The Bengals and Steelers are going to square off for the second time this season. In Week 10, Pittsburgh walked away with an easy victory to continue their undefeated streak, but things have changed quite a bit since then. We thought it would be a good idea to catch up with Jeff Hartman from Behind the Steel Curtain to get his perspective on this game, and what has the Steelers struggling the past two weeks.
Patrick Judis: Since playing the Bengals, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown five interceptions in four games. What is one of the biggest reasons for this jump, and what is your confidence level that he can get out of this funk?
Jeff Hartman: Some of those interceptions have been flukes with tipped passes, etc. However, you can not chalk all of those miscues up to happenstance. Defenses are getting adjusted to what the Steelers want to do offensively, and they are being aggressive with how defensive backs handle the offense’s short passing routes.
Roethlisberger’s two interceptions against Buffalo are very emblematic of how the Steelers’ offense has been performing recently. The pick six at the end of the first half was an absolute back-breaker for a multitude of reasons, but you saw how aggressive the Buffalo defender played the route. His other interception at the end of the game was a flailing attempt to push the ball downfield, which the Steelers haven’t been able to do much of in recent weeks. Protecting the football is key in December and beyond, and the Steelers, especially Roethlisberger, need to do a better job of that moving forward.
How confident am I of them achieving this? They have proven they can protect the ball, and I have no doubt they can revert back to those good habits.
PJ: James Conner is dealing with a quad injury, but he and the running game have had issues getting going this season anyway. Who is the next man up and what is going on with the rushing attack?
JH: The Steelers’ running game is atrocious, period. They average 89 yards a game, which is 31st in the NFL behind only the Houston Texans. If Conner is out the Steelers will turn to Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland to help boost the running game. I don’t have much confidence in the Steelers’ running the football, with or without Conner. They just don’t do a good job of opening lanes for their running backs.
PJ: The Steelers are coming off two losses. One of which was a surprising upset by the Washington Football team that is far less talented on paper. What are something that happened the past two weeks that had a previously undefeated to finding themselves on the losing end?
JH: Well, you said it in the first question...turnovers. The Steelers had done a tremendous job protecting the football, as well as taking it away. They lead the NFL in turnover differential with +11, but against Washington those turnovers and failed opportunities did them in. To put it simply, NFL defenses are catching up with the Steelers’ offense. Their short passing attack and methodical approach to moving the football isn’t new anymore. In fact, it is quickly becoming dated, but it is up to the Steelers to have alternative methods of moving the ball. The main problem with this is they can’t run the ball to save their lives. When most teams hit a proverbial wall, they turn to the run game to get them going. The hope is the Steelers can do the same, but the fan base is certainly skeptical at this point.
PJ: Who is one player who has to really step things up down the stretch for this team to make a deep run in the playoffs?
JH: I don’t think you can look anywhere other than Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is the straw which stirs the Steelers’ drink, and if he is off the Steelers aren’t winning any games. Throughout this two-game losing streak, Roethlisberger’s play hasn’t been terrible, but it hasn’t been his best. When you put all your eggs into the basket of a 38 year old quarterback, you need that quarterback to always be on point. The past two weeks he hasn’t been. Roethlisberger has proven he is capable of turning things around, and the hope is this turnaround starts on Monday night.
PJ What is your prediction for the game?
JH: When it comes to the Steelers’ offense, no one knows what to expect. They struggle against simple concepts, and really lack the creativity to adjust to what defenses are doing at any given moment. While things are bleak on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is what the team should be hanging their hat on. In the last four games the Steelers defense is giving up just 16.5 points per game, and I expect that side of the ball to be the difference in the game in Cincinnati in prime time. I do think the Steelers’ offense wakes up a bit, but the Steelers’ defense will just be too much for the Bengals’ offense.
Steelers 34, Bengals 13
Thanks again to Jeff Hartman for taking the time out to answer our questions. If you’d like to check out more of this work or Steelers’ coverage before Monday Night Football, check out Behind the Steel Curtain.