Two weeks ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the toast of the NFL at 11-0. But after dropping two straight games, they need to get back to their winning ways, starting with their "Monday Night Football" game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
These teams are meeting for the second time in six weeks after Pittsburgh dominated Cincinnati 36-10 in Week 10. Ben Roethlisberger threw for a season-high 333 yards and four touchdowns, and the Steelers led by two or more scores for nearly 44 minutes of game time.
The Steelers could use that kind of showing again after the way they've been playing lately, too. They haven't reached 20 points in the last three games and turned the ball over five times in the process. Playing those games in a 12-day stretch after a COVID-19 outbreak with the Ravens delayed their would-be Thanksgiving game didn't help, but this team has to play better as Pittsburgh gets ready for the playoffs. A win on Monday over Cincinnati or a loss by Cleveland to the New York Giants on Sunday night clinches the AFC North for the Steelers, which would take a lot of the pressure off their Week 17 finale with the Browns.
For the Bengals, that earlier November loss to Pittsburgh started a season-worst five-game skid. They've scored more than 10 points just once during that stretch, although Brandon Allen has had to start three of those games in place of the injured Joe Burrow. It's Allen who's now injured (bone bruise), so Cincinnati will turn to Ryan Finley at quarterback. A fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft, Finley went 0-3 as a starter that season and has not played well (10-for-19, 75 yds., 2 INTs) in four limited appearances this season.
One of these two AFC North rivals will end their losing streak in prime time, but what would it take for the Bengals to win for the first time in 12 matchups against the Steelers? Let's break down the keys to the game.
Monday Night Football: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 21 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Steelers revitalize their passing attack?
Pittsburgh's offense didn't reach its 2018 heights at the start of the season, but it was strong enough. Through nine games, Roethlisberger had a 103.0 passer rating with 22 touchdowns to four interceptions. The 38-year-old has really shown his age over the last four games, when he has thrown an interception every time out while failing to reach six yards per attempt.
Roethlisberger has acknowledged his struggles, and not everything is on his shoulders. Diontae Johnson concerningly leads the league with nine drops this season, and the team dropped an astounding eight passes last week. The Steelers have acommanding lead in drops (33, next-closest 28) and expected points lost due to drops (63, next-closest 52). However, Roethlisberger's lack of arm strength coming off elbow surgery — not to mention a balky knee — is leading to more short passes over the middle, where receivers are most likely to drop the ball.
Facing the Bengals could be an opportunity to get back on track. Their defense has allowed 7.4 yards per attempt (23rd in the NFL) with just nine interceptions (tied for 10th least). Roethlisberger has already torn them up once this season, so perhaps he can replicate that success.
Besides expanding the passing game beyond short passes over the middle — and not dropping the ball — one wrinkle the Steelers could add to their offense that would give them a boost is more play-action. Pittsburgh has used it less than any other team this season since Roethlisberger mostly operates out of the shotgun and doesn't like turning his back to the defense, but ignoring this tried-and-true strategy may eventually come back to bite them. Pittsburgh doesn't even need a strong running attack to make it effective, it just needs to be in a down-and-distance situation where the run threat is credible.
2. Will either team be able to establish the run?
Speaking of running the ball, neither team has been able to do that lately. It's been a continuing problem since they both finished among the eight worst rushing teams last season — and the 13 worst teams each season since 2017 — but injuries have made their respective ground games even more ineffective.
Since Joe Mixon went down with a foot injury in Week 6, the Bengals are averaging just 84.1 rushing yards per game, including a pair of 40-yard performances in the last three games. But the Steelers haven't been much better with James Conner banged up; they've been held under 50 yards on the ground in five of their last seven games and averaged 54.3 yards per game during that stretch.
Despite their inability to move the ball lately, the Steelers should have an edge on Monday because of the defenses. They are giving up 100.9 rushing yards per game (sixth) and 4.2 yards per carry (11th), while the Bengals are allowing 131.7 (28th) and 4.6 (27th). Conner may also be playing for his job since he's set to hit free agency, although Benny Snell Jr. (3.3 ypc) and Anthony McFarland Jr. (3.4) have yet to impress.
For the Steelers, they were able to blow out the Bengals last time without doing much on the ground (20 attempts, 40 yards), but that is not sustainable against stronger opponents. They'll need to make sure future opponents have reason to worry about Conner and Co. The Bengals meanwhile, will need to control the clock if they're going to pull out a home upset.
3. What will the Steelers' defense look like with their latest injuries?
The reason that Pittsburgh has been so dominant this season is because of their defense. They're first in scoring defense, sacks, and turnovers and third in total defense. However, serious cracks are showing with the latest group of injuries.
Pittsburgh already lost Devin Bush to a torn ACL in October, and star pass rusher Bud Dupree went down with the same injury earlier this month. Fellow linebacker Robert Spillane was the latest to land on injured reserve with a knee injury, although he may return in time for the playoffs. But that's a lot of production to miss in the meantime.
Dupree was one of three Steelers to rank in the top 10 in sacks, and his presence was clearly missed last week when Pittsburgh only registered one sack against the Bills. T.J. Watt (12.0 sacks) is still a Defensive Player of the Year contender and Stephon Tuitt (8.0 sacks) can be a menace, so the Bengals, who have given up the second-most sacks in the league, will have their hands full. If the Steelers can't bring the pressure, that will be a massive red flag.
The Bengals' season was over the moment Joe Burrow went down, but they can at least send off this disaster of a season by being a thorn in the Steelers' side. But for as badly as the Steelers have played recently, the Bengals have been even worse. This could be a scoring struggle unless someone turns things around quickly.
This game at Cincinnati could not have come at a better time for Pittsburgh, which desperately needs to get back on track. Don't expect another 26-point blowout as they had a few weeks ago, but the Steelers should pull away on the strength of a banged-up defense and rejuvenated offense.