Saturday, December 27, 2014

Bengals vs. Steelers preview

By Scott Brown and Coley Harvey
December 26, 2014

Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton

When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: NBC 

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have each clinched postseason berths, but that won't prevent their Sunday night showdown from having a playoff feel to it. That is because the stakes are significant if not borderline enormous when the teams meet for the AFC North title. The winner will secure a No. 3 seed -- possibly a No. 2 seed in the case of the Bengals -- and assure themselves of a home game in the playoffs. The loser has to negotiate the wild-card route in the playoffs, which will only make it that much harder to win the AFC title. 

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game. 

Brown: Coley, is it to too simplistic to say that the outcome of this game will come down to how quarterback Andy Dalton plays in a second consecutive prime-time game? All this guy has done is take the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons yet he still battles the perception that Cincinnati wins in spite of him. 

Harvey: I think it is probably too simplistic to say that, Scott. Now, will Dalton have a meaningful impact on the outcome of Sunday night’s game? Absolutely. He is, after all, the quarterback of the team. But something we’ve seen in the past two weeks in particular is that the Bengals can win in spite of, not because of him. Dalton had a relatively poor game at Cleveland two weeks ago when he notched a 27.3 QBR in a 117-yard passing performance that happened to come in a 30-0 win. Cincinnati’s swarming defense hounded Johnny Manziel throughout his first career start, and Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill’s 148-yard, two-touchdown day sparked the team’s 244-yard overall rushing performance. Similarly, Monday night against Denver, Dalton wasn’t very impressive, turning in a 29.0 QBR. Although his four high targets to A.J. Green, including one that resulted in an interception, weren’t very pretty, Dalton actually played a fairly clean game otherwise. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made it clear that he wasn’t going to put the game on Dalton’s shoulders, and again, the Bengals came through with a win. With all of this said, though, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Dalton very nearly played a big role in a potential Bengals win over the Steelers three weeks ago. His two-touchdown, no-interception, 302-yard, 93.8-QBR performance almost was enough. Had it not been for a fumble on a handoff from Dalton to Hill at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bengals might have won. Instead, Pittsburgh rattled off 25 unanswered points on a defense that couldn’t stop it. 

Simple question for me to start off, Scott. What is the mood in Pittsburgh right now? There’s been a buzz in Cincinnati since Monday night’s win. Is this what’s supposed to happen after a team wins in prime time? It’s a new experience around here, and the Bengals still like their chances Sunday given how competitive they were for three quarters against the Steelers three weeks ago. 

Brown: Business as usual, Coley. At least that is what the players are saying. I think it is human nature for the Steelers to let up just a bit after saying they have been in playoff mode since the beginning of the month and then clinching a postseason berth last Sunday. We will see how coach Mike Tomlin and the veterans in that locker room are able to keep the young players focused, and certainly the Steelers know that there is a huge difference between winning the AFC North and entering the playoffs as a wild-card team. Steelers fans are excited about Pittsburgh returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but I’m not sure they know what to make of this team. Steelers fans are used to rugged, hard-hitting defense defining their favorite team, but if Pittsburgh is going to make a lengthy postseason run the offense is going to have to lead the way. 

Le'Veon Bell ran wild against the Bengals earlier this month, but he has been held to 110 rushing yards in the Steelers’ past two games. Do you expect the Bengals to load the box to stop Bell as the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs did? Or will the Bengals show a bunch of different looks as they did against the Broncos to try to confuse Ben Roethlisberger and keep the Steelers’ offense from getting into a rhythm? 

Harvey: I’d expect the Bengals to do whatever they need to in order to stop Bell. The priority for the Bengals in the two games since Bell gashed them for 185 yards has been to shut down the run first. Granted, a lot of Bell’s yards came late, but the Bengals’ thought process has been that if they can get to ball carriers early with hard hits, they can turn opposing offenses one-dimensional. Teams are then forced to pass, which might not necessarily be a bad thing for Roethlisberger. One thing to note: The weather is expected to be a factor Sunday, with snow and/or rain in the long-range forecast. If any precipitation comes, you know both teams are going to want to keep the ball on the ground, meaning the seven- and eight-in-the-box scheme might be one Cincinnati employs. As much as the disguised coverages and different looks worked against Denver on Monday, they might not be necessary against Roethlisberger. Besides, the Bengals don’t believe rhythm is an issue for him. They’re more focused on Big Ben’s ability to scramble and extend plays, completing passes in those seemingly broken, out-of-sync moments. 

Obviously Bell was the big difference-maker in the last meeting, including more than 100 yards in the fourth quarter. But what gives the Steelers confidence their offense still will be OK if he does get shut down as he has been the past few weeks? I know Roethlisberger will play the biggest role in that, but I guess I’m asking do the Steelers need a good rushing attack to thrive? 

Brown: The Steelers have scored just 47 points in two games since their 42-point outburst against the Bengals. Take away cornerback William Gay’s third pick-six this season against the Atlanta Falcons and the Steelers have managed just four offensive touchdowns in their past two games. Is it a coincidence that Bell has rushed for just 110 yards in those two games combined? Probably not, and the Steelers need to get their team MVP going again. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, however, has too much of a defensive background to let Bell beat the Bengals again after he trampled them for 185 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and three touchdowns, so I expect Cincinnati to crowd the line of scrimmage and show Roethlisberger some different looks to get him to check into running plays. Roethlisberger said he expects the Bengals to try to disguise things and confuse him, as they did with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. The hope for the Steelers, Roethlisberger said, is that they play well enough to force the Bengals to adjust to what they are doing, not the other way around. 

How is the Jeremy Hill-Giovani Bernard dynamic working at running back? The Bengals look like they have two really good backs, and I’m wondering if both are happy sharing carries. How do you expect the Bengals to use them Sunday night? 

Harvey: Scott, it has worked tremendously well since Jackson told the two coming out of the Steelers' loss that he wanted Hill to take on the starting, feature back role. Jackson’s preference all along has been to have one primary rusher, with another as a complement. It didn’t work out that way earlier this year. The two-man routine that had been employed just simply wasn’t as effective as he had hoped. I’ll say this. I’m sure deep down Bernard isn’t too pleased with having to take a backseat after being a rising star as a rookie himself just a year ago, but he isn’t showing that he’s upset. He’s saying all the right things about the new backfield breakdown, and he’s still viewed as a happy, contributing member of the locker room. On the field, it has been a benefit for the Bengals. Hill now has a defined role and is shining in it. Bernard still is effective in the short passing game and as a runner who can be used in space. The two will be used in this same capacity Sunday night, with Hill continuing to serve as the bell-cow back who also can rip off runs like his 85-yard rumble Monday. 

It’s the time of year when players are banged and bruised and playing through pain. I know Pittsburgh had a few injuries in the secondary last weekend. How healthy are the Steelers on the back end entering this game? I ask in part because the Bengals’ A.J. Green is nursing a bruised biceps and could be iffy. If he plays, that might be an advantage for Ike Taylor

Brown: I’m not sure Taylor or strong safety Troy Polamalu plays Sunday night. Coach Mike Tomlin has opted for healthy players over more pedigreed ones during the stretch run and that might not bode well for Taylor or Polamalu suiting up against the Bengals. Will Allen has been solid at strong safety and the return of Taylor would relegate Antwon Blake, who has made some big plays as a nickel back, to special teams. Whoever plays in the defensive backfield Sunday night will make containing Green a top priority. Blake told me earlier this week that the Steelers defensive backs have to keep Green in front of them -- something they did not do earlier this month in Cincinnati. The Steelers also have to do a better job of tackling the catch. That is critical in Dick LeBeau’s scheme and is one of the areas in which the defense struggled at times in the Steelers’ 20-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday. 

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