The House that Hines Built
Radio: WDVE and other affiliates
What To Watch For
1. The King in the North
Sunday Night Football at Heinz Field in Week 17 with the AFC North title on the line. Do I really need to say anything else? If you're not jacked through the roof for this game already, do whatever it takes to get pumped. Listen to Renegade 30 times. Drink 6 Red Bulls. Whatever. When 8:30 rolls around, be ready to roll, because the winner takes home the division title, something the Steelers have not done since 2010. The Bengals are defending the throne, and it's the Steelers job to go out and take it.
2. Run Defense
The Steelers run defense has been much, much better over the last few weeks than they were earlier in the season. Even though I haven't been very high on him, Steve McLendon has made a significant impact since returning to the nose tackle position. They will have their work cut out for them against the "Nuke and Juke" combination of rookie workhorse Jeremy Hill and second-year back Gio Bernard. Hill is a pounding, physical runner that has the top end speed to break away if he gets free. Bernard has fallen into the role of a change-of-pace back and his short-area quickness has given the Steelers problems in the past, especially defending him on short passes. Last week, the Steelers shut down an excellent duo of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis and will need to do it again against a good Bengals rushing attack. On the other side, Le'Veon Bell tortured the Bengals in the first meeting between these two teams. Will the Bengals do what the Falcons and Chiefs did and stack the box to try to take Bell out of the game? If they do, the Steelers receivers will need to do better at winning 1-on-1 battles against the Bengals DBs than the Broncos did last week.
3. Red Zone Defense
Ultimately, this is what will decide this game. The Steelers defense has basically grown into a "bend but don't break" group that lets teams rack up yards between the 20s but forces field goals in the red zone. The Steelers are good enough on offense that forcing field goals is absolutely a win. The Steelers need to continue to force field goals, because the Bengals will be able to move the ball, especially against the Steelers weak secondary. On the other side, because this defense is not capable of keeping opposing teams off the scoreboard, the Steelers need to cash in when they get their opportunities. The Bengals don't have a great pass rush but they do have a very good group of cornerbacks, which makes finding openings in the passing game on the short field of the red zone increasingly difficult.
4. Stop AJ Green
In the first meeting between the two teams, AJ Green had a field day with the Steelers secondary. The Bengals started off throwing short hitch routes to Green then bombed the Steelers over the top with two deep balls down the middle of the field. Green beat Mike Mitchell soundly both times and finished the game with 224 yards. In the first meeting, the Steelers came out with Ike Taylor on AJ Green but that went about as poorly as possible. Taylor took himself out of the game due to an injury and he hasn't played since. Antwon Blake made a play late in the game to knock a deep ball away from Green, but the 5'9" Blake is giving up 7 inches to Green. Green is a matchup nightmare for any defensive back the Steelers line up across from him. William Gay is the tallest of the group at 5'10" but is still giving up 6 inches to the 6'4" Green. The best the Steelers can home to do is keep Green in front of them and tackle the catch.
5. The Playoffs
The Steelers will be in the playoffs for the first time since 2011. If you still have a bad taste in your mouth about the way the game in Denver ended, that's a good thing. It should piss you off. Use that as fuel heading into this postseason. Because win or lose against Cincinnati, we'll be dancing next weekend. If we lose, we'll be headed to Indianapolis and a date with Andrew Luck. If we beat the Bengals we'll be right back at home against San Diego, Baltimore, Houston or Kansas City. By the time the Steelers kick off, we'll know the results of the earlier games and we'll know who the #6 seed is and who could potentially be coming to Pittsburgh. The scenarios in the early games are simple:
- San Diego is the #6 seed with a win over Kansas City
- Baltimore is the #6 seed with a win over Cleveland and a San Diego loss
- Houston is the #6 seed with a win over Jacksonville and losses by San Diego and Baltimore
- Kansas City is the #6 seed with a win over San Diego and losses by Baltimore and Houston