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‘Tis the Season

Posted By Rob Stroup On Dec 21 2012 @ 9:30 am In Pittsburgh Steelers | No Comments

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a clear path to the playoffs – win two games and you’re in.  The first step occurs when Pittsburgh hosts the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at 1:00 pm.  The season is on the line, starting now.  Do you think that the crowd will be fired up for this week’s “must win” game against a divisional opponent?  I’ve heard Heinz Field loud; this week will be no exception.

Cincinnati is in control of their playoff destiny as well.  If the Bengals beat Pittsburgh this week, they clinch a playoff position and eliminate the Steelers.  Both sides of the field will be highly motivated to get an all-important “W.”

Ten Fearless Predictions

1.  Andy Dalton will target A.J. Green extensively (10+ times).  This will come as no surprise to anyone.  Green is one of the most gifted receivers in the league.  Keenan Lewis is returning from a hip injury suffered last week in Dallas. Pittsburgh’s top cover corner, Ike Taylor, limited Green to 1 catch for 8 yards in their previous meeting this season.  However, Taylor is still on the mend with his hairline ankle fracture.  Lewis has acquitted himself quite well as a cover corner this season, but Green is a stud WR.  This will be the most telling matchup in Sunday’s game.  (Lewis injured his knee in practice mid-week, and his status is uncertain for Sunday.  This could really sway the game in favor of Cincinnati.)

2.  Pittsburgh will re-emphasize the running game.  It has been said multiple times this week – by offensive coordinator Todd Haley, along with the running backs.  As the Steelers had road wins against Cincinnati, the Giants, and a home win against Washington, there were 100-yard rushers and a 50/50 pass/run ratio.  Rashard Mendenhall is returning from suspension this week (for conduct detrimental to the team).  Isaac Redman is fighting to get into the lineup following last week’s concussion.  Jonathan Dwyer is healthy, so there are plenty of options to tote the rock.  The question becomes – who will make the early play to earn the right to be the primary ballcarrier.  My guess is Mendenhall, who is likely playing his last few games in black and gold.  He will want to show his talents to prospective employers.

3.  Do not expect Steeler skill position players to have the mental lapses that plagued them against Dallas (Antonio Brown’s fumble, running out of bounds saving a Dallas timeout, Mike Wallace’s lack of a tackle on the overtime interception).  Down-and-distance knowledge, ball security, and ball-catching must be at a premium this week for Pittsburgh to have a chance against a Bengals team that defeats lesser teams consistently.

4.  The Cincinnati defensive line will force Pittsburgh into a short passing game.  Geno Atkins, Domato Peka, Carlos Dunlap, and Vontaze Burfict are all excellent players who will harass Ben Roethlisberger, especially considering the flux along the Steelers’ O-line.  Max Starks and Maurkice Pouncey are the only players starting at their original positions, while Ramon Foster has moved from right guard to left guard, and rookies David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum are newly anointed starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively.

5.  The snow that is expected to fall in the greater Pittsburgh area is due to subside on Saturday, although the gametime temperature is projected to remain chilly – in the high 20s / low 30s.  The field surface was just replaced two weeks ago, so footing should not be an issue.  But, cold hands may contribute to a drop or two throughout the contest.

6.  Troy Polamalu has been increasingly active since returning from his calf injury.  The Tasmanian Devil will line up all over the field in an attempt to confuse Dalton.  At times, Polamalu will bracket A.J. Green, while other times he will act as a fifth linebacker.  There will be multiple occasions when he appears on the line of scrimmage.  The question racing through Dalton’s mind will be…where will #43 be post-snap?  The Steelers need to force turnovers and Polamalu is the catalyst to do just that.

7.  In an attempt to keep Pittsburgh off balance and wear them down, Cincinnati will deploy an early dose of BenJarvus Green-Ellis.  This may surprise Pittsburgh initially (although it happened last game!), but the defense needs to remain cognizant of the downfield passing game.  Play action passes could be a dangerous weapon if Green-Ellis and company achieve early success on the ground.  After all, Pittsburgh’s secondary will be without Taylor (and possibly Lewis).  Cortez Brown, Pittsburgh’s #2 CB this week, could be in the crosshairs of Jay Gruden, the Bengals offensive coordinator.

8.  The game will be lower scoring than most people expect.  I view Cincinnati as a team with a plodding offense with a budding young superstar in A.J. Green. Pittsburgh may have some weapons on offense, but the O-line will limit Big Ben’s time to deliver passes deep downfield.

9.  The extra tension due to the importance of the game will cause each team, and more specifically each QB, to play tight.  The anxiety level will be high in the stands, along the sidelines, and in the huddle for all four quarters.

10a.  If Keenan Lewis plays, Steelers 20, Bengals 17. Pittsburgh has lost four of five, while the Bengals have won four of five.  Those trends reverse in this critical contest.  If this game were at Cincinnati, I’d pick the Bengals.  But, I believe that the groundswell of fan support will be enough to carry Pittsburgh to victory, setting up a sensational final week of the regular season.

10b.  If Keenan Lewis is out, Bengals 24, Steelers 20.  The Steeler secondary will be eaten alive if the top two corners (Taylor and Lewis) do not play.  Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, and Josh Victorian do not constitute a starting secondary in the NFL, or maybe even the CFL.

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