Friday, December 21, 2012

Season on the Brink: Bengals at Steelers Preview

Well, the bad news is that the game against the Cowboys sucked.  The good news is that the Steelers are officially in playoff mode and it's win-or-go-home time.  They seem to do better in situations like this, unless of course they're up against Tim Tebow.

This is definitely a winnable game and that's not a dig on the Bengals.  The losses to the Titans, Raiders, and Browns weren't cases of the Steelers losing a winnable game, they were cases of them honking away a sure win.  Yes, things change when the game actually kicks off and you commit eight turnovers, but the fact remains that they had match-up advantages pretty much everywhere on both sides of the ball in those games and failed to capitalize on those advantages.

On Sunday, they don't have a ton of match-ups in their favor, but they have enough.  Cincinnati doesn't have anyone that can cover Heath Miller.  Dallas had a tough time dealing with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown -- provided they held onto the ball -- and the Cowboys have a more talented secondary than the Bengals.  Emmanuel Sanders will be back this week and will be at full strength.  The only guys that won't play are Ike Taylor and Mike Adams, so they're healthier than they've been at any point in the season and certainly in better shape health-wise than they were for the first meeting in Cincy.  Ben Roethlisberger is a better quarterback than Andy Dalton and Dalton has struggled pretty mightily against this Steelers defense thus far in his career.  BenJarvis Green-Ellis hasn't been able to get much going this season, the Bengals offensive line has been far better in pass protection than they have in the running game, and the Steelers held the Law Firm to only 69 yards in the first meeting.

I'm aware of the fact that Cincinnati has Geno Atkins and he's a very good, very disruptive player on the interior of the defensive line.  But, Legursky and Ramon Foster were able to contain Atkins in the first game, to the tune of two tackles and a sack, which makes me think that Pouncey and DeCastro might actually fare better.  DeCastro looked a little rough at times in his first start, but he was coming off three months of inactivity and only had three practices to get used to the line calls and the tendencies of his line mates.  I think he'll be better this week and Pouncey usually steps up his level of play for big games (unless it's an actual playoff game, in which case he's usually hurt).

With all the talk about Atkins, I think people are forgetting that the Bengals have a really talented, solid front seven.  They lead the league with 43 sacks.  They pressure quarterbacks into making bad decisions and they're plus 3 in the turnover department (Steelers are minus 14).  But... they have the same personnel that they had when the Steelers plowed them over for 167 yards in Week 7 and the offensive line for Pittsburgh has benefited from a couple of upgrades since then.  Jonathan Dwyer ran for 122 yards on only 17 carries in that game.  The Steelers outgained the Bengals 431-185 in that game and really dominated throughout.  They just lost the field position battle and turned the ball over in the red zone.

If they can keep from committing a costly turnover -- especially a pick six, which is no sure thing with this team -- they should be able to win fairly easily.

One thing really scares the hell out of me in this game and his name is AJ Green.  Without Taylor to keep Green in check, you have either Keenan Ivory Lewis or Cortez Allen or... #35, whatever his name is, it doesn't really matter because he's awful.  (I know it's Josh Victorian, but that still doesn't matter because he's awful.)  If Green's able to roam free, then he'll do more damage than Miles Austin and Dez Bryant put together.  My guess is that they double him with Lewis and Ryan Grant and err on the side of not getting beat deep, but Green's good enough at adjusting to the ball when it's in the air that he's still open even if he's double covered.

I think that Green still runs wild, but it's kept within reason.

That's all the X's and O's and strategy, but here's the big reason I think they win on Sunday: If they lose Sunday, their season is over.  This team has been maddeningly inconsistent all year, but they've always been able to find just the right time and way to break the hearts of Steelers fans all over the world. 

This Sunday isn't the right time.  If they lose Sunday, they're done, Steeler fans have no hope for the next week.  Their hearts will be broken, sure, but their team will have lost to an up-and-coming team and, hey, the Bengals deserve a break every now and again.

Next Sunday is the right time, because they're playing Cleveland and there's every reason to believe that they absolutely should win that game and make it to the playoffs.  To lose out on a post-season berth by getting beat at home by the lowly, stupid Cleveland Browns is considerably more heartbreaking. 

The only thing that this team has consistently done all season is break our hearts and drive us crazy.  That will continue on Sunday against the Bengals.

Steelers 27, Bengals 23

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