The undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers will face off against a Joe Burrow led Bengals team in Heinz Field on Sunday. The Steelers are finally coming back to Pittsburgh after three straight road victories while the Bengals last game was an impressive win over the Titans. Last season wasn’t ideal for either team as the Bengals were the worst team in the NFL and the Steelers missed the playoffs for the second year in a row. Both of these teams have gained plenty of new faces since their heated rivalry games in the killer bee era for Pittsburgh and the days of Andy Dalton for Cincinnati.
A lot has happened since then, the Steelers don’t have any bees except Ben Roethlisberger and have developed one of the best defenses in the NFL. On the Bengals side, they have their quarterback of the future In Joe Burrow and a deep and talented group of weapons to surround him for now and the future.
Looking at this season so far, the Steelers are in sole possession of first place in the AFC North while the Bengals are in last place at 2-5-1. Some could say the Steelers have a chance to make this a blowout but I don’t buy into that notion. There are quite a few areas the Steelers must succeed in if they want to keep their undefeated record this weekend.
- Play backyard football from start to finish
Despite the Steelers 8-0 record, there is still plenty to be desired and improved upon on the offensive side of the ball. In the last two games, Ben and the Steelers offense have looked dreadful in the first half of games against the Ravens and Cowboys. They’ve scored one touchdown in two first halves of their last two games. Of course, they’ve been able to get their act together by the game’s end but this trend has to stop now and in this game.
The key to the offensive turnaround has been to let Big Ben be in full control of the offense. Calling it “backyard football” when Ben lines his team up in the formations he likes and dictates what the plays are, the offense has been efficient and effective enough to get the job done. Even at its best, the Steelers offense hasn’t been flashy or put up eye popping numbers but it’s been a starch improvement from their 2019 results.
To get a bit more specific, the Steelers most functional version of offense has seen them lining up their deep receiving core in bunch sets to give them opportunities to RAC. Ben must get the ball into his playmakers hands and let them do the dirty work. From there, the Steelers will be more likely to get positive yardage on early downs and this can set up the threat of the deep shot and a productive run game.
- Let the run game balance out the offense
Entering the Cowboys game, the Steelers game plan was clear. They seemed committed to running the football against a weak rush defense. It seems like a solid game plan and the result was bad execution. Not entirely, no matter how the opposing team looks, the goal should be to run your style of offense and stick to the identity that has gotten you to this point.
While James Conner has been very productive and stayed healthy this year, he is not the focal point of this Steelers offense. Ben and the quick and short passing game is and the Steelers must let the run game support their identity instead of making the run their biggest threat.
What does this look like? Running the ball on first down is perfectly fine but they must stop running it again in the same set if it didn’t work the first time. Pass on early downs, get first downs and then give Conner the rock more often. Plus, Conner is still prone to injury so spreading out his carries and giving him the ball when the defensive front seven has more wear and tear is the best way to use him and the run game in general.
- Finish plays on Joe Burrow
On paper the biggest mismatch in this game is the Stelers pass rush vs the Bengals pass protection. The Steelers have the best pass rush in the NFL, being number one in sacks, QB hits, and total pressures. And the Bengals have allowed the second most sacks and hits on their franchise quarterback.
With that being said, the Steelers were only able to muster up two sacks against a reeling Cowboys offensive line so it’s not just going to happen automatically. The biggest key here is getting Burrow on the turf consistently. Burrow’s most underrated skill is his ability to make plays with his legs and evading defenders to extend plays with excellent pocket awareness.
The likes of Watt, Dupree, Tuitt and company must be able to shut down any lane for Burrow to utilize and create a play out of. If they can all collapse at the same time that would most definitely ensure that Burrow would be sacked. This is perhaps one of the biggest battles that could decide the outcome of this game. If Burrow can escape the pocket and create plays on the run, the Bengals can have success against this Steelers defense.
- Don’t allow Watt and Dupree to get stuck in coverage
Even though the Steelers defense is ranked as one of the best in the NFL and has an argument to be the best when they’re fully healthy, they are by no means invincible. One hole the Cowboys smartly exploited to some degree was matching up a CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper against a linebacker in the slot. They spread the Steelers out enough to even get vaunted pass rushers TJ Watt and Bud Dupree into coverage.
Like the Cowboys, the Bengals have a deep group of wideouts with various skill sets. Their goal will be to spread the Steelers out in empty sets, hoping to get a linebacker on Auden Tate or Tee Higgins. If these are matchups Garrett Gilbert can identify, Burrow will do the same only it could be far worse for the Steelers defense. Getting Mike Hilton back from injury would be a major piece to add to help combat the Bengals game plan.
Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers do have a linebacker that has been great in coverage this year. Robert Spillane has allowed a 28.6% completion percentage on passes targeted his way and a total of 55 yards since he came in against the Browns after Devin Bush’s injury. Having him cover wouldn’t be a disaster depending the route combination on the other side of the field. But one thing is for certain, Watt and Dupree cannot be forced into tough coverage matchups or else that will give Burrow and the Bengals a big matchup advantage.
I predict a close game as a lot of Steelers Bengals games are close matchups decided by a field goal. Since I think it will be a close game, that means I will pick the Steelers to win. Why? Because of what these teams have shown us in close games this season. Most of the Steelers eight wins have come in close affairs. Some might call it luck but when a team shows the ability to win close games on a consistent basis it’s not luck. Meanwhile the Bengals haven’t been able to pull out a close game this year.
Steelers win 27-24.