Key match-ups: Steelers-Bengals

Neal Coolong looks at the key match-ups between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.

The Coolong Archive
Week 12: v. Dolphins
Week 11: v. Jets
Week 10: v. Browns
Week 9: v. Ravens
Week 8: @ Bengals
Week 7: @ Broncos
Week 6: Bye
Week 5: v. Seahawks
Week 4: @ Cardinals
Week 3: v. 49ers
Week 2: v. Bills
Week 1: @ Browns
QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. QB Carson Palmer

Two of the best passers in the game, Roethlisberger and Palmer have two contrasting styles. Palmer stays in the pocket, Roethlisberger throws well on the move. What's interesting about this game is that the style of both of these quarterbacks plays into what each defense is going to try to do.

The Steelers are without SS Troy Polamalu, which hurts Pittsburgh's pass rush more than its coverage. They will likely stay in 2-deep coverage most of the game. Palmer is getting hot, and while Tyrone Carter has filled in fairly well for Polamalu, Pittsburgh is going to have to protect itself deep against the aggressive and talented receiving trio of Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. Early forecasts call for more rain in Pittsburgh Sunday night, and that would hurt the Bengals, given the amount of speed they have at the wide receiver position.

Roethlisberger will likely be without LT Marvel Smith (listed as doubtful) and WR Santonio Holmes is out, but the Steelers are still going to need a performance like his 19-for-26 for 230 yards and two touchdowns he had against Cincinnati in Week 8. Pittsburgh's offensive line has been suspect at best, and the Bengals likely won't need to blitz in order to get pressure on Roethlisberger. That will leave their secondary in place to handle the Steelers' receivers. Roethlisberger is at his best when he is pressured, and needs to locate the hole in the defense. If Cincinnati can keep six defenders back, he could have a tough time finding anyone.

CB Ike Taylor vs. WR Chad Johnson

Johnson's best skill is his speed. As one of the fastest receivers in the game, Johnson has made a great career out of the deep reception. Last week, however, he had his best game of the season largely torturing Tennessee with short digs and underneath routes. The Titans seemed to be just waiting for Johnson to head deep, but Johnson stayed shallow, and caught 10 passes, three of those for touchdowns.

Those three touchdowns are two more than Johnson has had against Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor in their previous eight meetings. While it hasn't been primarily Taylor covering him, Taylor is oftentimes locked on the loquacious Johnson, and has done a great job of holding him in check. Still, Johnson and Palmer clicked last week, and with a rain-soaked field, they could probably stay short and see if Johnson can't break a few tackles en route to an unusual high-catch, low yard performance.

RB Willie Parker vs. SLB Landon Johnson

Parker gives the Bengals nightmares. In five games against Cincinnati since 2005, he has rushed for 633 yards and six touchdowns. He had 126 yards and a touchdown in Week 8, and is usually a main reason why Pittsburgh beats Cincinnati – the result in four of the last six meetings between these teams. In brutal conditions last week against Miami, Parker had an effective 81 yards, and helped the Steelers dominate the time of possession 34-25. Pittsburgh is want to slam Cincinnati straight at the teeth of their defense, as he averages over four yards a carry against it in the past six meetings. If they can control the clock, they have a more than reasonable chance to win the game.

Johnson has been nursing a back injury, but he has played through it. With or without their starting strongside linebacker, the Bengals are still one of the worst defenses in the NFL against the run. Johnson doesn't help that distinction very much. He was targeted in the ground game by Kansas City in a 27-20 loss in Week 6, but he had 11 tackles. Johnson runs hard to the ball, but misses tackles. On a slick track, if Parker is able to make the Bengals strongside defender miss him, he could wind up with a big game. In the two games Parker has been held under 100 yards against Cincinnati, they are 1-1. Cincinnati has to stop Pittsburgh's recently diminished rushing attack, and Johnson is going to be a big part of that.

LT Max Starks vs. RE Justin Smith

Starks will get the start in the likely event Marvel Smith can't play. As of Saturday, he is listed as doubtful. Starks is not a desired left tackle, as he spent his first four years in the league as a right tackle. Willie Colon beat him out for that spot this year, and Starks has looked like he's been moving in sand (Week 12 nonwithstanding) many times, and has struggled to stay in front of speed rushers. He's a big, strong bookend, but will have to move his feet to stay with Smith and use his size to his advantage. The Steelers have used Starks as the third TE in 3-TE sets (tackle eligible), but with Smith out, the Steelers won't be able to utilize that formation. TE Jon Dekker was signed from Pittsburgh's practice squad this week to replace FB Dan Kreider, who was placed on the IR with a torn ACL.

Because of Cincinnati's struggles against the run this year, Smith hasn't had as many opportunities to rush the passer as he has in years past, but he is one of the better all-around defensive ends in the game. Teams have targeted his aggressive nature in the run game this season, as the Bengals are 1-5 in the six games Smith has six or more tackles. Starks struggles with pass protection, but is a decent run blocker. Smith will have to stay low, and keep Starks' huge frame arm's length away in order to force Parker to the inside.

The Coolong Scorecard
Steelers Unit Bengals
  Offensive line x
even Quarterback even
x Running backs  
  Wide receivers x
x Tight ends  
x Defensive line  
x Linebackers  
x Defensive backs  
  Special teams x

Neal Coolong is the author of Die Hard Steel and his match-ups column appears weekly at Steel City Insider.

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