Tonight at 8:20 p.m. ET, our Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals in what has become a “must win” game for both teams.
For the Bengals, it’s a must win because they have to end the tailspin that they suddenly find themselves in. The Bengals have lost their last two games. More importantly, they’ve lost them to really bad teams. Two weeks ago, they lost to the Miami Dolphins, a team that doesn’t instill fear into the hearts of many of their opponents. Then last week they lost to the lowly Cleveland Browns, who we all know are the NFL’s equivalent of the cowardly lion.
The Bengals had already lost to the Baltimore Ravens in week 1 of the season. So these two back to back losses suddenly left the Bengals with a 3-3 record, with two of their 3 losses coming from within the division. A loss to the Steelers would be the Bengals’ third loss within the AFC North, and they still have to face the Ravens and Steelers again. That’s not a good scenario for a team that had serious hopes of winning the division.
For the Steelers, the game is just as crucial. With a record of 2-3, the Steelers are below .500, and really need a win today. A loss would leave them with a 2-4 record, and no wins against division opponents. Unlike the other teams in the AFC North, the Steelers haven’t faced any division opponents yet. So they still have plenty of opportunities to dig themselves out from the three unexpected losses to non-division opponents.
But if the Steelers should lose today, they would have 1 loss within their division, and they’d still have to face the Bengals again later in the season. More dauntingly, they still have two games to play against the Baltimore Ravens, a team that swept them last year. The Ravens have been devastated by injuries, having lost Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb last week, but they’re still a dangerous team.
In order to beat the Bengals, the Steelers are going to have to find a way to shut down their most dangerous player; wide receiver A.J. Green. Ordinarily, I would have said that the Steelers could simply assign Ike Taylor to cover him, and the threat of A.J Green would be neutralized. Unfortunately, somebody replaced the Ike Taylor that we all knew with his doppelganger twin. And Ike’s twin can’t play at all. In fact, his only visible skill is an uncanny ability to draw pass interference penalties. A.J. Green will completely destroy “Doppelganger Ike”.
To make matters even worse for the Steelers, Marcus Gilbert is out with an injury, and he’s being replaced by rookie Mike Adams in the starting lineup. We all remember how poorly things went for Adams the last time he was called upon to play significant minutes. Adams proved to us that it actually IS possible to be called for holding penalties more often than Willie Colon. That’s a feat that I thought was a physical impossibility.
With Gilbert out of the lineup, the Steelers running game would likely have taken a step backwards from its already woeful state. But it doesn’t stop there. Both Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have been ruled out for Sunday’s game. So Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, and Chris Rainey will have to carry the rushing load.
Fortunately, the Bengals’ run defense isn’t particularly good. They’re ranked 21st in the NFL against the run, and they allow 116.8 yards per game on the ground. They may be just the opponent that the Steelers need to get their running game back on track.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers are also going to have challenges. Troy Polamalu is still not ready to play. His calf injury is still bothering him, and he’s been ruled out for Sunday’s game. While Troy is only one person, he is a critical piece of the Steelers’ defense. We’ve seen repeatedly over the past few years that the Steelers’ defense simply doesn’t work as well when Troy doesn’t play.
But on the positive side, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will actually be on the field at the same time. That’s been a rare sight over the past 16 games or so. The Steelers can definitely pressure the quarterback better when both Woodley and Harrison are on the field.
Despite all of the injuries and adversity that the Steelers have faced, one thing has been consistent; Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben has been slinging the ball to his crew of highly talented receivers, and has been putting up very respectable stats. That fact sometimes gets lost in the midst of the Steelers’ other struggles. But it’s exactly that fact that I believe is going to be the Steelers’ salvation today. I believe that even if the Steelers’ rushing attack flounders, Big Ben and his “Young Money” receivers are going to prove to be too much for the Bengals to handle.
I predict a Steelers win against their first AFC North opponent of the season. Final score: Steelers 24, Bengals 17.