So much of the NFL is cliche’. The verbiage in particular makes me cringe at times. But this week I am going to have to resort to a bit of it myself as I describe this week’s Pittsburgh Steelers game against the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s certainly what one would call a “must win” game. With only 2 games left in the regular season it’s win or go home for the Steelers, and the matchups don’t favor the Steelers.
When the Steelers are on offense-It’s going to be firmly on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to carry this day. Roethlisberger was very vocal about his displeasure for offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s offensive playcalling in the previous week. I wrote early in the season that Haley’s system didn’t fit what Roethlisberger liked to do, and I think we’ve seen it come to a head in recent weeks. Even the statistics of the team’s most explosive playmakers wide receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are down due in some part to the scheme they are running. Roethlisberger has done a great job using tight end Heath Miller and for all the changes they might make, he won’t stop targeting his big tight end. Notice I haven’t mentioned the run game? Because it’s really a great unknown. It is understood that running back Rashard Mendenhall will be returning from his one game suspension and is doing so with a smile on his face. I understand that Mendenahll may not be inserted as the starter at this point, but he should and will get touches. The Bengals don’t like to give up rushing yards so I expect the run game to be simply a diversion for the passing game.
When the Steelers are on defense-The latest injury report shows all injured defensive starters as probable other than starting cornerback Ike Taylor who everyone expected to be out. But it’s good news that the Steelers may get cornerback Keenan Lewis back to help cover wide receiver AJ Green. But I think the Steelers have to prepare as if he’s not going to be there. The Bengals have a very balanced offense, so if I’m defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau I pick an are to stop and focus on it. A 70% Lewis won’t be able to hold off Green for an entire game. Neither can a 100% Cortez Allen. So having said that, I play Green loose. He’s going to get his, but if I am calling plays for the Steelers I focus on stuffing the run and by extension of that, force quarterback Andy Dalton to throw the football. This may seem counter intuitive, but if the Steelers can dictate when the Bengals throw they can bring pressure on Dalton, and possibly force turnovers. I would not focus all my attention on a single player, instead focus on controlling the other parts of the game.
Player to watch-Defense-Ryan Clark, safety. Between playing run support and trying to stop the bleeding in the passing game Clark could be invaluable. One thing Clark has done this year is bring the hammer. In fact he’s even gotten a reputation for being a dirty player which I am fine with. If he can earhole a few guys going over the middle it can be a huge weapon for the defense. To a lesser degree safety Troy Polamalu as well, however he appears to be a shell of his former self and at this point I have far more confidence in Clark to make the big play.
Player to watch-Offense-Kelvin Beachum, offensive tackle. Beachum will get his fourth start this Sunday and the matchup he’s going to have will be daunting. He’s going to get a steady dose of defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers, so Beachum better pack a lunch because it’s going to be a long day. The rest of the offensive line should be able to hold their own, but I really think when it comes to pass protection the Steelers are going to really need to help to Beachum’s side.
The X-Factor-Turnovers. Again I will break out the old NFL book of cliche’s and say that the team that wins the turnover battle will win this game. Both defenses are physical and I just have a funny feeling that one of these teams is going to get a timely turnover or 2 that will really sway the tide.
Prediction time-I am so terrible at these but here goes. The Steelers have played the most uninspired football I’ve ever seen the past few weeks. I am calling for a change in that. I think that there’s been just enough drama and enough disruption and this week head coach Mike Tomlin is going to rally the troops and get them playing real Steelers football. The defense is going to bend and maybe even break a little at times, but they are going to punch the Bengals in the mouth and stiffen up when they have to, and on offense the Steelers coaching staff are going to let Roethlisberger cut loose and make use of those weapons in the passing game. It’s going to be a shootout and it’s going to be close, but I’m calling for the upset win by the Steelers and they hang onto their playoff lives.