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Pittsburgh Steelers: Friday’s four areas of Focus

After taking down the league’s only unbeaten team, it would normally be unrealistic for the Pittsburgh Steelers to have an even more exciting match up in the following week.

However, anytime they take on the Cincinnati Bengals, fans are exposed to the best theater in the NFL, if not the world.

In what some people label as the most heated rivalry in football, the intensity, drama and pure bad blood on display anytime these two teams go head to head is unmatched.

As kickoff is only a few days away, here are my four areas of focus.

1. Vontaze Burfict

If you are looking for the primary reason of the animosity between these two teams, look no further than this guy. Though there were a few high stakes showdowns where key players were injured between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati before he came around, Burfict is without question the main man responsible for today’s madness.

While he isn’t physically giving players concussions from his late hits, Burfict can be a huge headache for offenses. He is the biggest impact player on the second highest ranked defense in the league, which is why they are 2-0 since he has returned from his suspension.

For the most part, the Steelers have done well with keeping him quiet on the score sheet in the regular season. In the seven times Burfict played Pittsburgh, he has zero sacks, only three tackles for loss and yet to force a turnover.

Despite those numbers, the Steelers are aware of the big play abilities Burfict brings to the table. In the 2015 AFC playoffs, Burfict nearly took down Pittsburgh by himself, with a sack, two tackles for loss and an interception late in the fourth quarter. However, many forget those numbers due to his dirty play.

Burfict presents the Steelers with a unique challenge both physically and mentally. Because of his history in this rivalry, Pittsburgh is forced to prepare for what the Bengals linebacker will do both before and after the whistle.

Yesterday, ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that the Steelers are on watch for Burfict stepping on player’s feet after the play. Though it is almost guaranteed that Burfict will be looking to cause trouble, if the Steelers can limit both his production and mind games, they will have a huge advantage on Sunday.

2. Personal Fouls

Since 2015, the Steelers and Bengals rivalry has produced 19 extracurricular penalties, which is more than any other matchup during that time span. When one also considers the fact that some of the league’s top players have come down with season ending injuries in this game, Sunday’s officials will undoubtedly be on high alert.

Aside from Burfict, there have been numerous players on both teams that have been guilty of late hits, taunting, targeting or straight up starting a fist fight.

We are far past the point of trying to prevent this sort of anarchy. No matter how fast or stern the officials are with their whistles, everything that I recently listed will happen on Sunday.

However, if Pittsburgh wants to run away with this battle, they must win the game within the game. Asking anyone to keep their composure in a hectic environment is a challenge.

Asking this Steelers team, which is essentially a few hidden cameras away from being a weekly reality TV show, to not lose their cool might be a more difficult task than outplaying the Bengals. Pittsburgh’s offense has already had a more difficult time scoring points than we all assumed this year. Fifteen yard penalties will certainly not help them.

3. The Pass Defense for both teams

The Steelers and the Bengals own the top two rated pass defenses in the NFL. The numbers indicate that both teams will have a tough time moving the ball through the air on Sunday. With that being said, the team that passes more in this game in my eyes will be the team that loses.

For the Bengals defense, they will be taking on Ben Roethlisberger, someone who they have traditionally done well against. No team has intercepted Big Ben more than the 27 times he has been picked off against Cincinnati. The Bengals have sacked Roethlisberger 50 times in his career, which is only three less than Baltimore Ravens for the most out of any team.

Considering that Roethlisberger is tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions and the Bengals are second in the league in sacks per pass attempt at 11.1 percent, Pittsburgh could have a rough time moving the ball through the air. The key for the Bengals secondary of course comes down to containing the leagues top receiver, Antonio Brown.

Unlike Cincinnati, Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers run game can be enough to get them within reach of a win, but like we saw against the Kansas City Chiefs, no matter how well the run is working, Pittsburgh will need some production in the passing game to come out on top.

Fortunately for the Steelers, though the stats do not show it, there is more than one receiver on their roster that the Bengals will have to keep under control, which in the end I believe will be the difference maker.

For the Steelers secondary, their top ranked passing defense comes off of a strong performance against MVP candidate Alex Smith and the NFL’s hottest offense.

Unlike last week, with John Ross and Tyler Boyd struggling with injuries and Tyler Eifert out for the season, the Bengals offense does not have many weapons to move the ball through the air. Their main challenge will be AJ Green who is notorious for scoring on big plays against the Steelers secondary.

Green is second in the NFL behind Brown, in receiving with 502 yards this season. He will be without question the main target for struggling Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton, who is only one spot behind Roethlisberger with six interceptions this year.

With a rookie, Joe Mixon in the backfield, the Bengals can be easily forced to throw the ball if Pittsburgh repeats their performance they had against last week against Kareem Hunt.

4. The New Guys

Though this rivalry is relatively young, I believe that the players who could have the largest impact on Sunday will be playing in it for the first time. As I just briefly mentioned, the key for Pittsburgh on offense is to run the ball well and for wide receivers not named Antonio Brown to have a big game.

Due to the physicality of this match up and for the safety of Bell, I would not be shocked to see rookie James Conner have a significantly heavier workload, especially in the red zone where they could use Bell more as a pass catcher.

Speaking of pass catchers, another rookie on offense that could have a big day is JuJu Smith-Schuster. While the player ahead of him on the depth chart asks for a trade, Smith-Schuster continues to improve every week. As the Bengals will be scheming to eliminate Brown from the game plan, more opportunities could come to the young wide out from USC.

Defensively, the Steelers are looking to get to Dalton, stop the run early and shut down Green, which is why I am predicting a big game for both TJ Watt and Joe Haden. Watt has showed signs of greatness in his young NFL career, already compiling three sacks, three tackles for loss and an interception.

Though he was quiet last week, the lack speed Cincinnati has compared to the Chiefs will benefit Watt well. With Harrison being reinserted into the linebacker rotation, Watt will be fresher to make plays against the run and pass on early downs.

Finally, when it comes to covering Green, you cannot look for a better player to do it than Haden. Green himself regarded to Haden as one to the top five toughest corners in the game in an article he wrote last September in the player’s tribune.

When the Steelers signed Haden, many people pointed out his career long success against Green and believed it was a reason why the Steelers were interested in him. We will see if the investment paid off on Sunday.

 

Photo courtesy of Joe Sargent/ Getty Images.

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Noah Hiles

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