Three matchups to watch in the Steelers-Bengals showdown

Nathan Jahnke takes a look at the key players and matchups to watch in Saturday night's rival game.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

(AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

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.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • wolchak

    The Bengs were reluctant to blitz Ben in the last game, and their front 4 didn’t get to him much,…he had way to much time to throw. IMO, blitzing him constantly is the key to stopping him. Note, he threw 3 INTs in the first game, won by the Bengs as they pressured him better.
    I see many poor QBs completing passes vs. the Bengs because they rely on the 4 man rush with no blitzes too many times, for example, Osweiller in the first drive of OT, vs. Denver.
    My fear for the Bengs, is AJM not finding open receivers fast enough and thus getting sacked with the chance of fumbling. AND, I believe the Bengs will have to score 20+ pts. to win, and that will be a reach.
    I love my Bengals, but I see a deja-vu, Stealers win @ PBS,,,AGAIN !

    • Adam

      Bengals don’t blitz much. They rely on the front four to get pressure.

  • Jason Hensley

    Completely agree with you on Eifert! If your gonna blitz and not account for Eifert, or try to put a safety on him, your toast….as long as McCarron actually reads the blitz, and coverage properly!!

  • Jack Casey

    Seems to me like the one positive of Pittsburghs defense has been their run D. Despite their poor PFF grade, they are 5th in rushing yards allowed and 2nd in rushing TDs allowed. And while that may be because teams take advantage of their pass defense and throw a lot, they are still 6th in yards per carry allowed.

    • anon76returns

      Yeah, as much as I like PFF grades, if I had to choose I’d say yards allowed/game and yards allowed/carry are a lot more indicative of how hard it is to run against a team than rush grade defense. If the right DE gets knocked on his ass during a run to the left where the left end knifes in and stuffs the ball carrier behind the LOS PFF is going to have the run defense graded pretty close to 0/average. Pyrrhic victory for the LT, but doesn’t mean it was easy to run against the defense there.

      • Mike

        What is really indicative of a teams running ability is if they can get a 3rd and 1 on the ground. Both teams line up and it is mano y mano.

        • anon76returns

          Sometimes. Seattle last year was notoriously bad at 3rd & 1 (hence perhaps their questionable call in the SB), but they were 1st in the league in rush yards/game and 1st in the league in rush yards/carry. Would you have called them a good rushing team? I would have.

          • Mike

            Couldn’t find any 3rd and 1 stats on Seattle. They were near the top in 3rd down conversion percentage.

          • anon76returns

            Marshawn was their 3rd down (as well as 1st & 2nd down) back, and rumor has it that Carroll called the pass in the SB because Lynch had been consistently stuffed on previous 1 yard attempts in the season.

  • Devin Balkaran

    This is gonna be a tough matchup for the Bengals without Dalton. If he was healthy I think they win this game because the connection he had with Eifert and Green was just incredible, but I don’t see AJM being able to exploit the Steelers defense the same way.

  • john king

    unfortunately AJM has how many NFL games to his name? The playoffs are when star players show up and although the bungals do have some weapons its hard for a machine to run when it has no oil (dalton). Also the Bungals wont be able to stop the 3Bs and if they do its HEEEEEAAAAAAATTTTHHH time as it has been both the other games! It will be a close game but at the end of the day Bungals fans will still be asking WHO DEY?

  • john king

    i dont understand how Steelers rank 22nd in the PFF rush Def? if you ask me thats seems wrong. if thers been one positive about pghs Defense it has been the run game they have allowed the 2nd least rush TDs . they are easily a top 10 in rush defense

    • Zack23

      2nd least rush TDs….probably cause their secondary sucks and teams throw all over them

      • anon76returns

        They were 11th in overall scoring defense- not fantastic, but pretty good, and far from suckage. Their numbers were good against the run because they are a good run defense (PFF grades notwithstanding).

  • Tim Edell

    If Deangelo Williams can’t play,and it doesn’t sound like he will, it may be just like last years playoffs. Steelers will become one dimensional and with the weather playing a factor they may be one and done.

    • wolchak

      John, as said in some other posts, the Bengals rarely blitz,and the Dee front forgets to the QB less than 6+ plays, and that is their fault, On the opening drive last game, he had all day to deliver the first “Punch in the mouth”. Bengals MUST get the first punch in this time, and not with a FG. Then, blitz, blitz, blitz. Can’t give Ben time to pick them apart, like he did last game.

  • SpringsGal

    The weather prediction calls for rain, cold and wetness. That will better suit a running game. Pittsburgh will be one-dimensional and will depend on Rothleisberger to win the game. Not ideal with the weather conditions. If AJM can just play a game manager and does not commit turnovers, Bengals win the game.

    Bengals have the overall better team and homefield. For Pitt to win the game, Ben has to have a monster game. For Cinci to win, all they need to do is to play steady and avoid turnovers. Edge: Cinci

    And this will be a physical game. Both teams will try to intimidate each other early in the ballgame. Refs have to watch and make sure the game does not get chippy.