There is Steelers rush linebacker T.J. Watt and his NFL co-leading six sacks lined up against Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart, off a solid game he allowed just one pressure. And there is Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins and his co-leading six sacks against a Steelers offensive line that is ranked 13th in the NFL by PFF and traditionally strong inside with center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro. Maybe you can even sell Bengals rookie center-fielder Jessie Bates debut vs. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he begins his bid to match Reggie Nelsons career six picks of Big Ben as a Bengal.
But, lets face it. The defining stat of this series since Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis became Steelers head coach Bill Cowhers linebackers coach 26 years ago has been the Steelers ability to run the ball on the Bengals and in the process to control Cincinnatis big passing weapons and the clock, not to mention the narrative.
The Bengals are famously 0-6 in their last six games against Pittsburgh and if youre looking for a common denominator besides punch-less second halves and scoreless fourth quarters, look no further than the 32 carries the Steelers have averaged in those games for 119 yards. That works out to only 3.7 yards per carry, but it is the number of carries that count more than anything. They commit enough to it that theyve posted rushing games of 167, 152 and 124 in that stretch.
The Steelers supposedly wont get running back LeVeon Bell until Monday or so, but they havent had to have him to beat the Bengals. In the 2015 Wild Card Game, backs by the name of Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 123 yards on 28 carries. In 2016 they beat them, 24-16, when 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams went for 94 yards on 32 carries.
Yes, the last time the Bengals beat the Steelers (Nov. 1, 2015), Pittsburgh rushed for 116 yards. But that was on just 19 carries because they were 3-for-11 on third down. The last time the Bengals beat the Steelers at PBS (Sept. 16, 2013), they held them to 44 yards on 16 carries.
By no means has this been the feared Steelers running game of yesteryear. But it looks like it is getting its sea legs behind an always well-coordinated and physical offensive line and a guy in Conner that is emerging as a worthy successor to Bell. After getting an unheard of combined 82 yards rushing against Tampa Bay and the Ravens, Pittsburgh got Conner untracked last week against Atlanta with not only 110 yards rushing, but 75 yards catching on just four passes. That comes after two games the Bengals have allowed four running backs 5.7 yards per carry during a season theyve allowed TD passes of at least 20 yards to Panthers running back C.J. Anderson and Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake.
Some guys are quicker than others. Some guys are fast. Some guys feel your leverage better than others, says Bengals SAM linebacker Nick Vigil. At the same time you have to tackle them. I think its coming together. Our main problem was third downs. We just couldnt get anybody off on third downs. I think we did better last week. If want to be a good defense, we just have to keep getting better at that. I think we just paid attention to details. We were letting little things slide. Theyre easy to fix, but at the same time its frustrating.
The worrisome stat is the Bengals backers have been dogged by missed tackles and Conner forced an NFL-high 12 missed tackles last week, improving his number to 32 for the season to lead the league, according to profootballfocus.com.
Heres a tip on how to defend Conner from Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd, his college teammate and one of his best friends: Just have to wrap him up. He breaks tackles and he has moves. Just prepare to lock in. Make a play. Dont overthink it. Dont try to do too much. Team tackle. If everybody is flowing to the ball, we wont have to rely on one guy to bring him down.
Brown, nagged by an ankle injury since the opener, has been limited this week after re-aggravating it last week and still playing the second half.
In the run game, we've got to find a way to be more disciplined, Brown says. (The Dolphins) got some stuff on us last week, but it seems like alternating weeks have been good and bad on the run defense so we've got to find a way to sustain it throughout the rest of the season. (Conner has) been receiving the ball well. He's one of the top receiving backs in the league so far, and they do a great job isolating him on linebackers, doing option routes and finding ways. … We've got to find a way to get our hands on them, slow them down, so Big Ben gets away from the route.
The Bengals defense has been solid rushing the passer (even though theyre only 21st in sacks per pas theyve gotten them at the right times), better at turning it over (on a pace for 26 turnovers after just 14 last season) and has allowed just two passes longer than 40 yards. But the check-down passes have killed them. As in Drake converting third-and-16 on a check-down and thats where the missed tackles have showed up.
That's something we've got to do, whether it's going up there playing tighter or just playing off and breaking on the ball, Brown says, but we've got to find ways to make those breakups instead of them catching it.
The Bengals have one of the leagues best weapons against the check-down in Burfict. And he, too, is just getting his sea legs after making his season debut last week. When he played the game of a lifetime in that Wild Card Game three years ago, there were only four catches by the backs and that was on eight targets.
We just have to tackle better, Vigil says. (Conner) runs hard. He has a good feel what the defense is. They check it down to him a lot. They throw it to him out of the backfield. Thats what they do. If theres nothing open downfield, Ben will check it right away and you just have to tackle them.
Brown gets the sense with Burfict back and the unit set to play its sixth game under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, theyre about to hit stride.
I think so. Defense only gave up 10 points last week. I think we're trying to find our way, Brown says. We've got Vontaze back, a lot of guys back from injury so hopefully we can start to gel and get the rotations right and keep it going.
Photos from Thursday's practice in preparation for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Theres no love lost between these bitter rivals, and when the Steelers and Bengals square off, fisticuffs may start.
Bengals QB Andy Dalton and Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger will duel in an AFC North clash on Sunday. (AP)MoreThe road to the division championship always runs through Pittsburgh, but the path is clear for Andy Dalton & Co. to widen the gap between them and the rest of the AFC North. Even at 4-1 and sitting atop the division, Cincinnati has plenty to prove against the Steelers (2-2-1), who have won nine of their past 10 matchups, including six straight. But these dont appear to be the same Steelers – at least, not yet. Off-field drama surrounding LeVeon Bells weeks-long holdout, coupled with Antonio Browns mounting frustrations, only highlighted the issues plaguing Pittsburgh. And Cincinnati would love nothing more than to deliver a blow to its rival in front of the home crowd.
The Steelers are coming off a dominant win over the depleted Atlanta Falcons and Brown had his best game of the season: six catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns. If Pittsburgh can ride the momentum to a road victory in Cincy, itll be on solid ground in the standings heading into the bye week – just in time for Bells much-anticipated return.
Hey, theres finally a feel-good story out of Cleveland that doesnt involve the words LeBron or Indians. Thats right Clevelanders, were already in Week 6, and your Browns do NOT have a losing record! And whats more, at 2-2-1, theyve also scored more points than theyve surrendered. Granted, its by only one point (114-113). But a starving man doesnt turn down a Happy Meal, right?
Seriously, the Browns are playing decent football, and a lot of that has to do with No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, whose competency at quarterback has teamed up with an emerging defense, giving Cleveland a chance to win every week. Well get to see both units tested against the Chargers (3-2), who feature the leagues seventh-best offense in total yards and 15th-best defense in yards per game.
There are endless storylines in this one. Not only is it a battle for AFC supremacy and a potential playoff matchup down the line, there is history between Andy Reid and Bill Belichick. Theyre two head coaches who always seem very well-matched when it comes to an in-season battle like this. But the storyline I really love is the crossroads of Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. One guy is in the midst of his youthful rise into the elite and another guy who keeps extending the impressive winter years of his career.
The Patriots Tom Brady has an idea on who is the NFLs top quarterback. (AP)MoreI think Brady is a little agitated by the shine that Mahomes has taken away this season. And maybe he should be. If you subtract three interceptions that werent really Bradys fault, his numbers stack up well with Mahomes despite playing his first four games with far less skill-position talent.
Well, now that Julian Edelman is back and guys like Sony Michel and Josh Gordon are getting some traction in the offense, its a more even comparison. This game is Bradys chance to show some of that old man strength and prove that the NFLs quarterback power rankings still begin at his doorstep. Conversely, Mahomes has an opportunity to wrestle the baton away and take another leap forward as the leagues leading man.
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