Steelers must win on Sunday to stay on playoff track

By Connor Byrne  |   Friday, December 02, 2005  |  Comments( 0 )

Pittsburgh Steelers
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This Sunday, the suddenly ice-cold Pittsburgh Steelers (7-4) will welcome their division rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals (8-3), into Heinz Field. In October, when these two teams squared off, Pittsburgh controlled the game in a 27-13 rout. Lately, the Steelers and Bengals have been going in opposite directions. Last week, the Steelers were upended by the Indianapolis Colts by a score of 26-7. The loss was Pittsburgh's second in a row. As for the Bengals, they got by the pesky Baltimore Ravens in a 42-29 shootout to gain first-place in the AFC North.

The quarterback position for the Steelers is a major concern. Ben Roethlisberger has been experiencing some severe pain in his thumb but will try to gut it out this week. Pittsburgh's struggling offensive line, led by guard Alan Faneca, will need to do everything in their power to keep their wounded signal-caller protected. Obviously, that injury could cause some major problems for the Steelers' offensive attack. The Bengals' starting corners, Tory James and Deltha O'Neal, will face the difficult task of stopping Steelers' receiver Hines Ward. This season, Ward leads his team with 47 receptions, 657 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Pittsburgh's other starting receiver, Antwaan Randle El, will also need to contribute in order for his team to win this weekend. If and when the Steelers get into the Bengals' red zone this Sunday, look for tight end Heath Miller to make an impact. The rookie from Virginia has caught 6 touchdown passes on the season. Miller's 30 receptions rank him second on the team. The Bengals' starting linebackers, Brian Simmons, David Pollack, and Odell Thurman, need to have an impact in stopping Miller as well as getting a pass-rush on Roethlisberger.

Lately, the Pittsburgh Steelers rushing attack has been virtually non-existent. Willie Parker will make the start at running back, even though he hasn't had a 100-yard rushing performance since the October matchup of these two teams. In that game, Parker rushed for 131 yards. He might be able to duplicate that this week since Cincinnati comes in with the NFL's 25th ranked run defense. If Parker fails, the Steelers' other two backs, Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley, will need to carry the load. Neither have had noteworthy seasons and have been battling injuries, a lack of carries, and old-age. Even if the running game struggles continue for the Steelers, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt must stick with it because of his quarterback's injury.

So far this season, the Bengals' passing attack has been a well-oiled machine. Third-year quarterback Carson Palmer leads the league with a superb 107.1 passer rating. Palmer also leads the league with 23 touchdown passes, and is second with 2,922 yards. His great stats can certainly be attributed to his tremendous receiving duo. Chad Johnson, one of the game's most dynamic receivers, comes in looking to torch the Steelers. In 2005, Johnson has pulled in 66 passes for 1,085 yards, and 7 touchdowns. Cincinnati's other starting wideout, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, is second on the team with 51 catches for 655 yards. Pittsburgh's secondary, led by corners Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend, as well as safeties Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope, need to come up with a monumental effort in order to stop the Bengals' receiving duo. If they do stop them, Bengals' slot receiver Chris Henry (25 catches) needs to make an impact. A wild card for the Bengals' receivers this week could be running back Chris Perry. On the season, Perry has pulled in 46 passes, good enough for third on the team. The Steelers' linebackers, Larry Foote, Joey Porter (6 sacks), Clark Haggans (6 sacks), and James Farrior, need to pressure Palmer to contain the Bengals' passing game. If these blitzers are contained by Cincy's offensive line, it'll be a long day for the Steelers' pass defense.

The Cincinnati Bengals also bring one of the league's best running backs to the table. Rudi Johnson currently is 6th in the NFL with 968 rushing yards. However, he could struggle against Pittsburgh's 4th ranked run defense. The Steelers' defensive line (Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Kimo von Oelhoffen) has done a tremendous job of stuffing the run all year. Their linebackers have also had a major hand in their successful run defense. If the Bengals want to run this week, they need to establish the pass first. Once the Steelers start to focus on the pass, Johnson and the Bengals' rushing attack could really hurt the Steelers.

The special teams units for both of these teams are fairly comparable. The Steelers' leading kick-return man is Quincy Morgan; he's averaged 28.7 yards per return. The Bengals' leading return-man is rookie Tab Perry. On the year, Perry has averaged 24.1 yards per return. The kickers, Jeff Reed and Shayne Graham, have very similar stats. For the Steelers, Reed has converted 18 of his 23 field goal attempts. For the Bengals, Graham has knocked down 19 of his 23 attempts. The punters' statistics are eerily similar as well. Steelers' punter Chris Gardocki is currently averaging 42.1 yards per punt. Bengals' punter Kyle Larson is averaging 41.7 yards per punt.

One of the major battles in this game will be between the tremendous coaching staffs. Head coach Bill Cowher of the Steelers has been befallen by criticism lately. The usage of certain players and his game management skills have been under the fans' magnifying glass in the team's two-game losing streak. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, having been criticized a great deal of late, needs to find a way to outsmart Bengals' defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan this week. As for Bengals' head coach Marvin Lewis, things couldn't be better. If you don't approve of the job he's done with the former worst franchise in football, then you got some serious issues. Bengals' offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski will face the extremely difficult task of trying to outsmart Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau. In the end, that could be the matchup that determines the outcome of this game.

With a victory this week, the Pittsburgh Steelers would regain first-place in the AFC North and will have swept the Cincinnati Bengals yet again. Since 1995, the Steelers have gone an impressive 14-7 against the Bengals. If the Bengals win, they'll be 9-3 and have a two-game lead in the AFC North. With just four games remaining after this week, a two-game lead could be insurmountable.

Final prediction... Bengals win 24-16. The Roethlisberger injury will cost the Steelers offensive in this game and their defense will face too much difficulty in stopping the Bengals' 2nd ranked offense.

Injury report...

Cincinnati Bengals injuries: CB Patrick Brody is questionable with an ankle injury. DT Bryan Robinson is out with a foot injury.

Pittsburgh Steelers injuries: LB Andre Frazier (Hamstring) and QB Charlie Batch (Hand) are both doubtful. OT Marvel Smith (Ankle) is out.

Comments? E-mail the author: cbyrne@realfootball365.com
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