3TFO: Bengals @ Steelers, Week 16
The AFC North is once again one of the most exciting races as we close out the 2012 season as yet again all three teams at the top have a very real shot of making the postseason. Here we see the Bengals and Steelers face off in a meeting that should go a long way towards deciding just what each team will be doing in January.
Both teams will go into the game thinking they can come away with the win, and whichever team loses will have to count this game alongside multiple others this season that they have let slip by them. The AFC North was realistically up for grabs by any of the top teams stepping up and claiming it, but none of them has been able to establish dominance all year long. This is an especially important game for the Bengals who have lost 5 straight in the series by a 13 point margin on average especially if they can do so at Heinz Field.
So let’s take a look at some of the encounters that are going to go a long way to deciding the outcome.
A.J. Green vs. Steelers Secondary
Cincinnati has one of the league’s best receivers in AJ Green, and unfortunately for the Steelers they have been struck badly by injuries at just the worst time. They lost their best cornerback already (Ike Taylor) and now facing the prospect that their second best, Keenan Lewis, will also miss the game after injuring his knee stepping in a hole in practice. That leaves the Steelers with a major patchwork job in the secondary and trying to limit one of the league’s most dangerous weapons with players that are unlikely to have the quality to match up with him. Green has been targeted 18 times in his 3 matchups against the Steelers coming away with a combined total of 131 yards on 8 receptions. What really stands out is that he has a total of just 21 yards after the catch in these games. Green is 10th in yards after the catch right now so this may be his chance to personally put the nail in the coffin of the Steelers season.
Last week the Steelers handed Josh Victorian his first start and he was targeted heavily. He allowed seven receptions from the nine times he was thrown at and looked like he could have given up more if they had wanted to go that way. Victorian will start again this week and a platoon of sub-package players will have their hands full in trying to keep AJ Green in check.
Troy Polamalu vs. Andy Dalton
Undoubtedly a better unit with him out on the field, the Steelers have been welcoming the return of Polamalu but last week he showed a certain amount of rust. He is known for outstanding instincts, but there were plays last week where he jumped the wrong route looking for a pick and a play on the ball. This had him leaving his assigned receiver to pick up yardage when Tony Romo was able to read and react. Andy Dalton needs to be as capable of avoiding Polamalu jumping a route or it could end up with the kind of game-changing play that will swing a game like this.
Those are plays that people rarely notice when he guesses wrong, but when he guesses right it gets lauded as an exceptional bit of instinctive play. Last week we saw the down side to that gambling style, will we see the upside this week?
Geno Atkins vs. the Pittsburgh Interior
This year really is a vintage year for Defensive Player of the Year candidates. While J.J. Watt is running away with things, Von Miller and Geno Atkins in particular are having seasons that would walk away with the award in any other year, while Aldon Smith is also threatening the all-time single-season sack record.
Atkins has become easily the league’s most fearsome defensive tackle, and he has wreaked havoc on pretty much every offensive line he has faced this season. He is averaging a QB sack, hit or hurry an impressive once every 10.2 snaps (Watt by comparison is once every 12.4 snaps). In the first meeting he notched a sack and three more hurries in a game that was far from his best. The Steelers are finally able to deploy top pick David DeCastro, and admittedly in his first game back he looked very good. Can this interior slow down one of the leagues most destructive and devastating weapons and give their quarterback some time to throw?
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