The teams can’t pretend it will be just another game when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night in an AFC North showdown.
“It’s another game, but it’s Pittsburgh, and they’re leading our division,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “They beat us up there. They’re coming here, and it’s a big football game for us because we don’t get any more do-overs.”
The Steelers won the clubs’ first meeting in Week 7 at Pittsburgh, 29-14.
Both teams are coming off Week 12 wins.
The Steelers (9-2) are currently riding a six-game win streak and have beaten the Bengals (5-6) five straight times. Pittsburgh was on the winning side against Cincinnati eight out of the past nine meetings.
Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown enters the game playing at an MVP level. He leads the league in receptions (80) and yards (1,195). Six times this season, Brown eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark, though he did not top 100 yards against the Bengals.
Brown has faced the Cincinnati defense 15 times in his career, 14 regular-season games and one playoff game. He went over 100 yards only three times in those contests, most recently in the playoffs after the 2015 season.
Brown has just five receiving touchdowns against the Bengals.
The 2017 Cincinnati pass defense has been very strong and will look to slow Brown and the Steelers passing attack again.
Cincinnati ranks fifth in the NFL in pass defense, only allowing 203.8 yards a game. The Bengals are 10th in the NFL in points allowed at 19.5 per contest, so they figure to put pressure on Pittsburgh’s offensive line and running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell leads the NFL in rushing at 981 yards. He is poised to pass the 1,000-yard mark on a season for the third time in his five-year NFL career.
Getting a mere 19 yards Sunday shouldn’t be a problem as the Michigan State product is facing a Bengals defense that is 28th in the NFL at stopping the run, allowing opponents an average of 126.6 yards a game.
The Bengals finally had their own strong showing in the run game last week in a 30-16 win over the Cleveland Browns. Led by rookie running back Joe Mixon, the Bengals churned out 152 rushing yards.
Finding that same freedom against the Steelers will not be so easy. The Pittsburgh defense only gives up an average of 96 yards per game on the ground, which ranks sixth in the NFL.
The Steelers’ defense is ranked fourth in the league points allowed at 17.5 a contest.
If the Bengals are going to win, quarterback Andy Dalton needs to make big plays in the passing game, especially to wide receiver A.J. Green. On paper, Pittsburgh pass defense looks stalwart, ranking third in the NFL by only allowing 193.4 yards a game. But the Steelers’ secondary has been gashed by big pass plays all season.
In Pittsburgh’s 31-28 win over Green Bay on Sunday, Packers quarterback Brett Hundley threw three touchdown passes of 39 yards or longer. The Tennessee Titans scored on a 75-yard touchdown pass against the Steelers. The Indianapolis Colts scored twice on passes of 60 yards or more, and the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford threw for 423 yards against the Steelers with two completions of 40 yards or more.
“You can’t give up chunks on defense and give yourself chances to win,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the Green Bay game. “We were able to overcome those things. We were probably fortunate, but it’s also probably a good sign of the group in terms of we’re a good enough team to kind of overcome those things.
“We got enough togetherness to stay on task, but obviously we got to minimize some of those things. Some of those things have been issues for us in multiple games, particularly the big plays of late, so obviously that has to stop yesterday.”
While Steelers need to eliminate giving up big plays on defense, the Bengals need Dalton to have a consistent, turnover=free night.
The Pittsburgh offense should look to ride the legs of Bell, as the Bengals’ defense has fared well at containing Brown. Cincinnati can’t allow a different Steelers receiver or Bell to have a big game.