The Cincinnati Bengals have a chance to wrap up the AFC North this Sunday, but the surging Pittsburgh Steelers will have something to say about in their second meeting of the season.
The Steelers (7-5) have won three of their last four games, primarily on the strength of their offense. They've scored 30-plus points in four straight games and are coming off a 45-10 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts. Currently seeded seventh in the AFC playoff picture, Pittsburgh desparately needs a win to help clear out the logjam of teams fighting over the two wild card spots.
The rivalry between the Steelers and Bengals has escalated over the last two games, each of which saw All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell go down with a season-ending knee injury. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict drew the ire of Steelers players for the way he celebrated after his tackle on Bell, but claimed he wasn't aware that Bell was injured on the play. Regardless, tensions are simmering as the division foes fight for playoff positioning.
Cincinnati (10-2) is currently atop the AFC and would love to have a first-round bye since getting out of the opening round has been a problem the past four years. A loss would give the Broncos and Patriots, also both 10-2, the inside track at the top two seeds. Andy Dalton rallied the Bengals to 16-10 win in Pittsburgh in Week 8 with 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Steelers and Bengals.
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1. Neutralize A.J. Green
Without a shutdown corner, the Steelers should double-team Green on every down. Cincinnati has other weapons in the passing game, but with Tyler Eifert coming off a pinched nerve, the Steelers should look to take away its best weapon and take their chances with Eifert and Marvin Jones.
2. Spread out Bengals secondary
The Bengals' logjam of cornerbacks is suddenly a shortfall due to injuries to Adam Jones, Leon Hall, and Darqueze Dennard. Hall (back) is likely to return to the lineup while Jones (foot) has already declared himself out. Ben Roethlisberger should throw the ball all over the field early and often to take advantage of the Bengals' depleted secondary with his slew of weapons.
3. Use Bengals' aggressiveness against them
The Bengals' defense is going to be gunning after Roethlisberger to keep him uncomfortable in the pocket. Todd Haley should call quick hitters and bubble screens to counteract the Bengals' blitzing and keep them honest.
1. Run down Hill
The best way to quiet the Steelers' offense is to keep them off the field. Jeremy Hill is coming off his two best games in terms of yardage. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson should feed him plenty to grind down the Steelers defense and the clock.
2. Jam Steelers receivers
Kirkpatrick and whoever else is playing corner for Cincinnati should look to be physical with Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant at the line of scrimmage. Getting a good jam is crucial to disrupting the timing between the duo and Roethlisberger, and will give rushers Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins a little more time to get after the quarterback.
3. Punt the ball outside the numbers
With Brown back to returning punts, the Bengals need to keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible. Punter Kevin Huber needs to make good use of his directional kicking skills since the last thing Cincy needs is to allow a touchdown on special teams.