WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh’s ninth-ranked offense (389.1 ypg) certainly had its chances last weekend, racking up 392 total yards to mark the sixth time this season that the club has posted at least 390 net yards. Roethlisberger (2632 passing yards, 15 TD, 8 INT) also became the first Steelers quarterback in team history to have three consecutive games of at least 300 yards passing, notching 330 on a 20- of-37 completion rate against Baltimore. His touchdown pass to Wallace (47 receptions, 6 TD) was his lone one of the game, however, and he was also picked off once. With teams looking to prevent Wallace from making the long and deep plays, Antonio Brown (39 receptions, 1 TD) snuck in five catches on 11 targets last Sunday and went over 100 yards receiving for the second time in three weeks. He also saw more time with Emmanuel Sanders (18 receptions, 2 TD) out and Hines Ward (26 receptions, 2 TD) suffering a concussion on a hit by Baltimore’s Ray Lewis. While Ward is expected to play in this game, Sanders is out for a few weeks after having knee surgery on Monday. Tight end Heath Miller (35 receptions, 2 TD) made five catches for 73 yards against the Ravens, leaving him eight receptions shy of Elbie Nickel’s all-time club record for a tight end of 329. Pittsburgh’s ground game was limited to only 70 yards by Baltimore, with Rashad Mendenhall (473 rushing yards, 4 TD) leading the way with 52 yards on 13 carries. That included a one-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
Points off turnovers has been key to the Bengals’ success this year, and they enter this game tied for seventh in the league with a plus-4 turnover differential. Cincinnati also ranks tied for second in the NFL with nine fumble recoveries and had scored a defensive touchdown in three consecutive games before last Sunday. However, they did hold an opponent without a second half touchdown for the third time this year in the Tennessee and rank fourth overall in points allowed per game at 17.5. Cincinnati’s second-ranked run defense (84.5 ypg) held the Titans to 78 yards on 20 carries, while the pass rush was able to post two sacks, both by defensive end Carlos Dunlap (15 tackles, 3 sacks). Dunlap’s efforts gave the Bengals 20 sacks on the season. Cornerback Nate Clements (33 tackles), meanwhile, accounted for a turnover after he stripped Tennessee tight end Jared Cook of the ball and recovered the fumble. Clements also had seven tackles, while linebacker Thomas Howard (48 tackles) led the team with nine stops. Clements and fellow corner Leon Hall (30 tackles,1 INT) will have to keep an eye on Wallace and will need deep safety help from Chris Crocker (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Reggie Nelson (50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), while ends Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson (16 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT), and Frostee Rucker (15 tackles, 3 sacks) will look to step up the pass rush. Cincinnati is also hoping for the return of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (38 tackles), who has sat out the last three games with an ankle injury.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Defensive turnovers have also been key to the Bengals’ offense, which is 14th in points scored per game (24.4) despite owning just the 22nd-ranked unit in total yards in the NFL. Cincinnati has also scored on 92 percent of its trips to the red zone. Dalton (1696 passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT) has had plenty of time to make plays, as he has been sacked just twice over his last two games and Cincinnati’s 13 sacks allowed are tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. While Green is one of Dalton’s favorite targets, he spread the scoring wealth against the Titans, finding Caldwell (26 receptions, 2 TD), wideout Jerome Simpson (26 receptions, 2 TD) and rookie tight end Colin Cochart in the end zone. Cochart and Donald Lee saw more time on the field with Jermaine Gresham (25 receptions, 3 TD) missing his second game in a row due to a hamstring issue, though he could be available this week. Though Green (40 receptions, 5 TD) didn’t get in on the scoring party, he still leads all NFL rookies in receptions, receiving yards (599) and touchdowns. His chemistry with Dalton has the quarterback on the verge of becoming the first rookie signal-caller to win six straight games since Vince Young in 2006. Dalton is also 159 passing yards shy of passing Greg Cook (1,854 in 1969) for the most by a rookie in team history. Cincinnati did rush for over 100 yards last weekend, getting 78 on 20 carries from Cedric Benson (536 rushing yards, 2 TD). He was returning to action following a one-game suspension.
Dalton and his offensive line figure to be tested mightily by Pittsburgh’s third-ranked defense this weekend. The Steelers are allowing 280.2 yards per game and are also third in defending the pass at 184.7 yards per game. The return of Harrison (31 tackles, 5 sacks) was a big spark to the unit, as he had eight tackles and recorded all three of the club’s sacks. One of those sacks resulted in a forced fumble as Harrison returned with a vengeance after sitting out four games due to a broken orbital bone. While Baltimore is the only team to score more than 20 points in a game versus Pittsburgh this season — the Steelers rank fifth with 18.0 points yielded per game — the unit did hold the Ravens’ Ray Rice-led ground game to only 67 yards. It was the sixth time Pittsburgh held an opponent under 100 yards rushing this season. While Harrison returned, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (36 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) missed his first game since Nov. 9, 2008 because of a hamstring issue and inside veteran James Farrior (45 tackles, 2 sacks) sat out his second in a row with a calf ailment. Still, Pittsburgh has managed 23 sacks this year, second most in the AFC. Linebacker Larry Foote (40 tackles, 1 sack) had a team-high 10 tackles versus the Ravens, while cornerback William Gay (35 tackles) had six. Harrison has three sacks in his last four games versus the Bengals, while safety Troy Polamalu (56 tackles, 1 sack) matched a career-best with two interceptions in the last meeting between the clubs, taking one 45 yards for a score. Pittsburgh has just two picks this year, including one by safety Ryan Clark (57 tackles, 1 INT).
KEYS TO THE GAME
With the Bengals’ ability to score late and wear teams down, the Steelers will need to keep Cincinnati off the board early. Last week versus the Ravens, Pittsburgh stopped Baltimore three times at the one-yard line to hold the club to a field goal. It was the first time in three games that the Steelers allowed points on an opening drive.
Dalton has been on a nice run, but he’ll need to be in top form versus the Steelers. Pittsburgh has held six of the nine quarterbacks it has faced this year to a passer rating lower than 87.0. It has also held six of those nine signal-callers under 200 yards passing.
Like the Saints of a few seasons ago, the Bengals get a healthy number of scores from their defensive and special teams units. Four of Cincinnati’s touchdowns have been scored by those groups, including three from the defense.
Prediction – The young Bengals will look to take a monster step forward as they host the ticked off Steelers, who lost in the last 10 seconds to the Ravens at home. The Steelers are slowly but surely getting a little healthier, while the Bengals don’t have the playmakers to stand up to the Steelers hot offense that scored 14 quickly to take the lead that could have stood Sunday vs the Ravens. Steelers win in a close one in a must win for them. Pittsburgh 31 Cincinnati 24