Ben Roethlisberger passes against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half of the game at Heinz Field in September. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
With three games remaining, the Steelers sit one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North Standings at 8-5.
Lurking in the background are the Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1). Yes, things are dire in Cincinnati, but the Bengals do still have a path to the postseason.
It’s unlikely, since it would include the Steelers losing to Cleveland in Week 17, but boys can dream, can’t they?
The Steelers can end those dreams Sunday, just as they typically do in Cincinnati, where they are 15-3 at Paul Brown Stadium since it opened, including 12-2 with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
But the Bengals can’t just worry about Roethlisberger.
Le’Veon Bell has rushed for 100 yards or more in four consecutive games, including a team-record 236 last week in Buffalo.
If you’re the Bengals, do you continue to play two safeties high to help shut down Pittsburgh’s passing game as you’ve done the past two seasons, or do you load up to stop Bell?
It’s quite the quandry.
The past two times Bell has faced the Bengals, they have limited his effectiveness by knocking him out of the game with a season-ending injury. He certainly hasn’t forgotten that.
The last time he played a full game against them, he had 26 carries for 185 yards and two touchdowns, catching six passes for 50 yards and another score.
Considering the Bengals allow 119 yards rushing per game - 25th in the NFL - it’s a good bet Bell hammers them in this game, unless Cincinnati is willing to put nine men in the box. The Steelers also will get DeAngelo Williams back for this game, so they can spell Bell at times if they so choose without a big dropoff.
If Cincinnati does stack the box, it would open the Bengals up to Pittsburgh’s passing attack, including Antonio Brown and the player corner Adam Jones said this week is the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver, tight end Ladarius Green.
No team in the NFL has allowed more than the 937 passing yards to tight end that Cincinnati has done this season on 82 catches. They’ve also allowed seven tight end touchdowns.
Green could be a major factor in this game.
Conversely, the Bengals’ Andy Dalton has been sacked 36 times this season, the third-highest total in the league. Tyrod Taylor, whom the Steelers got to five times last week, has the most at 39.
This just doesn’t look like a good matchup for the Bengals again.
Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, 24-16 back in Week 2 in a game that wasn’t really that close. Remember, Xavier Grimble and Jesse James both had TD catches in that game and neither is in Green’s class as a receiver.
That also was when the Steelers weren’t generating much of a pass rush, instead playing coverage behind a 4-man rush most of the time.
That’s changed dramatically, as the Steelers have worked the blitz back into their package and have 18 in their past four games.
The Steelers also limited Cincinnati to 2.6 yards per rushing attempt in that game on 18 attempts and running back Giovanni Bernard, who is out with a torn ACL, led them in receiving with nine catches for 100 yards.
The Steelers are 3-point favorites in this game and should take care of business, setting up a big showdown next week with Baltimore.