The Cincinnati Bengals are heading into the AFC wild-card round with a backup quarterback hoping to end one of the longest postseason droughts in NFL history. The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to try to stop him with a defense that might be best described as, well, weird.
One of the league's more decorated franchises visits Paul Brown Stadium on Saturday night with AJ McCarron taking the snaps for the Bengals, but a game manager might be just the kind of quarterback to best deal with the Steelers' give-and-take defense.
Cincinnati (12-4) won the AFC North and narrowly missed out on a first-round bye that would have given starter Andy Dalton a better shot at returning from a broken thumb. His scant inclusion in practice this week has McCarron in line for a fourth straight start since replacing Dalton early in a 33-20 home loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, but Dalton is confident there'll be another week of practice.
“This team's built for this kind of stuff,” Dalton said. “AJ's going to do a good job when things happen.”
The Bengals have lost seven in a row in the postseason and haven't won a playoff game in 25 years, the sixth-longest drought for any franchise, and the pressure has only built under Dalton.
They're the only team in league history to lose an opening-round game four years in a row, and only one has been decided by fewer than 16 points with an outmatched offense averaging 10.8 points and 297.8 yards.
So what harm could a change under center cause? This: No quarterback with so little starting experience as McCarron has won a playoff game since the Houston Oilers' Gifford Nielsen in 1979.
The playoff struggles have come in part because the Bengals have conceded a 9-2 turnover advantage in the last four, and that's just what the Steelers want to see.
First-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler was called on by coach Mike Tomlin to do something with the Steelers that didn't come easily in Dick LeBeau's last season.
The Steelers' 48 sacks trailed only Denver and New England and their 17 interceptions were tied for sixth, up from 33 and 11 last season and the club's most in each category since 2010. Pittsburgh, however, gave up an average of 363.1 yards, which ranks 21st and ahead of just one other playoff team. Its 19.9 points allowed per game made that acceptable.
“A lot of people talk about the yards we give up in the secondary, but usually when that happens we're getting great red zone stops, we're getting turnovers, we're causing havoc up front with the defensive line, making teams one dimensional,” safety Will Allen said.
But McCarron has been responsible with the ball, save for an overtime fumble that led to a 20-17 loss in Denver on Dec. 28. He threw two interceptions against the Steelers but has since thrown four touchdowns and no picks in three starts – two wins – with a 100.1 passer rating. Granted, he's topped out at 200 yards passing in those games, but he threw two TDs in Sunday's 24-16 home win over Baltimore and there's been noticeable progress from within.
“Just the poise,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. “Obviously he's done a really good job of not turning the ball over. In that game we had two turnovers. That kind of led to our demise on offense and losing the game. I think if you take care of the ball and play the way we have, you have a chance to have great things happen.”
His counterpart has had his struggles lately, but like the Steelers' defensive gambles, Ben Roethlisberger's mistakes might have something to do with the explosiveness of the offense he's leading and the chances it takes.
Pittsburgh (10-6) won four of five to get into the playoffs, but Roethlisberger threw six INTs in his last three games. His 16 for the season mark the second-highest total of his career, despite being limited to 12 games.
Even so, the offense has worked through key injuries at skill positions to finish fourth in points (26.4), third in total offense (395.4) and first in passing plays of at least 25 yards (43).
The Steelers have had to get by without top running back Le'Veon Bell after he was lost for the season in Week 8, and they now could have to go without DeAngelo Williams. Bell's replacement is day to day with a right leg injury suffered in Sunday's 28-12 win in Cleveland.
Also of concern is the status – or maybe production – of wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who was limited against the Browns due to an illness, according to Roethlisberger. Bryant had two catches on four targets in the final two weeks and didn't score in the last four contests after scoring 14 times in his first 17 NFL games.
When involved, he adds critical depth to the matchup problems created by the electric Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger called for Bryant to toughen up earlier in the week, if only because he sees him as such a vital part of the offense.
“Whether it's him going deep, or him working underneath stuff,” Roethlisberger told the team's official website. “That is where he is striving to get better is his route running, underneath routes to beat the deep coverage, catching the ball. He is a special player when the ball gets into his hands as well. A three- or four-yarder can turn into a 70-, 80-yarder quick because he is that talented.”
Those tend not to happen against the Bengals, whose 22 passing plays of 25 yards or more allowed were second-fewest to Tampa Bay's 20. Their defense also ranked second in scoring (17.4).
The Steelers have won four of the last five meetings, including the past two in Cincinnati.
- A.J. McCarron
- Andy Dalton
- Antonio Brown
- Cincinnati Bengals
- DeAngelo Williams
- Le'Veon Bell
- Martavis Bryant
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Will Allen