8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Steelers -4, Over/Under: 43
Bitter Division Rivals face off tonight in the Queen City, as the Cincinnati Bengals look to keep their faint Playoff Hopes alive against the streaking Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the No. One Seed in the AFC in their sights. Winners of six consecutive contests, the Steelers (9-2, 1st in AFC North) appear to be rounding into shape at the right time, even though they’ve rarely put together back-to-back cohesive performances. Perhaps it’s a sign of a good team winning games that they honestly should lose, which was certainly the case in last weekend’s narrow 31-28 victory over the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers. With an extra three days of rest due to the wonders of Thursday Night Football, one would expect Mike Tomlin’s charges to wipe the floor with the Packers, who have looked lost without their MVP Quarterback. However, that would not be case, as the hosts were behind the proverbial Eight Ball throughout the affair, needing a 53-Yard Chris Boswell Field Goal as time expired to fend off the visiting side. One look at the Box Score would indicate that Pittsburgh dominated the matchup, and in many ways they did exactly that, outgaining Green Bay 462-307 (including 121-80 on the ground), and besting them in First Downs (28-15), all the while owning a commanding 33:36 advantage in Time of Possession. So why did they need a long Field Goal to seal the deal, you ask? One word, folks: turnovers. Much of their good work was negated by mistakes, with the home side committing three Turnovers on the night, two of which were Interceptions thrown by Ben Roethlisberger (33-of-45, 351 YDS, 4 TD, 2 INT) with a Lost Fumble from Le’Veon Bell (32 Touches, 183 Total YDS) adding to the mess. The Defense, which has consistently performed at a high level this year, seemed like they were dead-set on making Brett Hundley (17-of-26, 245 YDS, 3 TD) look like his predecessor, with the Sophomore Quarterback torching the Steelers’ Secondary for a trifecta of long Touchdown Passes consisting of Thirty-Nine, Fifty-four, and Fifty-Five Yards respectively. Call it overlooking an opponent, or playing down to the competition, but Tomlin and Co. are going to have pick things up down the stretch, for their schedule is about to get brutal in December; in addition to tonight’s jaunt in Cincinnati, they will be hosting the red-hot Baltimore Raves next Sunday Night, before welcoming the reigning Super Bowl Champions in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game, which given the way that the standings look, could very well decide the conference. Now would be a great time to clean things up, particularly their struggles in the Red Zone, which quite frankly has kept the Offense from becoming a full-fledged juggernaut; despite ranking Seventh in the NFL in Total Offense (376.1 Y/G), the Steelers’ Red Zone Touchdown Percentage stands at a mediocre 46.5%, which is Twenty-Sixth Overall in the league. The problem here has been their Rushing Attack, which is ridiculous with someone as talented as Bell lining up in the backfield. Yes, the versatile Tailback has carried a heavy workload, posting 313 Touches for 1,377 Total Yards and Five Touchdowns, but he’s been arguably more effective as a Receiver than a Rusher, despite leading the NFL in both Carries (252) and Rushing Yards (981). Don’t let that mislead you though, for he’s averaging just 3.9 Yards per Carry, representing a steep decline from the 4.9 Yards per Carry he averaged in each of the last two campaigns. Is he overworked or fatigued? Perhaps, but it’s undeniable that the Ground Game hasn’t been nearly as productive as it’s been in years past, though it hasn’t been for a lack of trying; despite ranking Twelfth in Rushing Attempts (28.4 A/G), Pittsburgh is only Twentieth in Rushing Offense (104.1 Y/G), Twenty-Fifth in Rushing Touchdowns (Five), and Twenty-Eighth in Yards per Carry (3.7 Y/C). And that explains their struggles in the Red Zone, where the field shrinks, making it difficult to air things out. It also explains their relative difficulties on Third Down as well, where they’ve converted on just 39.7% of their Attempts (13th Overall), which you wouldn’t think would befit an Offense with this kind of firepower. And with all that said, they may be forced to rely upon Bell and the Backfield tonight, for All-Pro Receiver Antonio Brown (80 REC, 1,195 YDS, 8 TD) is listed as Questionable with a lingering Toe Injury, while his promising young charge, JuJu Smith-Schuster (33 REC, 568 YDS, 5 TD) may miss a second consecutive outing with a sore Hamstring.
Meanwhile, after being left for dead after an ugly 0-3 start to the campaign, which saw their Offensive Coordinator Ken Zampese pay the price with his job, all is not lost for the Bengals (5-6, 3rd in AFC North), who have found themselves residing on the fringes of the Wild Card Discussion entering December. Winners of five out of their last eight, including two straight, Marvin Lewis’ charges are virtually in charge of their own destiny, even though the proverbial deck is stacked against them down the stretch. In addition to tonight’s meeting with the Steelers, they close out the Regular Season with road games at the red-hot Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens, bookending a date with the Detroit Lions in the Home Finale. Needless to say, if Cincinnati is going to return to the Postseason a year after missing it for the first time since 2010, they’re going to have to earn it. Of course, paying back a bitter rival that embarrassed you once already this season, would be a fine place to start; when these teams met back at Heinz Field on October 22nd, the visitors emerged lethargically from their Bye Week in a 29-14 debacle that really wasn’t even that close. The Bengals’ Defense did everything in their power to keep the host’s explosive Offense at bay, limiting them to five consecutive Field Goals despite relinquishing 420 Total Yards, including 152 Yards on the ground, and relegating them to just 2-of-11 on Third Down. However, their admirable performance could not overcome the ineptitude of their teammates on the opposite side of the ball, for the Offense was absolutely abysmal that day. Brace yourselves, folks, for the numbers are rather ugly; Cincinnati totaled just Eleven First Downs en route to compiling a dismal 179 Total Yards, while committing a pair of Turnovers and converting on just 3-of-11 Third Downs. Furthermore, they only possessed the football for 24:45, and lost a grand total of Eighty-Six Yards due to Penalties (Five) and Sacks (Four). That means they lost more Yards than they gained on the ground, folks! It was a dire performance for Andy Dalton (62.0%, 215.6 Y/G, 6.21 NY/A, 18 TD, 8 INT), who has seen his list of detractors grow exponentially this season, with the veteran Quarterback completing just 17-of-30 Passes for 140 Yards, with as many Interceptions as Touchdowns (Two), while failing to inspire a unit that managed to square things away at 14-14 midway through the Second Quarter. Then everything fell apart; after a 12-Play, 75-Yard Touchdown Drive evened the score, none of the Bengals’ next Eight Drives would last longer than Nineteen Yards, with only one traveling longer than Nine. Indeed, the transition at Offensive Coordinator from the aforementioned Zampese to Quarterback Coach Bill Lazor hasn’t yielded the intended results; on the year the Offense has been pretty damn bad, averaging 18.1 points (25th Overall) on a league-worst 291.2 total Yards (32nd Overall), including 215.6 Yards through the air (26th Overall) on 6.2 Net Yards per Attempt (16th Overall), along with another 75.6 Yards on the ground (32nd Overall) on 3.2 Yards per Carry (31st Overall). By comparison, these guys have made the Steelers’ Rushing Attack look like a tidal wave, with the league’s least-productive Rushing Attack leaving the Offense without any teeth. Before trampling the hapless Cleveland Browns for a season-high 152 Rushing Yards in last weekend’s 30-16 victory, the Bengals had mustered a miserable 58.7 Yards per Game in the previous seven outings. Furthermore, they’ve only rushed for a total of 832 Yards on the season, which is 149 Yards less than Le’Veon Bell has compiled on his own! This lack of balance has made it all the more difficult for Dalton and Co. to manufacture drives, with Cincinnati converting on a poor 33.6% of their Third Downs (28th Overall). With that said, the solution to their rushing woes may be Rookie Tailback Joe Mixon (150 CAR, 484 YDS, 4 TD), who has really started to come on as the season has progressed. With Jeremy Hill (Ankle) on Injured Reserve, Mixon has received the majority of the touches out of the Backfield, while coming off of his finest performance as a professional, racking up a career-high 114 Yards and a Touchdown on Twenty-Three Carries. However, while the Yards per Carry is far from impressive (3.2 Y/C), it’s his versatility as a Receiver that has endeared him so much to the Coaching Staff, with the youngster reeling in Twenty-Six Receptions on Twenty-Nine Targets for 258 Yards, averaging 9.9 Yards per Catch. In the previous meeting with Pittsburgh, Mixon was used rather sparingly, but nonetheless made an impact, rushing for Forty-Eight yards on just Seven Carries, while picking up another Twenty Yards on Three Receptions. Dating back to 2015, the Bengals have lost five consecutive games to the Steelers, including their controversial AFC Wild Card matchup, which the aforementioned Dalton missed with a broken thumb. And speaking of Dalton, he’s had a hard time dealing with Pittsburgh throughout his career; in thirteen career meetings, the three-time Pro Bowler is just 3-10 against them, completing just 58.2% of his Attempts for 207.5 Yards per Game on 5.90 Net Yards per Attempt, with Fifteen Touchdowns in comparison to Thirteen Interceptions, while taking Twenty-Four Sacks for a loss 141 Yards.