December 27, 2014
(Photo: Getty Images)
WHEN THE BENGALS PASS
Andy Dalton has thrown for more than 233 yards just once in the last seven games and has averaged just 182.6 yards per game in that span, but the one big game he had in that time frame came when he completed 21 of 29 passes for 302 yards in the 42-21 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 7.
Dalton needs to throw for 245 yards in this game to not set his career low for passing yards, which is 3,398 in his rookie season of 2011. He also has 17 touchdown passes, three fewer than the career low of 20 he set his rookie season.
Wide receiver A.J. Green needs 41 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the fourth straight year after having no receptions due in part to an arm injury in Monday's 37-28 win over Denver. Green had 11 receptions for a career-high 224 yards and a touchdown in the earlier game against Pittsburgh this season.
Wide receiver Mohamed Sanu has struggled the last seven games - with just 16 receptions for 146 yards and one touchdown - after having 39 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns over the first eight games. He also has five dropped passes in the last seven games and has been targeted just 31 times in the last seven games, compared to 65 in the first eight games.
The Steelers' secondary is a banged-up mess with starting corner Cortez Allen on injured reserve, starting corner Ike Taylor questionable and starting strong safety Troy Polamalu questionable.
Pittsburgh has allowed opposing quarterbacks a combined 99.4 rating on the season.
WHEN THE BENGALS RUN
Rookie running back Jeremy Hill has been outstanding the last two games since being tabbed as the team's featured back, rushing for more than 140 yards each of the two games and a combined 295 yards and three touchdowns on 47 carries.
For the season, Hill has 1,024 yards and nine touchdowns rushing and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
In six games he's started this season, he combined to rush for 696 yards on 123 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and five touchdowns. He rushed for 147 yards or more in four of the six starts and is the first running back in Bengals history to rush for 140 yards or more four times in a season.
Giovani Bernard has been very good in the backup role the last two games with 184 combined yards from scrimmage. He had 115 yards rushing and a 5.0 per carry average and eight receptions for 69 yards in those two games.
The Steelers have held nine opponents to under 100 yards rushing on the season, including each of the last three games, all of which they won. The Bengals had 86 yards on only 21 carries in the first game against Pittsburgh this season.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has been the Steelers' best player against the run, according to profootballfocus.com, and is the team's leading tackler with 121 (80 of which are solo), which is 55 more than anyone else on the team.
WHEN THE STEELERS PASS
Ben Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings and has consistently been one of the NFL's best quarterbacks, but he is having the best statistical season of his 11-year career.
He has already set single-season team records for yards passing (4,635), completions (384) and is two touchdown passes short of tying his single-season high of 32. This is the ninth straight season he has passed for 3,000 yards or more, which is tied for the fifth-longest streak in NFL history.
He has had eight games of 300 yards or more passing this season, including completing 25 of 39 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns in the Steelers' 42-21 win over the Bengals on Dec. 7.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown has gone from being a sixth-round pick to arguably the NFL's most dangerous wide receiver. A year after catching 110 passes for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns, he has 122 receptions for 1,570 yards and 12 touchdowns. He needs two receptions to have the second-most in a season in NFL history.
Brown had nine receptions for 117 yards in the first meeting against the Bengals three weeks ago.
Rookie Martavis Bryant had a 94-yard touchdown reception against the Bengals and has seven touchdowns this season, which is second-most on the team, despite having just 25 receptions.
Running back Le'Veon Bell is second on the team in receptions (77) and receiving yards (774), while tight end Heath Miller is also a valuable weapon (63 catches for 720 yards).
WHEN THE STEELERS RUN
Bell is having an outstanding season running the ball with 1,341 yards and a 4.8 per carry average and has been a workhorse over the last five games, carrying the ball 120 times (24.0 per game) for 594 yards (118.8 per game average).
His workload has increased thanks to LeGarrette Blount being released after the team's 11th game of the season.
No other running back currently on the roster has more than nine carries.
Bell rushed for 185 yards on 26 carries in the Steelers' win over the Bengals on Dec. 7.
Pittsburgh finished that game with 193 yards on 31 carries. It's the only game out of the last six that the Bengals allowed an opponent to rush for more than 100 yards. The Bengals won the five games they didn't allow that to happen.
Center Maurkice Pouncey has graded out as the team's top run blocker, according to profootballfocus.com. Three of the other four linemen (tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert and right guard David DeCastro) have slightly above average run-blocking grades, as do tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. Left guard Ramon Foster has graded slightly below average.
In the last five Bengals wins, they allowed just 3.3 yards per carry, while Pittsburgh averaged 6.2 per carry in the win over the Bengals three weeks ago.
Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham has been outstanding this season, converting 27 of his 30 field-goal attempts - with two of his misses coming beyond 50 yards. He is a perfect 10 for 10 from 40-49 yards out.
Since the 2012 season, Suisham has made 30 straight field goals from 40-49 yards, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.
Steelers rookie punter Brad Wing is averaging 43.9 yards gross and 38.9 net. He has had only 26 of his 58 punts returned for an 8.2 per return average.
Punt returner Antonio Brown is averaging 8.4 yards per return with a long of 36, and the Steelers are averaging just 21.4 yards per kickoff return.
Bengals kicker Mike Nugent has made 14 straight field goals since his miss on the final play of overtime against Carolina. He went 3 for 3 each of the last two games, including going a combined 3 for 3 from 40-49 yards.
Punter Kevin Huber was selected to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday. He is averaging 46.7 yards per punt gross and 43.0 net with only 28 of his 70 punts having been returned for a 5.1 average. The longest punt return allowed this season is just 11 yards.
Kevin Huber on Enquirer Sports' Beyond the Stripes, presented by josephauto.com from the Moerlein Lager House. The Enquirer/Glenn Hartong
Adam Jones leads the NFL in kickoff return average (33.2 per return) and is also averaging 11.9 per punt return. Brandon Tate has also been very good as a punt returner of late, ripping off a 30-yard return two weeks ago against Cleveland and a 49-yard return in Monday's win over Denver.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BENGALS
1. Less long runs
Doesn't take a genius to figure out not allowing Le'Veon Bell to run for 185 yards as he did in the first meeting will be critical. Most of his yardage came on a few long runs. Holding him to one or two double-digit gainers as opposed to five will be a key to reversing the final score. That wouldn't hurt the Bengals either: to keep him contained out of the backfield. He shook Emmanuel Lamur out of position for a touchdown reception. The Steelers are one of the top offenses in football for a reason, but forcing Roethlisberger to launch in what could be poor conditions changes the dynamic of the game.
2. Make Pittsburgh pay
When the Steelers decide to drop an extra player into the box to stop the run, the Bengals must make them pay by throwing with numbers into the secondary. This strategy will be employed more and more as Jeremy Hill runs at his current pace and Andy Dalton struggles, as he has the past two weeks. The Bengals did a nice job of hitting shots over the top the last game against Pittsburgh, with a career-high 224 yards receiving for A.J. Green, but with his health in question, they'll need to find somebody to win one-on-one deep when given the opportunity. The Bengals have proven the last two weeks they can win without average days from Dalton, but Pittsburgh will do all it can to force the Bengals' hand.
3. Win the return game
The Bengals have seen too many games in Pittsburgh turn on an Antonio Brown punt return. Twice he's taken punts to the house in blowout wins at Heinz Field, last year being the latest example. Adam Jones and Brandon Tate were able to turn the tide of momentum against Denver on Monday with long returns and they've been doing that the majority of the season. Special teams are often overlooked but will be a large part of this team winning games. Look for Sunday to serve as the latest example.
The Steelers have turned into the kings of Week 17. They have won the final game of the season six years in a row and only lost once under Mike Tomlin (during his first season of 2006). However, it should be noted, five of those six straight victories to close the season have come against perennial cellar dweller Cleveland.
SPOT 1: Ben at his best
Ben Roethlisberger has enjoyed the best season of his career. With 30 touchdowns against eight interceptions, he's broken career marks in multiple categories. Big Ben ranks in the top three of the league in yards (2nd), yards per attempt (3rd), passer rating (3rd) and completion percentage (3rd). How good has Roethlisberger been compared to his previous seasons?
Here's a closer look:
Statistic, career high, 2014
Completion percentage, 66.6 (2009), 67.4
Yards, 4328 (2009), 4635
TDs, 32 (2007), 30
Interception percentage, 1.3% (2010), 1.4%
Adjusted net yards/attempt, 7.5 (2005), 7.8
Sack percentage, 6.3% (2012), 5.5%
SPOT NO. 2: Minimizing Dalton
As the season comes to a close, a better representation emerged of just how much Hue Jackson shifted emphasis away from Andy Dalton and toward the running game. Not only has the passing game consisted of a higher percentage of shorter passes, but the overall attempts are a drastic drawback from his first three seasons. Jackson refuses to let Dalton's performance define his offense.
The numbers are obvious when checking the percentage of total passes thrown deep by comparison over the course of his career as well as total attempts. A clear scale back in all throws as well as his higher-risk throws has occurred.
Stat, 2012, 2013, 2014
Percentage passes attempted 20+yards, 11.7%, 12.7%, 14.7%, 11.7%
Attempts per game: 32.3, 33.0, 36.6, 29.6
Bengals: Marvin Lewis (100-94-2 overall) is in his 12th season. Mike Tomlin leads the series 11-4 all time.
Steelers: Mike Tomlin (86-49) is in his 8th season. He was previously an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati (1999-2000).
Series history: Steelers lead 55-34, 1-0 in postseason
WHAT TO WATCH: WR ANTONIO BROWN VS. BENGALS DBs
In the first meeting between these two teams, Antonio Brown caught nine passes for 117 yards. He's one of five receivers to cross the 100-yard barrier against the Bengals this year, who had previously done a nice job this season of containing the top wideouts of opposing teams. Demaryius Thomas followed Brown's lead with 115 yards last week to make it two in the last three weeks. Much of their success prompted Bengals coaches to insert Dre Kirkpatrick into the lineup in place of ailing Terence Newman for the final portion of last week's game. Kirkpatrick immediately picked off two passes, and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said this week he'll receive more snaps. There's a good chance he'll start with Newman missing all week out sick.
Brown moves all over the line of scrimmage as Pittsburgh attempts to create matchups. In the first game, he was targeted four times against Newman, four against Adam Jones and then once against six other defenders. He'll be everywhere. So, to claim that this job falls on one corner would be false. Jones did a nice job on Brown that day. Although he caught three of the four targets, none went for longer than nine yards as the receptions were contained.
Brown leads the NFL with 1,570 yards, but the most impressive number is his 122 receptions. With two receptions Sunday, he'll own second place in NFL history for most receptions in a season. Marvin Harrison leads all with 143 in 2002. Wes Welker's 123 in 2009 currently sits alone in second place.
Dre Kirkpatrick on facing Antonio Brown when Roethlisberger scrambles:
"Those guys are good at, when he's scrambling, to come back to him and try to finish on the ball. That's why we have to play the scramble drill all week. We know he's going to get loose and he's going to get out on the edge and he's going to make throws and he's going to make big plays. We have to be poised to come back the next play and try to get a big stop."
The Bengals proved themselves last week. They proved they could handle one of the best teams the AFC has to offer and do so in the primetime spotlight. The lone hiccup over the course of the last six weeks came during a six-minute span of the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. The instant unraveling of that game felt almost fluky in nature when you consider the two sides went punch for punch for three quarters prior. I don't think the Bengals fall victim of the same fate and I can certainly assure Jeremy Hill has more than eight carries. Many of the Bengals' brightest moments have come at Heinz Field, and thanks to the continued success of this running game, they enjoy another one Sunday - clinching back-to-back AFC North titles.
FINAL: Bengals 31, Steelers 28