Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (6-0)
Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015
SERIES HISTORY:** Steelers lead, 55-34 (Steelers lead, 1-0, postseason).
LAST MEETING: Steelers 27, Bengals 17, Dec. 28, 2014, Heinz Field: The Steelers got a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown from WR Antonio Brown that opened the scoring and a 63-yard touchdown pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger to Brown that closed it in what became an AFC North Division-clinching victory. A forced fumble and recovery by CB Antwon Blake after a completion to WR A.J. Green with the Steelers leading 20-17 in the fourth quarter set the stage for the Roethlisberger-to-Brown exclamation point.
LAST TIME OUT: QB Landry Jones and OT Alejandro Villanueva made their first NFL starts but the Steelers lost to the Chiefs, 23-13, in Kansas City. The Bengals were off last Sunday after staying undefeated via a 34-21 win on Oct. 18 at Buffalo.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL: They'll have options aplenty, more than enough for QB Andy Dalton to take what's there rather than have to resort to forcing the ball to certain individuals or into high-risk areas. No wonder Dalton has thrown for 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions and has the NFL's best passer rating (116.1).
RB Jeremy Hill and RB Giovani Bernard personify the Bengals' versatility. Hill is the hammer but he caught a touchdown pass at Buffalo. Bernard is the passing-down back but he rushed for a score against the Bills. They work behind a talented, athletic offensive line anchored by OT Andrew Whitworth, a veteran capable of protecting Dalton's blind side (he's been sacked six times) and pulling to help lead the rush.
Green is the most explosive and most accomplished of the receivers but he's far from alone as a play-maker. WR Mohamed Sanu includes throwing and running as well as catching in his repertoire. And WR Marvin Jones was good enough to catch nine balls for 95 yards and a touchdown at Buffalo in response to the Bills deciding to load up to stop Green and TE Tyler Eifert. The Bengals like to line Eifert up split wide, in the slot, in the backfield, wherever they think they can dictate a favorable matchup. But if it's not there they'll go elsewhere. And on the rare occasion when Dalton gets in a jam and has to leave the pocket he can count on Green coming back to the ball and making himself available. It's a pick-your-poison offense that's tied for No. 1 with New England in red zone efficiency (TDs 71.4 percent of the time).
Here is a look at the statistical leaders for the both the Steelers and Bengals heading into the Week 8 AFC North showdown.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL:** Roethlisberger's presumed return will be wrought with challenges. It starts up front with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of linemen and pass-rushing linebackers (DE Carlos Dunlap is tied for the NFL lead with 6.5 sacks). The Bengals like to rush with four and they're good enough to get away with it. The 425 rushing yards the Bengals have allowed in their last three games and the 4.9 yards per carry Cincinnati opponents have averaged this season suggest the Bengals sometimes become a little too enamored with getting up the field.
LB Rey Maualuga anchors the middle of the defense. Strong-side OLB was shared by A.J. Hawk (running downs) and Emmanuel Lamur (passing downs) at Buffalo. Weak-side OLB Vincent Rey has taken over for Vontaze Burfict (P.U.P. list, knee), who might be Cincinnati's most dynamic defensive player yet somehow hasn't been missed. The secondary is a veteran group augmented of late by fourth-year pro and first-year starter Dre Kirkpatrick (LCB) and second-year CB Darqueze Dennard (nickel), two former No. 1 picks. They've helped the Bengals compensate for the in-and-out status of veteran CB Leon Hall (back).
The Bengals are No. 22 in total defense but they're No. 11 in scoring defense (20.3 points per game). They usually keep the ball from going over their heads and rally hard to the ball from all directions, and they're a good tackling team. They're not impenetrable, but they're not a comfortable defense to play against.
SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS: CB Adam Jones is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return and 27.6 yards per kickoff return and is hold-your-breath explosive doing both. Cincinnati's overall kicking-game prowess (and one interception) added up to an average drive start of the Bengals' 41-yard line at Buffalo, as opposed to the Buffalo 15 for the Bills. Steelers K Chris Boswell made two more field goals at Kansas City and hasn't missed a FG (7-for-7) or a PAT (5-for-5) in three games with the Steelers.
THE X-FACTOR: Rookie OL Jake Fisher ("No. 74 is eligible") has a 31-yard reception this season (Cincy threw to him again at Buffalo but the pass fell incomplete). The Bengals have also lined up Whitworth and fellow OT Andre Smith split wide on opposite sides in three-"receiver"-bunches (with three interior linemen in front of Dalton) and they've run the read-option. And Sanu is 5-for-5 passing in his career, for 177 yards, with two TDs, no interceptions and a passer rating of 158.3 (he ran for 8 yards when an anticipated pass wasn't open at Buffalo). Cincinnati has even flirted with a Wishbone look. What will OC Hue Jackson think of next? And will it work?
THEY SAID IT: "It's going to be a challenge. We're up for it. Not much needs to be said. Even (on Wednesday), Mike Tomlin at the end of practice didn't even say anything. It's that type of week." _ Steelers CB William Gay on getting ready to play the 6-0 Bengals at Heinz Field.