After all four teams in the AFC North went down last week, two will have victories in this week’s all-division matchups. The Steelers visit the Bengals for Monday Night Football, having won five of the past six meetings between these teams, including a 27-21 victory in Cincinnati the last time they played on Monday night in 2010.
Both these teams are looking to bounce back from rocky starts to the season. The Steelers bring an offense that scored just 7 points against the Titans into play against a Bengals team that generally outplayed the Bears in Week 1, but made too many costly mistakes to win. In short, the Steelers lost Maurkice Pouncey to IR, and then saw a poor game from his replacement, while the Bengals need their receivers to secure the football and cut down on drops.
The AFC North is all tied up, and it’s anyone’s division. Steelers fans will quickly forget about a tough Week 1 loss to the Titans if they can convincingly beat the Bengals in Cincinnati, but the Bengals will fight to prove they’ll no longer be on the losing end of this division rivalry. Let’s take a look at a few of the matchups that might dictate the outcome of the game on Monday Night.
Geno Atkins vs. Steelers Interior OL
Lately it seems that every time these teams meet we’re talking about Geno Atkins and the shaky interior of Pittsburgh’s offensive line. Recent signee Fernando Velasco will fill Maurkice Pouncey’s starting spot on Monday rather than backup Kelvin Beachum, who had a rough day across the board after subbing in for Pouncey in Week 1. Velasco was a solid starter for Tennessee last year, posting a solid 98.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency, and should be an improvement over Beachum. Next to the new center, Ramon Foster’s season is off to a good start, as he built on a solid preseason with the Steelers’ best offensive line grade in Week 1 — however, David DeCastro looked average. They will all need to contend with one of the best pass rushers in the league in Atkins, whose +2.0 pass rushing grade from Week 1 could be considered a slow week by his lofty standards.
Last year, the Steelers sans DeCastro quieted Atkins in their first meeting, holding him to three hurries and a sack. However, when the Bengals clinched a playoff berth against the Steelers in Week 16, Atkins had one of the best games we’ve ever graded for a defensive tackle and his second-highest grade. He managed four sacks and two more hurries on the day, and DeCastro struggled against a large dose of Atkins, posting a -5.2 grade. When the teams met for a second time last year, Pouncey was the only Steelers lineman to post a positive grade in pass blocking. Without him, the Steelers will need to find a way to help Velasco, Foster, and DeCastro slow Atkins down — especially if the Bengals work to get him matched up with DeCastro to avoid the proven veteran pass blockers in Foster and Velasco.
Ben Roethlisberger has a reputation of coping well with a pass rush, but his worst game last year came versus Cincy in Week 16. The numbers do though back up the cool-under-fire narrative in this case, and Big Ben’s generally strong under pressure, maintaining a 71.7% Accuracy Percentage under pressure last year which has come through so far in 2013.
A.J. Green vs. Steelers Secondary
The Steelers have been one of a handful of teams to keep A.J. Green mostly contained in the passing game since he came into the league. The last time these teams met, Cortez Allen got the heaviest dose of Green in coverage, but after an ankle injury in Week 1, he didn’t practice on Wednesday and is questionable to play. Green managed 10 catches for 116 yards on that day, but Allen performed admirably, earning a +3.9 grade in pass coverage, including a play where he forced Green to fumble. The Steelers ultimately lost the game after Green beat Keenan Lewis on a deep corner route with 6 seconds to play.
The last time the Steelers shut down Green was in the Week 7 contest last year in Cincinnati. Ike Taylor lined up across from him all day (outside of two of the three snaps Green spent in the slot), and the Steelers held him to just one catch on five targets. Taylor will probably get another chance to follow Green after missing the second game between these teams last year. It will be interesting to see if Green has any success this time around against Taylor, who does a good job taking away the WR’s favorite routes. He was beaten by quick out and slant routes a few times in 2012, but was strong against hitches and go routes, Green’s two most commonly targeted routes last year. Green will be a big part of whether the Bengals’ offense gets going on Monday, but Taylor has gotten the best of him in the past, so this will be a matchup worth watching.
Steve McLendon vs. Kyle Cook
The AFC North is known for its bruising style, so it’s appropriate that both interior offensive lines should be on high alert this week as they face talented defensive linemen. In this case, potential rising star Steve McLendon has come on strong as Casey Hampton’s replacement at nose tackle. Despite taking just 39 snaps against the Titans last week, McLendon (+3.2) was among the Steelers’ best performers. Though he’s faced McLendon before, Kyle Cook has seen him in only limited snaps in prior contests. McLendon is relishing his bigger role so far this year, with two stops in the running game and three pressures in Week 1. Cook will need to be on his game, or get help from his guards, to keep McLendon out of the backfield, as he struggled mightily against the Steelers in Week 16 last year, posting a -5.3 run blocking grade.
In Week 1, McLendon used strength and leverage well as Titans center Robert Turner had a hard time moving him. On Tennessee’s first snap, he got below Turner’s pad level and pushed him aside to earn a hit on Jake Locker after forcing an early throw. Later, he found himself scraping along the line of scrimmage against Andy Levitre on a Chris Johnson stretch play, and simply pushed the Titans’ guard into the run, leading to a 1-yard loss. He also managed to beat highly-touted rookie Chance Warmack on an inside move that had Warmack lunging and off-balance, forcing an errant throw from Locker.
Meanwhile, Cook had his hands full in Chicago against Stephen Paea, especially on handoffs intended to run off left tackle. Beaten by inside moves on some occasions, and other times bull-rushed into the running lane, Paea consistently got below or around Cook. Since Cook struggled in run blocking the last time he faced the Steelers, it will be worth watching him against McLendon, who has an opportunity to make the Bengals’ offense one-dimensional.
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