We have a gritty, gutty, snot-rocking divisional matchup tonight, which means we also have a lot of history to draw from. Recent history tells us that even with a key injury on their offensive line and even with a deficient run game, the Steelers have a chance.
As is my usual practice on Mondays and Thursdays, here are three thoughts that turned into three questions/grave concerns.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
1. Can Ben Roethlisberger stay upright? There will rightfully be much discussion leading up to and during tonight’s game about the offensive line in front of Ben Roethlisberger, or at least what remains of it following the loss of vital cog Maurkice Pouncey for the season. Hey look, we’re having that chat right now, and earlier today our boy Alen Dumonjic broke down the tape of the Steelers’ O-line failings. In Week 1 Roethlisberger was sacked five times and hit six, a situation that has to change if he seeks to find Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown downfield, well, ever. And it looks particularly dire tonight against the Bengals’ imposing defensive line with Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson, who combined for 24 sacks last year.
But here’s the thing about that: in the last game between these two teams in Cincinnati, the Steelers faced nearly the exact same situation. No, actually it was much worse, with Pouncey, tackle Marcus Gilbert, and then rookie David DeCastro out. The result? Three sacks (including one each for Johnson and Atkins) on Roethlisberger and a lost fumble.
Keeping with that case study, despite the barrage Roethlisberger was still able to connecting on four completions of 20 yards or more to four different receivers during a 24-17 Steelers win, while finishing with a passer rating of 92.0 at 7.2 yards per attempt. He also finished with 13.9 fantasy points, which usually isn’t great, but it was more than satisfactory considering the circumstances, and where you drafted him.
To repeat that, we need to see the Ben Roethlisberger who’s well known for controlling the chaos around him and being creative, and not the one who missed opportunities last week.
2. A running game: will it happen at all for Pittsburgh? More on that game, because the deep injury ravaging the Steelers experienced last fall could provide a fine simulation.
In addition to the offensive line losses, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman were injured last year too, leaving the Steelers with Jonathan Dwyer (who was cut at the end of camp and has now been re-signed out of desperation) as their primary running back.
Dwyer proceeded to run for a career high 122 yards on just 17 carries (7.2 YPC), a total that included a 32-yard run. A long run was rare against a defense that gave up only eight +20 yarders throughout the 2012 season. In fact, the longest carry given up by the Cincy front seven was Dwyer’s run, as they were one of just six teams to not allow a 40-yarder.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has presumably dusted off the blueprint from that night, and hammered it home repeatedly this week. Of course there’s another new element being introduced into the chemistry, a linebacker who has a bit of a history in Pittsburgh: James Harrison.
3. Which A.J. Green will show up? When you look back on how Green fared against the Steelers last year, something odd appears. Broadly speaking, in his four career games against the Steelers, Green has 18 catches for 247 yards with two touchdowns. That adds up to an average of 61.8 yards per game, which is OK, and when you’re holding a receiver of Green’s caliber to OK, you’re doing much, much better than OK.
But zeroing in a little closer, even that decent average and production is skewed due to the absence of a rather important man in one of those contests: Ike Taylor.
The Steelers’ injuries last year were widespread, and went beyond their offensive line. They included Taylor, who missed the last meeting between these two teams in Week 16. Green took advantage of the opportunity to prance pleasantly, and of those 18 total catches he’s recorded against the Steelers over two years, 10 of them came that night, along with 116 yards.
That’s been his only +100 yard game against Pittsburgh, and the contrast between Green when he’s matched up against Taylor and when he isn’t is downright spooky. Previously in the first Steelers-Bengals horn lock of the 2012 season with Taylor healthy, Taylor held Green to just one catch for six yards, even though he was targeted eight times. Luckily for Green’s fantasy owners that one catch was a touchdown, but history was still made: that game still stands as Green’s worst yardage output. You just can’t go much lower, and the low came during a season when Green averaged 83.4 yards per game, and accumulated 1,350 yards overall, good enough for a top 10 finish.
However, despite the history between the two that also includes a 36-yard game for Green in his rookie year, Steelers safety Ryan Clark dropped some truth talk regarding another factor being introduced by the Bengals when they inserted Tyler Eifert, a second tight end. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Garry Dulac noted, the need to put a safety on Eifert will create space down field for Green, where Taylor will have to keep up without help.