In the NFL, there are important individual matchups that help to decide each and every game. Whether it’s a position group against another position group, an individual against a position group, or an individual against an individual, these matchups can determine winners and losers. Every week throughout the season, I break down at least two matchups for both the Bengals’ offense and defense against their opponents.
A.J. Green vs. Steelers Secondary
Teams are having a hard time stopping A.J. Green this season. Big chunk plays, game-winning touchdowns, and dominance from all over the field are defining his season. There is a renewed confidence in Green and it is showing up every week. While he didn’t find the end zone against Miami, he still went off for 112 yards on just 6 catches. The Bengals have yet to find a team with an answer for Green.
The achilleas heel of this Pittsburgh team has to be the secondary. Cornerback Joe Haden is on the back end of a stellar career and appears to have fallen off pretty quickly. Cornerback Artie Burns is listed as a starter but really shouldn’t be labeled that way anymore. He has been a huge disappointment and regularly comes off the field for the Steelers. The safeties aren’t terrible in Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis but there is nothing to get excited about there either. Slot corner Mike Hilton might be the best player of the bunch.
Green should have a field day against this group of defensive backs. Haden has had Green’s number in the past, but I don’t think that will be the case anymore. Burns, Haden, and the rest of the corners should struggle to contain Green. I will be looking to see how often Green goes to the slot and how Hilton fares against him.
Bengals Offensive Line vs. Steelers Defensive Line
The Cincinnati offensive line is playing way beyond expectations so far in 2018. Left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Clint Boling are the rocks of this group and have played like it for the most part. Rookie center Billy Price was off to a great start until a foot injury sidelined him, Trey Hopkins has stepped in admirably in his place. Right guard Alex Redmond and right tackle Bobby Hart are the obvious weak links. Redmond gets too grabby and has a ton of penalties and mental errors. He has improved in pass protection in recent weeks, however. Hart has no business being on the field.
The Steelers have a very talented defensive front. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave has developed into one of the better run stoppers in the league. He can be found pushing the pocket on passing plays also. Ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are versatile monsters for Pittsburgh. Both are big, strong, and surprisingly athletic for being around 6’5″ and 300 pounds. While they have underperformed so far this season, they are still a dangerous pairing up front. Edge rusher T.J. Watt can be included in this group since he is currently tied for the league lead with six sacks. He is a threat to go off at any time like he did last week against Atlanta with three sacks.
This may be the matchup that decides who wins this game. The Bengals absolutely need to keep quarterback Andy Dalton upright in order to win. Glenn and Hart need to keep Watt away from their quarterback when he drops back. Hart will almost definitely need tight end or running back help against these pass rushers. The interior guys will be instrumental this week. If Boling, Hopkins, and Redmond can get some push and keep that talented Pittsburgh front occupied, that could create room for running back Joe Mixon. If Mixon gets going, that keeps the Steelers pass rushers from pinning their ears back coming after Dalton.
Bengals Cornerbacks vs. Steelers Wide Receivers
The cornerbacks in Cincinnati have not had a great season so far. William Jackson III is playing well but not great. He is not having the superstar season we all expected from him. Dre Kirkpatrick is just not very good anymore. The ability to open his hips and run with receivers is nonexistent at times. He looks stiff and unathletic at times. Slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard is one of the more underrated players in the NFL. He is a top-notch tackler and has developed nicely as a coverage guy also.
We all know who Antonio Brown is. Arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, he is nearly impossible to stop. There were some connection issues between Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to begin the season but those issues seem to be getting worked out (on the field anyway) as the season goes on. JuJu Smith-Schuster is an up and coming star as a number two guy. Despite not having great long speed, Smith-Schuster has a knack for the big play. He is a superb route runner with good hands and a great feel for the field with the ball in his hands. Rookie James Washington is a tough, big play machine in the mold of Smith Schuster. Back up Justin Hunter is a big physical guy that makes the occasional big play for Pittsburgh.
Jackson III shut down Brown last season as a part-time starter. That needs to happen again this weekend if they want to have a chance at stopping this high octane offense. Kirkpatrick is going to get burnt no matter who he is trying to cover. These Steelers wide receivers are too good and Kirkpatrick is just too awful. Watching Jackson III and Dennard matchup against these wide receivers will be interesting to see.
Vontaze Burfict vs. The Pittsburgh Steelers
Last week marked the return of linebacker Vontaze Burfict and he did not disappoint. In limited snaps, Burfict was not quite his heat-seeking missile self but was a step above the other Cincy linebackers. I fully expect him to have it turned all the way up for this game against the Steelers. He may be out looking for revenge, an angry and motivated Burfict is one of the best linebackers in the NFL but also one of the dirtiest.
There is a history between Burfict and the Steelers. Without rehashing old news that we all have heard enough of, there has been a lot of big hits that were probably illegal for the most part. Burfict took some headshots and got repaid with a nasty borderline legal block by JuJu Smith-Schuster. This is the storyline of the game, unfortunately. We should be talking about how well the Bengals are playing and if the players can keep their cool, maybe that’s what we will actually be talking about after the game.