberger literally put the offense on his back, went no huddle and was able to bring the team from behind and win the game. There is no other quarterback on the roster, and not many in the entire NFL, who could do what he has done this season. He has been far and away better than what anyone expected coming off season-ending elbow surgery, and if he can’t play there is a huge drop off to Mason Rudolph, or any other QB on the team’s roster.

PJ: The Steelers have one of the best performing defenses in the NFL right now. What are some of the reasons they’ve had such a high level of success, and is there anyway of exploiting them?

JH: The Steelers have done a great job of making opposing offenses one dimensional, and that usually starts with stopping the run. What has been odd is how the defense has regressed in this regard since Tyson Alualu left with a knee injury early in the Week 8 game in Baltimore. The Steelers have gone from one of the best run defenses (Top two) now down to ninth as they are giving up 102.8 yards per game. They gave up 263 yards on the ground vs. Baltimore and 144 vs. the Cowboys in Week 9. If you want to exploit the Steelers’ defense, you have to run the ball between the tackles and create manageable down and distances on third down.

PJ: Chase Claypool has to be in the midst of one of the most successful rookie seasons this year, which is really saying something. What has he done so well that has allowed him to be leading Pittsburgh in receiving yards eight games into the season?

JH: It first should be noted how Claypool is a physical freak of nature. Everyone talks about DK Metcalf, and rightfully so, but Claypool is 6’4” 235 pounds and runs a 4.4 40-yard dash. People that large are not supposed to move that fast, but Claypool’s physical presence has been noticeable throughout the entire season. What has been the most surprising has been his route running. Coming out of Notre Dame he was considered rough from a route running standpoint, but he has shown tremendous growth in this regard.

It hasn’t always been perfect for Claypool this year. His fumble vs. the Ravens was a huge blow to the early momentum in the game, and he had a couple drops vs. the Cowboys last Sunday. He has still been exactly what the Steelers needed, a deep threat to take attention off the likes of Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

PJ: Who is a player that you don’t think gets enough attention outside of Pittsburgh?

JH: When I think about a player who doesn’t get a lot of credit, but should, I think about Tyson Alualu. As I mentioned earlier, his presence in the middle of the defense has been huge for the rush defense. Without him the Steelers defense just hasn’t been the same. Another name you could throw on the list is Mike Hilton. Hilton has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury, and the slot cornerback has been desperately missed. He plays the line of scrimmage like a linebacker, and is one of the best blitzing cornerbacks in the NFL. His presence in the slot will be a difference in the outcome of upcoming games. With that said, the Steelers are hoping to get both players back this week vs. the Bengals at Heinz Field.

PJ: What is your prediction for Sunday’s game?

JH: Assuming Roethlisberger plays, I like the Steelers in this game. I don’t take the Bengals lightly, and Joe Burrow will certainly have the Steelers’ full attention. However, I just think the Steelers’ defense vs. a rookie quarterback, even with two weeks of preparation, will be too much to overcome. I think this game will be closer than many expect, but I like the Steelers to win at home and remain perfect.

Steelers 37, Bengals 23.

Thanks again to Jeff Hartman for taking the time out to answer our questions this week. If you’d like to see more of his work or Steelers’ coverage check out Behind the Steel Curtain.