Three matchups to watch in the Steelers-Bengals showdown
The Saturday Night Football matchup is between division rivals Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. They split the two regular season matchups in two close games, and this one should be no different. Here are the three matchups to keep an eye on this weekend to determine whose Super Bowl dreams continue.
1. AJ McCarron vs. Steelers pass rush
In all likelihood, Andy Dalton will be out another week which means AJ McCarron will be the starting quarterback against Pittsburgh. The reason Andy Dalton has been better than McCarron is because of his play under pressure. On the year Dalton has an NFL passer rating of 92.9 under pressure, compared to McCarron who is just at 57.6 under pressure. Specifically in the most recent Steelers game, when McCarron was under pressure he completed five of ten passes for 34 yards, had one interception and was sacked three times. However when McCarron was not under pressure, McCarron completed 77.3 percent of his passes, had 11.2 yards per attempt, and an NFL passer rating of 124.4. On the season when there has been no pressure, McCarron has been better with a passer rating of 117.1 compared to 110.3 from Dalton.
The question becomes can the Steelers get pressure on McCarron. The Bengals have been one of the best pass protecting teams on the year. They have allowed 142 total pressures which was third-best for a team.
The only Steeler defender with more than three pressures in a game against the Bengals this year is James Harrison, who had two hits and two hurries in Week 14. The Steelers had been limiting Harrison’s snaps to just 56.7 percent all season and giving their younger pass rushers a chance. However, in Week 17 when the Steelers needed to win to make the playoffs, Harrison played in 80.2 percent of snaps.
This week, he will be facing Andrew Whitworth. Over the first 12 seasons Whitworth allowed an incredibly low ten pressures, but over the last four games he’s allowed another ten. If Whitworth can return to his elite pass blocking play, it will go a long way to keep McCarron out of pressure and at his best. If Harrison is able to get some pressure, it would greatly limit the Bengals offense.
2. Heath Miller vs. Bengals linebackers
Heath Miller isn’t someone who’s had his best season. He was once among the best tight ends in the NFL, but this year his PFF Rating of 73.3 is just 22nd-best among tight ends. However, the Bengals have brought out the best of Miller so far. In games against non-Bengals teams, he’s averaging three catches per game, but both Bengals games have been ten-catch performances. He’s had those 20 catches on just 22 targets for 171 yards. By far his two highest-graded receiving games this season have come against the Bengals.
There is reason to believe this won’t continue in the third matchup. The lowest-graded linebacker in coverage in each of those matchups was Emmanuel Lamur, and Lamur recently landed on injured reserve. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict — who missed the first half of the season — has been eased back into playing time. In his first seven games back, he failed to play in 80 percent of defensive snaps, which includes both Steelers games. In the last three he’s played at least 80 percent, and in Week 17 against the Ravens he hit 90 percent for the first time.
Even though Burfict is known for his play against the run, he has played well in coverage, particularly recently. When quarterbacks have thrown his way this year they have a passer rating of 71.7, which is fourth-lowest for linebackers targeted at least 40 times. Heath Miller has been able to put up great numbers against the Bengals twice this year, but he will have more difficulty doing it a third time.
3. Steelers run game vs. Bengals’ run game
For two teams who used their run game to help them get into the playoffs, it’s unlikely we’ll see big run games from either team. If one team is able to get a run game going, that might be all that’s needed to have an edge.
In the last matchup, the Steelers tried to establish a run game by giving DeAngelo Williams the ball 23 times, but he never broke a run for more than 15 yards, and averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Williams suffered an injury in Week 17 and is considered day to day. Even if he tries to play, the odds will be against him having a big day. If he doesn’t play, Fitzgerald Toussaint should get the carries, and he only averaged 2.0 yards per carry on 12 carries against the Browns in Week 17. The Bengals have allowed 3.6 yards per carry over the second half of the season, and haven’t allowed a 100 yard rusher since Week 5.
The Bengals might have more luck finding a run game. Over the two games this season, Jeremy Hill has 22 carries for only 76 yards. Their best chance might be giving Giovani Bernard more of a chance, since he’s only had seven carries against the Steelers over two games, but has 52 yards on those touches. Bernard is averaging 4.7 yards per carry on the season, but has six or fewer carries in four of his last seven games. The Steelers have the 25th-best run defense team in the league by PFF Ratings. If the Bengals give Giovani Bernard more of a chance, they should be able to get more of a run game going than the Steelers.