Neither Pittsburgh’s offensive line nor Cincinnati’s defensive front lived up to its billing in Week 1. In a prime-time showdown of the AFC North rivals, look for the Bengals to dominate the trenches—if only because the Steelers are reeling
Steelers offense vs. Bengals defense
The offensive line, which has long bordered on being a weakness for Pittsburgh, was finally supposed to become a strength this season. Second-round picks Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert are entering their second and third years, respectively, and starting at left and right tackle. Last year’s first-round pick, David DeCastro, is healthy after missing most of 2012 with a right knee injury that required surgery and starting at right guard. And given his explosive quickness and mobility, three-time Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey seemed like the perfect center for offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.’s newly installed zone-blocking scheme.
But after Pouncey was lost for the season on the eighth play of last week’s opener with a right knee injury (ACL and MCL), Pittsburgh’s offense lost all rhythm. With either backup utility lineman Kelvin Beachum, journeyman Cody Wallace or off-the-street free agent Fernando Velasco (who is slated to start Monday's contest) in the middle next to heavy-footed left guard Ramon Foster, the Steelers’ line is suddenly short on the interior athleticism that’s vital for a zone scheme. And there’s no guarantee that Adams and Gilbert will flourish; both had trouble holding ground against an aggressive Titans defensive line a 16-9 loss in Week 1.
The Bengals have an even better D-line. With a pair of limber edge-rushers in Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, along with clogger Domata Peko playing alongside Geno Atkins—the best defensive tackle in football—Cincinnati just might have the league’s best defensive front. Yet that distinction was hardly earned in an opening 24-21 loss at Chicago.
Back-to-back disappearing acts are unlikely with this group. But if needed, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can always amplify the pass rush by blitzing linebackers inside or bringing safety Reggie Nelson off the edge. The Steelers front five has typically struggled with blitz recognition—especially in September. Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked five times and under siege all afternoon in Week 1, has always had the elusiveness to overcome breakdowns in protection and make something out of nothing. Of course, he’s always had adequate receiving targets to help him out. That might not be the case right now.
Against Tennessee, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders failed to beat press coverage on the outside; veteran Jericho Cotchery was moved around the formation and caught four balls, but he doesn’t run well enough to scare a defense; starting in place of an injured Heath Miller, tight end David Paulson didn’t even register on Roethlisberger’s radar. Making matters worse, until second-round rookie Le’Veon Bell is healthy, the Steelers don’t have a running game to fall back on. Isaac Redman, who fumbled twice in Week 1, lacks the necessary quickness to play in a zone scheme. It will take a lot of Roethlisberger magic for this offense to hold its own on Monday night.
Bengals offense vs. Steelers defense
There is nothing wrong with Pittsburgh’s defense. It gave up only 112 rushing yards on 42 carries last week (2.7 per pop). Tennessee’s longest run went for 11 yards. Of course, the Steelers were facing an offense that still has the training wheels on its third-year quarterback.
The Bengals, on the other hand, continue to gradually expand the system for their third-year QB. And they’ve surrounded him with weapons. Andy Dalton’s go-to target is A.J. Green, who in his third season is clearly the best wide receiver in the AFC. Green has an unbelievable gift for creating separation late in his routes. He showed this off by racking up 162 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears, easily making up for that fact that he had a dropped pass that resulted in a tipped interception.
As impressive as the lithe wideout’s development has been, the Steelers’ defense is one that has consistently given him problems. In each of the last two years, Green was held to just one catch in the teams’ first meeting.
Eleventh-year Steeler Ike Taylor, who regularly shadows opposing No. 1 receivers and would be recognized as a top-10 caliber corner if not for his propensity of dropping interceptions, has the perfect skill-set to contain Green. Taylor is fast, lanky and crafty in his physicality. He also plays in a system that smartly constructs easy double-teams into its matchup zone coverages. The Steelers buzz linebackers underneath and safeties across the field better than anyone.
In past years, it was easy for Pittsburgh to dedicate extra buzz-coverages toward Green, as Cincinnati had no other receiving threats to worry about. That may no longer be the case this year, as second-year wideout Mohammad Sanu looks more fluid, and first-round rookie Tyler Eifert forms a potent tight end receiving tandem with Jermaine Gresham.