When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. TV: CBS
December football is here.
In the regularly contentious AFC North, close games turn competitive and there's an added concern that weather could play a role in dictating schemes and the outcome. Forget the "12th Man," in this part of the country Old Man Winter is the extra element that can either be a benefit or a detriment in these always physical late-year contests.
Ahead of the first of two end-of-season meetings between these longtime foes, we turn to ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Scott Brown and ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter Coley Harvey to preview Sunday's matchup:
Harvey: We'll let you answer the first one, Scott. With December's unpredictable weather now here, the big question is should teams run more or pass more? Running back Le'Veon Bell has been an answer for Pittsburgh much of the season, but I seem to remember something about Ben Roethlisberger throwing 12 touchdowns in two games. How heavy might the Steelers lean on his arm the rest of the season, especially if conditions are poor?
Brown: I expect the offense to run through Bell here in December and not just because the weather will add varying degrees of difficulty to throwing the ball extensively. Bell has been an absolute stud and he is the only player in the NFL with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards. Bell is so valuable to the Steelers that they cannot take him off the field, leading to questions of whether they are going to wear him out. They will deal with that problem after the season since there is no proven depth behind Bell at running back, and since the Steelers need to win three of their last four games to give themselves a realistic shot of making the playoffs. Roethlisberger has been mired in a bit of a slump, but he is too good of a quarterback not to play well down the stretch. The Steelers would love to strike a balance between running and throwing that will keep defenses on their heels, and that is probably the formula to them finishing strong and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Speaking of the playoffs, Coley, the Bengals are in excellent position to reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive year, but there are still questions about how far Andy Dalton can take them. What's your assessment of where he is at this point of his career and whether he is the guy to lead them deep into the playoffs?
Harvey: While the Bengals won't admit it, Scott -- their extension of his contract earlier this summer is a sign of that -- there is uncertainty about whether he's the guy upon whose shoulders you can ride a deep postseason run. He keeps showing signs of inconsistency. One week, he's the best quarterback this side of the Ohio River, and the next, he looks like the worst to have played the game. Cincinnati's 10-4 December record since Dalton became the starter in 2011 is a testament to him knowing how to win with a lot of pressure on the line. But he still hasn't shown he can consistently handle the big, prime-time stage. He can take a big step toward proving that in three weeks when the Bengals play the Broncos on a Monday night. As for where Dalton is in his career, I'd say he's taken significant leaps this season, both as a player, and a leader. While he didn't play his best Sunday at Tampa Bay, the fact he gutted out a winning performance while feeling sick earned a lot of respect in the locker room.
Brett Keisel's loss earlier this week was a big blow to a defense that rallied around the vet. In what ways will his absence affect Pittsburgh, namely with the Bengals still tinkering with the right tackle position following Andre Smith's own season-ending injury? Keisel certainly would have exploited a Bengals' weakness there.
Brown: It's a shame what happened to Keisel, not only because of how well he had been playing but also how much he has meant to the Steelers for so long. Keisel embodies their blue-collar ethos and he is the consummate professional in everything he does, including dealing with the media. He is a huge loss, especially on a defensive line that may be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon for another week as he works to regain strength in the shoulder that has been a recurring problem for the fourth-year veteran. With Keisel out, it is time for rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt to assert himself. The second-round draft pick already has an NFL body and is immensely talented. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau raved about him during training camp and has continued to say Tuitt is going to be a big-time player in this league. Keisel had blocked Tuitt from playing time but now that he's out, the former Notre Dame standout has to emerge in the last quarter of the season.
Harvey: That appears to be the case looking strictly at numbers from last week's game -- Hill had 17 touches and Bernard only had 11. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson contends he's still easing Bernard back into the flow of things after a series of injuries kept him out for three games earlier this season. This will be Bernard's third game since his return. As far as their roles, the Bengals use both in similar ways. Both can run between the tackles. Both can hit the edge and go. Bernard has the edge in receiving, although he hasn't been used in that regard much lately. I think you'll see the backs alternate drives through the first three quarters, but by the fourth, Hill will reprise his role grinding out late yards as "the closer," especially if the Bengals are leading.
Scott, how prepared is LeBeau's defense for the possibility of misdirection and gadget plays? The Bengals used three consecutive such plays to get their offense on track last Sunday, and it worked. Many here thought that by running them, the Bengals may also have been trying to get LeBeau to think about a few extra things this week.
Brown: Unfortunately for LeBeau, he has enough to worry about following a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The run defense sprung major leaks in that game, and the Steelers did not build on a strong start as far as pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who torched them for five passing touchdowns. Dalton is not Brees, but if the Steelers cannot stop the run their defense just doesn't work, and the Bengals will burn a suspect secondary with play-action passes. The Steelers certainly have to be on guard for gadget plays, especially since the Bengals have a very capable thrower in receiver Mohamed Sanu. But, again, if the Steelers cannot stop the run, they have no chance of winning unless they outscore the Bengals.
Steelers fans were screaming for Pittsburgh to use its first-round draft pick on a cornerback. They bypassed Darqueze Dennard and he ended up in Cincinnati. How has he looked, and a bigger picture question, what is the biggest reason for why the Bengals have allowed an NFL-low 11 touchdown passes?
Harvey: Steelers fans wanted a corner and Bengals fans wanted linebacker Ryan Shazier. Looks like the two players are in the wrong cities! Dennard has looked great in the time he's been on the field -- which has been seldom. He's only played 46 defensive snaps all season, and he missed two games due to various injuries. In his brief defensive action, he has six tackles, one sack and a deflected pass. Special teams is where he's been a star. One of the Bengals' featured gunners, he has regularly gotten downfield to help keep Cincinnati's net punting yards in check. You won't see much Dennard this season because the Bengals have four other former first-round pick cornerbacks who were already here. As for why Cincinnati's kept its passing touchdowns low? The Bengals' defense, namely safety George Iloka, has done a great job clinging to its philosophy of not letting passes get over their heads. Solid pressure up front has helped, too.