This Sunday is it—it is either the de facto end to the Pittsburgh Steelers' season or the beginning of their postseason preparations. Without a defeat of the Cincinnati Bengals, there will be no playoffs for the Steelers, making Sunday's contest between the two divisional rivals the most important game the team has played all season.
But how to defeat the Bengals? Since Week 10, Cincinnati has lost just one game, while the Steelers have dropped all but two contests in that span and are on a two-game losing streak. A seeming loss of focus, combined with key injuries at crucial times, have taken the Steelers from postseason locks to one of the more troubled so-called NFL powerhouses.
Here's how the Steelers can get back on track by defeating the Bengals this Sunday.
Stopping the Passing Game
A major reason why the Steelers have struggled in the past two weeks is the injury to starting cornerback Ike Taylor. Though Taylor started the season off slowly, as the weeks progressed, he's been the most integral reason for the Steelers having the top-ranked pass defense in the league. They remain at the top, giving up an average of 180.6 passing yards per game, but their averages in the last three weeks (235.3) and in the last one (328.1) prove that coverage suffers without Taylor in the fold.
Taking over for Taylor will be Keenan Lewis, who had first a hip injury and then hurt his knee in practice this week. With Lewis under 100 percent and likely lined up with top Bengals receiver A.J. Green (who ranks seventh overall in receiving yards and second in receiving touchdowns), it will be hard to stop him. The Steelers will have to be creative and adaptable if they are to control Cincinnati's passing game on Sunday.
Whether that means providing Lewis with safety help, switching Cortez Allen onto Green if Lewis' health makes him a liability against a deep, scoring threat like Green or playing with five or six defensive backs, there cannot be one single way to approach the Bengals passing offense and hope it holds for all four quarters.
Green had just one catch for eight yards—a touchdown—in the Steelers' first meeting with the Bengals earlier this season. During that earlier span of the season—a four-game win streak that began with the Cincinnati defeat—the Steelers were able to control the passing game by cutting off the deep end of the field. The same approach must be taken this Sunday, but again, in a more changeable form that mitigates for the loss of Taylor whenever necessary.
Green, of course, isn't the only receiving threat the Bengals have on their roster—there is the dangerous Andrew Hawkins, who can slip tackles and take off at a moment's notice, as well as the newly-appointed No. 2 wideout, Marvin Jones, and tight end Jermaine Gresham, who comes in second to Green as the Bengals' top receiver.
Granted, with 699 yards, Gresham has nearly half the yardage of Green (1,208) and has been targeted 89 times (while Green has caught 85 passes, and has been targeted 144 times). However, the Steelers must be careful not to put all of their eggs in the Green basket, or they could find themselves burned by efficient, short-yardage drives rather than the deep ball—call it the Bengals beating the Steelers at their own game, in fact.
But Green is the most dangerous weapon the Bengals have at their disposal presently, and the less involved he is on Sunday, the less likely Cincinnati wins. It will require a whatever-it-takes approach, finding what works in the moment—as well as what doesn't—and changing the game plan as it is required.
Keeping Ben Roethlisberger Upright
Many of the Steelers' issues over their recent spate of losses have been of their own doing. Turnovers, a lack of focus (leading to drops), missed opportunities at interceptions and underestimation of opponents have all contributed to why the Steelers currently sit at 7-7 and on the precipice of missing the playoffs.
However, the biggest area they need to maintain control on Sunday is when facing the Bengals' formidable pass rush. If the offensive line cannot keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright, their chances to win are diminished significantly.
When it comes to sack totals, the Bengals are the best in the league, with 43 to their name thus far. Though Roethlisberger has been sacked only 24 times this season, he was taken down four times in the second half of last week's loss to the Dallas Cowboys when the protection broke down after the Cowboys made halftime adjustments. The Cowboys are certainly not in the same pass-rushing league as the Bengals, so it might be a long, difficult day for Roethlisberger if he cannot be shielded.
The issue here is that protecting Roethlisberger may take tight end Heath Miller out of the game—which works to Cincinnati's advantage even if the Steelers doing so prevents Roethlisberger from being sacked.
Miller is Roethlisberger's most reliable weapon. With 68 receptions on 92 targets, 771 total yards and eight touchdowns, he's even more valuable than the team's leading receiver, Mike Wallace (Wallace has pulled down 63 of the 114 passes thrown to him and has the same number of scores). In Todd Haley's conservative, ball-control offense, intermediate passes to Miller have become the team's centerpiece.
With Miller potentially spending most of his snaps in a blocking role, there will have to be another way for the Steelers to move the ball effectively, whether that means involving other tight ends or fullback Will Johnson, or hoping that Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders can be relied upon to neither drop go-ahead passes nor fumble the ball.
If the Steelers offensive line can effectively control Cincinnati's pass rush without needing additional help from Miller, that would be the best-case scenario. But, even if it does take up the majority of Miller's snaps, that's fine as well—whatever it takes for Roethlisberger to stay upright. It's hard to tell from one week to the next how well Pittsburgh's run game will perform. The crux of their offense is still Roethlisberger's arm, and without him able to throw, nothing good will come for Pittsburgh on Sunday.