By Norm Elrod
The AFC North is rife with rivalries, and not the friendly kind. Any divisional game is bound to be a dogfight, and the Week 6 matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals is no different. If recent history is any indication, it will probably be worse. These two teams genuinely don’t like each other.
The Steelers, at 2-2-1, have been inconsistent so far this season without star running back Le’Veon Bell, who continues to hold out for a new contract. James Conner has filled in with mixed results. Sandwiched between two 100-yard games are three lackluster performances, including 9 carries for 19 yards against the Baltimore Ravens and 8 carries for 17 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs. Conner has steadily produced on the receiving side, pulling in at least 4 catches per game.
But any credit for the passing game has to start with Ben Roethlisberger, who is lighting up defenses. The NFL’s third-leading passer is averaging 337 yards per game, with 11 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster each have 35 receptions and Conner another 22, in what’s proving to be a balanced passing attack.
While the Steelers’ offense ranks among the NFL’s best so far, it’s defense ranks among the worst. Through five games — against the Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons — they’re giving up almost 300 yards per game passing and another 105 yards rushing. That’s not good.
While there’s no shame in getting beat by the Chiefs’ and Bucs’ high-powered passing attacks, there are limits to what’s acceptable. Patrick Mahomes’ six TD passes and Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 411 yards are just too much to give up for any team the sees itself as a contender. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in sacks with 19, so pressuring opposing QBs hasn’t been an issue. The problem seems to be in the secondary.
To their credit, the Steelers tightened up in Week 5 against the Falcons, only yielding 285 yards and a touchdown to Matt Ryan. But they’ll have to do even better against a Bengals team that keeps finding ways to win.
The Bengals, behind the streaky Andy Dalton, have jumped out to a 4-1 record, including come-from-behind victories in each of the last two games. Last week, Cincinnati put up 24 points in the fourth quarter to overtake the Miami Dolphins. The previous week, Dalton led the Bengals to a last-minute triumph in Atlanta. Clearly, winning this way isn’t sustainable; sometimes the close ones will go the other way. And, at least with the Dolphins win, it begs the question: how come they only managed 3 points over the first three quarters against a pretty average defense?
Even if the offense disappears from time to time, Dalton and his gang deserve some credit. They put it in the end zone when given the opportunity, averaging almost 31 points per game and converting in the red zone over 70% of the time. Dalton, for his part, is having another decent season, averaging 289 yards per game and collecting 12 TDs. Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard have combined for 427 yards, along with 23 receptions, through five games. And A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd are becoming one of the better wide receiver tandems in the League, with 56 catches for 802 yards and 7 TDs so far.
The defense has been a little suspect, ranking in the bottom quarter in terms of yards allowed, at close to 400 per game, and total penalty yards, at 339. In fact, only twice have they held an opposing offense to fewer yards than their own offense, and the Bengals lost one of those games anyway. Last week’s performance was somewhat better, though the Dolphins are hardly the threat the Steelers will be this week, even without Bell.
The Bengals D does have a knack for tightening up late in games, giving up only 18 points in the fourth quarter so far this season (and leaving the door open for wins in close games). Their pass rush — at least Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap — will get after the quarterback.
Adding the Bengals to the conversation about the NFL’s best team seems a little premature. While the offense has put up points, their performance has been inconsistent. And luck will only get you so far over the course of a 16-game season. The defense won’t be able to slow down a Steelers team that’s learned how to score without its best player.
I think people might love Cincy laying less than three, but I’m on the other side. Many of the Bengals’ wins have been fluky, from a Week 1 scoop-and-score when Andrew Luck was driving for the win, to a coin flip win over Atlanta to two defensive TDs last week. Steelers and Big Ben own the Bengals; the QB is 12-2 in Cincy SU and 11-3 ATS in his career. I think Pittsburgh comes out playing with urgency and upends a Bengals team that’s overvalued right now.