The Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. The Steelers are a 2-3 team that has yet to win on the road, is dealing with injury issues on both sides of the ball and has practically no run game.
But that doesn't mean it will be a slam-dunk that the Bengals win this week. Despite their record, the Steelers are still a formidable foe, and the Bengals have had fatal issues in their last two games that have them with a 3-3 record and a tenuous grasp on the second-place spot in the division.
Here's a two-step plan for how Cincinnati can get the better of their AFC North rivals and one step closer to their second postseason appearance in as many years.
Lean on A.J. Green
The single biggest weapon the Cincinnati Bengals have on their offensive roster is second-year wide receiver A.J. Green, and he'll be integral to their game plan this week against the Steelers. Green is the third-most targeted receiver in the league, with 65 passes thrown his way. He has 43 receptions, 628 yards, 152 yards after the catch, six touchdowns and just one dropped pass.
Regardless of the cornerback covering him, Green seems to always find ways to pull off the big play, and this week he appears to have an easier path to get there. He'll be matched up with Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor for at least part of the game.
Taylor is not having a good season. Receivers he's covered have pulled down 24 of the 42 passes thrown their way, for 373 total yards, 143 yards after the catch and four touchdowns. One out of every six passes targeting Taylor-covered receivers goes in for a score, and with Green averaging just over seven targets per game, it's mathematically likely that Green will add six points to the Bengals' total on Sunday night.
Though Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has been struggling over the last two weeks, with poor throws under pressure and rapidly increasing interceptions, Green has been an invaluable safety valve that has kept his completion percentage and yards looking strong.
Traditionally, quarterbacks make receivers look better, but the inverse is true for Dalton and Green—Green's high-level talent has made Dalton's transition from rookie to second-year player that much easier. Dalton has thrown more touchdowns than all but five quarterbacks, and he has Green to thank for that.
The Steelers have a top-four passing defense, allowing just 200.8 passing yards per game. However, they rank just 20th in passing touchdowns allowed per game, at 1.8. The scoring opportunities will be there on Sunday night, and if it's Taylor who is responsible for covering Green, they'll likely be able to take them.
The best situation for Dalton to connect with Green is also in some ways the worst—when facing the pass rush. Dalton is not a good quarterback under pressure—all nine of his interceptions were thrown when dealing with the pass rush or a blitz—but when the Steelers are sending the house, Green will be facing single-coverage, which gives him quite the advantage over Taylor or any other Pittsburgh corner.
Dalton must stand tall, not make desperate throws and be willing to take a big hit after the ball leaves his hand in order to get to Green when it could pay off the biggest for the Bengals.
Pressure the Steelers into Running the Ball
The Bengals defense is slightly better against the pass than the run, giving up 118.7 rushing yards per game and 226.2 against the pass. But to beat the Steelers on Sunday, they need to force them into running the ball.
The Steelers have the 31st-ranked rushing offense, averaging 74.8 rushing yards on 25.2 carries per game. Conversely, their passing offense is as good as it's been in the Ben Roethlisberger era—on 39.6 pass attempts per game, he's putting up an average of 285.8 yards, the seventh-best yardage in the league.
The key to stopping Roethlisberger lies not just in the cornerbacks and safeties (and coverage linebackers) tasked with shadowing his receivers and tight ends—it also comes from bringing pressure with the defensive line.
The Bengals have 20 sacks on the season, the second-best number in the league, while Roethlisberger has been brought down just 10 times. However, injuries on the offensive line may leave him vulnerable this week and present a perfect opportunity for the Bengals to thus neutralize their passing game.
Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert will miss this week's game with a knee injury, meaning that rookie Mike Adams will be taking over while he's out. Adams showed in the preseason that while he's strong in run blocking, his pass protection needs serious improvement. The Bengals defensive line would be smart to pick on Adams early and often in their quest to sack Roethlisberger.
If the passing game isn't producing, the Steelers may have no choice but to try to run the ball. Starters Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall did not practice on Thursday, both dealing with injuries, meaning that Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch will be carrying the load. Dwyer is averaging 2.9 yards per carry and Batch 2.1—neither seems poised to break out, considering the offensive line hasn't provided much run support to this point, regardless of how the Bengals have struggled against the run at times this season.
With the Steelers running more, their chances to get into the end zone are significantly diminished. The Bengals have the tools, especially up front, to render Roethlisberger far less effective than he's been so far. If they succeed, they'll have more than a fighting chance to hand the Steelers yet another road loss.