The Cincinnati Bengals come off their bye week to put their perfect 6-0 record on the line in Pittsburgh this Sunday. It looks like Ben Roethlisberger will be waiting for them.
Roethlisberger is set to return after missing the last four games with a bone bruise and sprained MCL in his left knee for the Steelers (4-3), who have won three in a row against the Bengals. Roethlisberger's return will mark the first time Pittsburgh has its top four offensive weapons -- Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Martavis Bryant -- on the field at the same time this season.
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The Bengals enter Sunday with a chance to run away with the AFC North. A win would give them a seemingly insurmountable three-and-a-half-game lead in the division. While the Steelers have had to deal with injuries up and down their roster, Cincinnati is the only team in the league with its original 53-man roster from Week 1 intact.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Bengals and Steelers.
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1. Beware of the counter
Le'Veon Bell had a field day when these two teams met for the first time last year with 185 yards on 26 carries. Most of the damage came via the counter trap play that the Steelers ran to perfection. The Bengals combatted Bell much better the next time out before he suffered a knee injury in the third quarter, but they'll need to read and react to Pittsburgh's bread-and-butter run play.
2. Attack Ben's blind side
Since the loss of left tackle Kelvin Beachum to a torn ACL two weeks ago, the Steelers are rolling with Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who played receiver at West Point. Villanueva is enormous at 6-foot-9, 320 pounds, but he just started playing the position in the last year. Tamba Hali took advantage of Villanueva's inexperience with a mixture of rushes and stunts. With Roethlisberger's mobility in question, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins need to attack and confuse the left side of Pittsburgh's line.
3. Make the Steelers pay for blitzing
Facing one of the best offensive lines in the game, the Steelers -- who blitz 40 percent of the time according to Pro Football Focus -- are going to have to send more than four defenders Andy Dalton's way. That will leave Pittsburgh's injury-riddled secondary even more vulnerable that is has been.
1. Get Brown involved early
Antonio Brown's production has plummeted without Roethlisberger. If the two can get back on the same page quickly, that will draw even more attention from the Bengals defenders, freeing up Bell and Bryant to do damage.
2. Give Villanueva help
The Steelers can't afford to leave their unseasoned left tackle on an island in obvious passing situations like they did last week. Tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth should be utilized in pass protection, leaving the receivers to do the damage down the field.
3. Pick poison on defense
A.J. Green caught 11 passed for 224 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting last year, illustrating that Pittsburgh can allow Green to get his and still win. The Steelers have struggled mightily with opposing tight ends this season, so they'll need to figure out a way to limit the damage from Tyler Eifert if Green has another big day.