Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Preview and Prediction

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Bengals can clinch wild-card berth, end Steelers’ postseason hopes with win over AFC North rivals

<p> Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Preview and Prediction</p>

The Cincinnati Bengals can secure a second-straight playoff berth with a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers when the two square off Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. The Bengals (8-6) find themselves in the driver’s seat thanks to last Thursday’s 34-13 dismantling of Philadelphia at home. The Steelers (7-7), losers of four of their last five games, must win to keep their postseason hopes alive and avoid the sight of the rival Bengals celebrating on their home field. Pittsburgh has won the past five matchups with Cincinnati, including a 24-17 win back in Week 7.

When the Cincinnati Bengals have the ball:
Cincinnati’s offense has done a good job of maximizing its possessions into points. Consider that the Bengals rank 18th in the NFL in total offense at 347.6 yards per game, but are ninth in scoring at 25.4 points per game. The running game has picked up lately, as the Bengals are 11th in the league in rushing offense (120.3 ypg) and come in at No. 17 in passing offense (227.4 ypg). Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has already set a personal-best with 1,080 rushing yards this season and has gone over 100 yards in four of his past five outings. Even though quarterback Andy Dalton is just 15th among his peers in passing yards with 3,313, his 26 touchdown passes place him sixth. Wide receiver A.J. Green has caught 11 of these, putting him second in the league in this category, and he’s also among the top eight in both receptions (85) and yards (1,208). Turnovers have been somewhat of an issue for the team, as Dalton has thrown 14 interceptions and the Bengals have fumbled the ball away nine times. Dalton also has been sacked 38 times thus far, the third-most among quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh’s defense leads the NFL in both total (273.3 ypg) and passing (180.6 ypg) defense, and also is among the top eight in rushing (92.7 ypg, fourth) and scoring (20.8 ppg, eighth) defense. Injuries continue to be an issue for this unit, however, as the Steelers are without the services of cornerback ike Taylor and have had to call on several unknown and inexperienced defensive backs throughout the season. This defense hasn’t produced many sacks (27, tied for 23rd in the NFL) or turnovers (13 total), which combined with the numerous injuries makes its statistical production look even more impressive. The bottom line, however, is winning games, and Pittsburgh’s defense hasn’t been able to make that key stop late or force that critical turnover, which is a reason why the Steelers are now in a must-win situation.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers have the ball:
Pittsburgh’s offense has been limited all season by a lack of consistent production from the running game and a revolving door along its offensive line. The Steelers are 19th in the league in total offense at 345.1 yards per game, with nearly 75 percent of the yards gained coming via the pass. They are near the bottom (26th) in rushing offense at 96.5 yards per game, and only managed 69 yards rushing in last week’s overtime loss in Dallas. Jonathan Dwyer has been getting the bulk of the carries recently, but he’s averaging just over four yards per carry for the season and had only 22 on the ground against the Cowboys. The team has other options in Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey and Rashard Mendenhall, but really need someone to step up and offer some consistent gains on the ground. Because of the lack of production from the running game, the Steelers have relied on the pass more, which is why they rank 10th in passing offense (248.6 ypg). Having quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center certainly helps, as he’s the league’s sixth-rated passer with just six interceptions, and his mobility in the pocket (been sacked just 24 times) has helped an injury-ravaged offensive line. Big Ben, however, also has missed three games because of injuries he sustained after getting sacked in Week 10 against Kansas City, and he is just 21st in passing yards with 2,911, to go along with 22 touchdown passes. The overlying issue for the offense has been scoring points. The Steelers are 20th in scoring at 21.6 points per game and have hurt themselves on more than one occasion with turnovers. Even though Roethlisberger has just six picks, his replacements have thrown six more when they have been under center and the team has 15 fumbles, the third-most among AFC teams. Couple that with the defense’s inability to force a lot of turnovers, and the Steelers have a -14 turnover differential, the third-worst ratio in the AFC.

Cincinnati’s defense has been a pleasant surprise this season, ranking sixth in the league in total defense (320.4 ypg) and 10th in scoring (20.9 ppg) defense. The Bengals are ninth against the run (101 ypg) and 12th against the pass (219.4 ypg), and have produced a league-leading 43 sacks. The unit has yielded just 15 touchdown passes, the sixth-fewest in the league, and has had much more success compared to Pittsburgh’s defense when it comes to forcing turnovers. The Bengals have 26 takeaways so far, including 15 fumbles. In last Thursday’s 34-13 win in Philadelphia, the defense forced five turnovers (four fumbles and an INT) and returned a fumble 25 yards for a touchdown.

Key Factor:
Pittsburgh has been the dominant team in this series lately, having won the past five matchups. However, this is not the same type of Steelers team from recent years, and it’s Cincinnati, not Pittsburgh, who is in the driver’s seat for a wild-card berth. The Steelers did beat the Bengals 24-17 back in Week 7, but even though they dominated the stat sheet (had 431 total yards to Bengals’ 185), they needed a Chris Rainey touchdown with less than a minute remaining to secure the victory. Since that game, Cincinnati has gone 5-2, while Pittsburgh is just 4-4. The Steelers’ defense did a superb job of limiting the Bengals’ offense the first time around, but several players, most notably Ike Taylor, who were a part of that first victory, won’t be playing in this one. Cincinnati’s running game, which managed just 80 yards against the Steelers’ defense in Week 7, has been much more productive as of late as well, which should help open things up for Andy Dalton and the passing attack. Pittsburgh may be playing at home, but the Steelers have dropped their last two games at Heinz Field. In the end, I just think this is a team that’s simply too beat up and not all that together, on the same page. With a second straight playoff berth squarely in their sights, I think the Bengals earn a hard-fought road victory and gain some much-needed confidence headed into the postseason. On the other side, this season-deciding loss for the Steelers shifts the focus to potential changes forthcoming in the offseason amid the questions concerning the team’s outlook for 2013 and beyond.

Prediction:
Bengals 23, Steelers 20

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