We’re talkin’ playoffs. I’ll be the first to admit it: I really thought I would be posting my far too early look at the draft this week. I didn’t believe the Buffalo Bills would beat the New York Jets with a depleted roster. I didn’t believe Rex Ryan had the ability to rally his troops in what was essentially a meaningless contest and take down a suddenly formidable Jets squad. But football is a game of inches, and inch by inch, the Bills began to systematically take the Jets apart. The Bills made life for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick a nightmare all day long and the front seven rose to the occasion, providing consistent and relentless pressure. The Bills saved the Pittsburgh Steelers season and because of this, we’re talkin’ playoffs.
From all of those who follow the Steelers, media and fans alike, we’d like to provide a massive thank you to the Bills and their fans who would not let up and make things easy for Fitzpatrick and the offense in their last contest of the season. From us to you, “BillsMafia”, thank you.
The Steelers beat up on a hapless Cleveland Browns team led by quarterback Austin Davis who couldn’t really get anything meaningful going throughout the contest. There were a couple of extended drives, all of which ended in field goals, but ultimately could not provide a winning effort for a team that fired their head coach and General Manager. The victory allowed the Steelers to begin preparing for the Saturday match-up of the Cincinnati Bengals, the third of the season.
Oh boy, here we go.
MATCH UPS TO WATCH FOR
Antonio Brown vs. Adam “Pacman” Jones
Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger needs to stop throwing interceptions. This needs to happen as soon as possible. Roethlisberger threw two more interceptions against the Browns, but was lucky to not have thrown four on the day. Roethlisberger has struggled as of late, particularly with his footwork, and it is beginning to show. The first interception on the day was not necessarily his fault as it looked like wide receiver Martavis Bryant simply ran the wrong route and ended up in no man’s land, resulting in the turnover. The second interception was a result of Roethlisberger staring down Antonio Brown, allowing linebacker Craig Robertson to slide over and make the easy interception.
These were not the only poor throws on the day from the Pro Bowl signal caller.
Roethlisberger got away with two extremely tight throws to tight end Heath Miller which could have easily been intercepted if not for the strength of Miller ripping the ball away. One of these resulted in the first touchdown on the day. The second resulted in a first down when the offense desperately needed to stay on the field. Miller bailed out his quarterback twice against a defense that had 10 interceptions on the season coming into this game.
The final questionable throw on the day which could have easily been intercepted was a simple out-route to receiver Markus Wheaton. A routine throw which could have ended in disaster. Roethlisberger did not set his feet which did not allow any strength or velocity to be put into his throw. Safety Jordan Poyer should have had two picks on the day.
The earlier count of would-be four interceptions was inaccurate. That number could have, and should have, easily been five.
This can not continue.
This Saturday, the Steelers take on the Bengals in a grudge match. It is also a match that Roethlisberger needs to play mistake-free football in. This is not a third match-up with the Browns, a team that seems to find ways to lose no matter how poor the showing of an opposing offense. The Steelers need their franchise quarterback to be just that – a franchise quarterback. The Steelers must go on the road into a hostile environment and beat a divisional rival for the second time this season. This is no small task, no matter who is playing quarterback for the other team.
Roethlisberger has been great in the postseason to this point. The experience he brings into this game is not matched by any player on the Bengals and this needs to be used to his advantage. Roethlisberger can not afford to continue his woes on the road. Coming into this game, the last five road contests have Roethlisberger throwing one touchdown pass to seven interceptions. That trend needs to be reversed immediately. Finding out what Brown can do for him is a good way to start.
Brown is a ludicrously talented receiver. There isn’t a better receiver in the league and I do not believe it’s even close. Julio Jones may have more receptions and yardage, but force him to play with Michael Vick and Landry Jones for a quarter of the season and see if his numbers are even in the same hemisphere. The fact that Brown has been this exceptional without his franchise quarterback for a quarter of the season is nothing short of remarkable, and we may be seeing the prime of a receiver destined for Canton, Ohio. For this reason, Brown needs to be the main factor in this game. He needs to continue his historical greatness and can not afford to miss a beat in this game. Brown needs to, if he already has not, put himself into the conversation of the greatest receiver in franchise history.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. Necessary? Absolutely.
Brown needs to erase any doubt of him not being the best in the NFL on Saturday. The gameplan heading into this game is going to be simple: force quarterback AJ McCarron to keep up with Roethlisberger’s aerial assault. Brown needs to be the key cog in this gameplan. He needs to be the reason why the offense is able to move the chains and finish scoring drives.
He can not do this alone, however. Bryant and Wheaton need to continue to step their games up, particularly Bryant, who has seen his fair share of struggles as of late. Bryant seems to have caught Limas Sweed Syndrome, as this has been the only thing he can catch in the last two weeks. Bryant has not had two weeks of poor play like this in his career and it is imperative he finds his game again. Wheaton needs to continue to be the steady force that he has been. Wheaton’s play has made him criminally underrated. The fear of not being able to retain him for salary cap reasons has become a possibility.
The offensive line has to be better. Roethlisberger had time to make plays against the Browns, but center Cody Wallace needs to find another gear, if he has one, and once again shut down defensive tackle Geno Atkins with help from Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro. Their play in the run game against a Browns squad that was incapable of stopping the run prior to this game was unacceptably bad. The offensive gameplan heading in is indeed to impose their will in the air, but they can not be completely one-dimensional. A semblance of a running game is going to be required, even if it takes a backseat. Tackle Marcus Gilbert prayed for this match up after the previous win against the Bengals and his prayers were answered. He is tasked with shutting down one of the most explosive defensive ends in football in Carlos Dunlap. Registering 13.5 sacks on the season, Gilbert should have his hands full. The offensive line has made players just as great as Dunlap invisible this season and need to do so once again.
Should running back DeAngelo Williams not be ready to go, the tandem of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman need to be ready to shoulder the load. In addition to the two young bucks, fullback Will Johnson is expected to chip in as an H-Back/flex tight end as he has done some this season and in seasons past. There needs to be a run game, even if only to keep the safeties honest, in order for the offensive gameplan to be executed properly. This begins and ends up front with the offensive line, but Toussaint, Todman and Johnson need to also play mistake-free football. Giving a short field to the Bengals offense is a good way to punch their ticket to the offseason.
Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt vs. Cincinnati’s Offensive Line
The Steelers defense registered 47 sacks on the season, the most since 2010 (48). Admittedly, at first glance I thought this was a typo. Alas, after a 7 sack effort against the Browns, the number is fairly impressive in its own right, especially when considering this team lacks any kind of consistent edge presence. Rookie linebacker Bud Dupree has played adequately, if not ultimately uneven, in his first season in the league. Jarvis Jones to this point continues to dash my hopes in him ever becoming a steady NFL linebacker.
The gameplan defensively, much like the offense, is considerably easier against McCarron than it would be against Dalton: make the young quarterback uncomfortable. McCarron is heading into his first ever playoff game against a divisional opponent that thoroughly picked him apart the first time against a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Despite the initial media reports, the pressure lies directly at the feet of coach Marvin Lewis and McCarron heading into this game. Lewis has yet to win a playoff game and McCarron is going to be tasked with out-throwing Roethlisberger, a quarterback who would have been on pace to throw for the third-most yardage in a single season in NFL history.
The Steelers defense needs to continue its defensive gameplan from last week into the Wild Card game. The blitzes, the forced throws, the sacks. McCarron struggled, but managed to survive, against the Denver Broncos defense. The Steelers lack the talent of the Broncos but can still manage to make life tough for the young passer in his first playoff game. I’d expect to see Will Allen blitzed off the edge, along with linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier on stunts throughout the game. McCarron is going to complete his passes to AJ Green against this secondary, but it is entirely possible for the damaged to be limited.
The defense, much like the second half of the season, need to be good enough for Roethlisberger and the offense to carry this team into the divisional round. This, if nothing else, will be enough for the Steelers to play the Broncos.
SCORE PREDICTION AND PARTING SHOTS
This match up is worst case scenario for the Bengals. McCarron simply cannot throw with Roethlisberger. The Steelers offense will have their stumbles this game, but Brown and Co. will do enough for the Steelers to knock the Bengals off and begin to pack their bags for Mile High stadium to play Peyton Manning (probably?).
Steelers 31 – Bengals 21
• It’s a safe bet that center Maurkice Pouncey will not play for the Steelers this season, which means three All-Pro players on offense have missed considerable playing time. Sigh.
• I have no idea which quarterback is going to start for the Broncos should the Steelers win this game and punch their ticket to Denver, but my gut says Manning. Manning playing against the Steelers offense has to be the better of the two options for the Steelers, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
• Mike Tomlin continues to be one of the most underappreciated head coaches in football. Tomlin was able to guide his team to double-digit wins and a playoff berth despite running back Le’Veon Bell, Pouncey and Roethlisberger all missing considerable playing time this season. Other teams may have had more games missed with their injuries, but you’d have a hard time telling me any other team has more pure talent out of the lineup than the Steelers, even at this point.
• I hope everyone had a safe and wonderful holiday and New Years. Go Steelers.