The Cincinnati Bengals are hanging on to a playoff opportunity by a very thin thread, and in order to get there they must beat the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. Very rarely, if ever, have Cincinnati wins come with any kind of ease against their bitter rivals in the Marvin Lewis era, especially when at home in Cincinnati. But there is always a formula for success against Pittsburgh.
Here are the five biggest keys to a Bengals victory over the Steelers in Week 15.
Star performances from players who missed the Week 2 matchup:
The NFL didn’t do the Bengals any favors when they created the schedule this year, especially after they made the decision to suspend linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the first three games of the year. The Pro Bowler missed the first game against the Steelers, as did fellow Pro Bowler Tyler Eifert, who was rehabbing offseason ankle surgery.
Both have returned since and have had big impacts in their respective roles. Burfict had five consecutive games of 10-plus tackles from Weeks 8 to 13, including a two-interception game against the Eagles, while Eifert has had five touchdown grabs after missing the first six games of 2016.
Both will need to show up big on Sunday if the Bengals want a chance to win, especially with A.J. Green’s status up in the air. The Steelers’ secondary is suspect, so Eifert will need to make critical catches, while Burfict will need to help stifle superstar running back, Le’Veon Bell.
Randy Bullock on the top of his game:
The Bengals made the wise, albeit long overdue decision to release Mike Nugent this week. As a response, the team signed the veteran Bullock, who actually kicked in one game for the Steelers two weeks ago and was just released from their roster on Monday. Bullock doesn’t seem to be a vastly superior option to Nugent, but he is obviously in a better head space than his predecessor had been in recent weeks.
Fortunately, the kickers for both teams won’t be dealing with the poor terrain of Heinz Field, but Bullock’s first contest as a Bengal comes in a very important game. With the past four contests between the teams being decided by one possession, points come at a premium, so Bullock will need to basically be perfect on Sunday.
Protect Andy Dalton:
This is obviously a key for any game, but with the Bengals’ offensive line vastly underperforming this year and their history of struggling against diverse 3-4 defenses, giving Dalton a clean pocket on Sunday is key. Take a look at one of Dalton’s best games ever in Week 13 this year against the Eagles. Aside from the gaudy stats, you’ll note that Cincinnati’s line didn’t allow a sack. It isn’t a coincidence that Dalton had a great game on a day in which his line was actually protecting him.
Some of Dalton’s worst games in his NFL career have come at the hands of the Steelers and it’s usually because he’s being knocked around. Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and James Harrison can cause fits, so the Bengals’ line will need to clean things up quickly.
Keep the penalties down:
One of the major overlooked aspects to the Bengals this year is that they are tied with the Texans as the least penalized squads in the NFL. It’s particularly refreshing after many members of the media painted the team as bad boys and dirty players all offseason.
There is little doubt that the Steelers will try and goad some of the Bengals’ notorious players into making dumb mistakes. So, aside from keeping the same pace with their low number of penalties against them, the Bengals will also need to keep their cool and not let Pittsburgh get in their heads.
Out-duel Pittsburgh in intensity:
If there’s one thing the Steelers always bring, especially in big games, it’s a high level of intensity. Regardless of your feelings about the Pittsburgh franchise, it’s this trait in the squad’s DNA that has made them one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. With the Steelers on the cusp of an AFC North title and going against the Bengals, it’s a given they will be ramping up the emotion.
Part of what has been a frustrating key to the Steelers dominating the rivalry in the Lewis era is Pittsburgh’s ability to out-muscle and in their playing with more passion than the Bengals. Even when Cincinnati has the edge in overall roster talent, the Steelers have a way of kicking the Bengals to the curb. The Bengals need to win out to have any shot at a sixth consecutive playoff berth and they need to play with that urgency on Sunday.