Steelers Opponent Preview: the Cincinnatti Bengals, Take Two

USA Today Sports/Jason Bridge photo

As I listened to Mike Tomlin extol the virtues of the upcoming opponent, something he does every week, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Although he brought out a few vintage Tomlinisms, calling Mohamed Sanu a “Swiss Army Knife” and referring to Offensive Coordinator Hue Jackson’s “thoughtfully non-rhythmic” game plans, I realized there could scarcely help but be a letdown this week. After all, Tomlin uttered a phrase which may live on for many years when he referred to running back Frank Gore as “one of the legendary ball toters of this generation.” It’s pretty difficult to top that.

But Antonio Brown tried, in his own special way, which garnered him this response from Benstonium:

To return to the legendary ball toter, if I may be allowed to look back for another moment, the Steelers D mostly stopped Gore himself. Although he’s a month younger than our own DeAngelo Williams, he looked considerably slower, especially after Cameron Heyward managed to come from ten feet back in the backfield and chase him down after several missed tackles doubtless had Gore dreaming of a touchdown.

Of course, Heyward also outran the Steelers defensive backs. It’s hard to say whether this should make us more impressed with Heyward or more depressed about our secondary. Being an optimist, I’m going for option one.

Little has changed with the Bengals since I wrote the previous opponent review. Perhaps the main thing is a slight stutter step as they lost two games in a row, to the Cardinals and the Texans. But they are clearly back on track after a mini-bye (otherwise known as Browns week), and are doubtless determined to show the Steelers who is boss in the AFC North.

Given the nature of this rivalry, whether the game is at home or away is probably less important than most. What is more interesting is the way the rhetoric is ramping up. David DeCastro said that while he wasn’t going to provide bulletin board material, the teams do not like each other. You can tell he’s a Stanford man. DeCastro majored in management science and engineering, (which he says is basically a fancy term for a business degree) and graduated a couple months after the Steelers drafted him.

On the other hand, you can tell that Bengals CB Dre Kirkpatrick isn’t a Stanford man. He went to Alabama, declared for the NFL in his junior year, and majored in football, apparently. I have been totally unable to find out anything about his academic career. Googling “Dre Kirkpatrick academic career Alabama” will get you a lot of information about his college stats but nothing whatsoever about academics. Which is perhaps telling.

At any rate, Kirkpatrick was apparently unafraid to give the Steelers bulletin board material, as noted by Jim Owczardki of

But what of the potential for any extracurricular activity, especially when it comes to any Steelers offensive players going after Burfict?

“That’s my teammate,” Bengals corner Dre Kirkpatrick said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to protect my teammate. I’m not going to let anybody get cheap shots or anything like that if I’m there.

“Like I said, we know what time it is, we know what type of game this is. Hopefully we can keep our composure, hopefully he can keep his composure and let them be the village idiots.”

Mike Tomlin has stressed that the Steelers don’t need any added motivation for a game in December with definite playoff implications for both teams. The Bengals can clinch the division with a win (and most likely deep-six the Steelers’ playoff hopes in the process, given the easy schedule of the other wild-card contenders). Pittsburgh can stay alive for another week, and delay the Bengals coronation while they are at it.

It is unfortunate a season which began with such promise, at least on the offensive side of the ball, would come down to essentially winning out in December to even secure a wild-card spot, but one can scarcely overstate the difficulties under which the Steelers have labored this season. Nor can one fail to be impressed with how the team has battled to keep their head above water.

A great deal has been made of the tiny margin by which the Ravens have lost games, and this is certainly reflected in their point differential of just -17, despite having lost twice as many games as they have won. But the Steelers have only lost once by double digits (10 points down to the Chiefs,) and this was Landry Jones’ first game as the starter. The other loss by more than a touchdown was to the Seahawks, in their stadium, with arguably some assistance from the referees.

Should the Steelers not make the playoffs, it will be easy to point the finger at a few missed plays which would have won some of the close games. But consider this—you can also point the finger to the astonishing wins (a Landry Jones-quarterbacked team beating the Cardinals, anyone?) which at least kept the possibility of the playoffs alive through phenomenal adversity.

And if they do make the playoffs? Assuming there are no more catastrophic injuries, it’s safe to say the Steelers are a team nobody is going to want to play.

The question is, what went wrong in the 16-10 loss last time, and is there reason to believe Sunday’s outcome will be a better one?

Here’s what I had to say way back in October:

There were a great many narratives going into this game. Here are just a few of them on the Steelers’ side:

  • Ben Roethlisberger isn’t very sharp when coming back from injury.
  • The Four B’s are finally together for the first time this season.
  • Once Ben is back, Antonio Brown is going to look like his old self.
  • And assuming Ben’s his old self, it will be hard to stop Bell, Bryant and Brown.
  • The Steelers defense has struggled mightily against top-flight tight ends.
  • Also, they aren’t so great at tackling.

And naturally there were a lot of narratives on the other side:

  • Andy Dalton has been unflappable, and is a very different Dalton than the Steelers have faced.
  • He’s really taking care of the football, and not making costly mistakes.
  • The Bengals are no longer the Bungles.
  • Tyler Eifert is a top-flight tight end.
  • The Bengals have a great one-two punch at running back.
  • They also have some very good receivers.
  • The Bengals aren’t great against the run

As we know, the Killer B’s were back together for less than half the game before Le’Veon Bell was done for the year. This didn’t help a bit. And Ben, although he looked pretty good on the first drive, didn’t look so great after that. Getting knocked around by Geno Atkins and Co. didn’t help much either.

Andy Dalton did, however, look flappable after all. If the upcoming game could feature more flapping of Dalton and less battering of Ben that would help a great deal.

The thing about the Bengals is, they have a great many threats, offensively, from a great many quarters. They may be the one team with more diverse offensive capabilities than the Steelers.

They have three quite proficient receivers, including top-of-the-first-round pick A.J. Green, who not only has speed but size and strength. Tight end Tyler Eifert has the most touchdown receptions in the NFL [12]. The closest other receiver who will be participating in Sunday’s game is Antonio Brown [7]. They also designate one of their tackles, rookie Jake Fisher, as eligible, generally when Dalton plays behind a three-man offensive line.

The two running backs (Tomlin has designated them the “two-headed monster in the backfield”) are both a threat as receivers as well. Giovanni Bernard has 33 receptions on 49 targets, Jeremy Hill has 9 receptions on 11 targets, with a touchdown. Hill has eight rushing touchdowns, Bernard two.

At any rate, that’s an awful lot of people for a defense to account for, and, in conjunction with the mostly very good offensive line, the Bengals ought to be able to score a lot of points.

Which they have. They currently have scored 104 more points than they have given up—an average of over a touchdown per game. They have scored at least 30 points in all but three games, against the Seahawks, Texans, and Steelers.

Their roster is seemingly stuffed with high-round draft picks. One may ask how they have ended up with so many first round picks on their team at once. For this we can thank the Raiders, whose trade for Carson Palmer, a quarterback who didn’t want to be on the Bengals anymore, and who the Bengals weren’t so keen on either, resulted in a windfall of extra draft picks in the following two seasons. Perhaps this could be viewed as yet another blow in the Pittsburgh/Oakland rivalry. And of course the Bengals have been able to keep these guys because until very recently they had a cheap quarterback.

But is this true? The Steelers have a number of first-round picks (although generally from lower in the round) on both their offensive and defensive lines. I decided to look at the actual numbers to see whether the Bengals have more high-round picks on their active roster. I divided the picks into pre-2010 and 2010 through 2015, and included the second round.

Between 2010 and 2015 the Steelers have had 12 first and second round picks. With the sole exception of Jason Worilds, who retired as a Steeler, all of the picks are currently on the roster. However, four of them are on injured reserve—Maurkice Pouncey, Le’Veon Bell, Mike Adams, and Senquez Golson.

In the same time span the Bengals have had 14 first and second round picks. With the exception of TE Jermaine Gresham, all players are still on the roster, although CB Darqueze Dennard was just put on IR.

The numbers are pretty interesting. In the first round the Bengals have averaged a draft position of 19, the Steelers 21. However, one of the Bengals’ picks was in the top five (A.J. Green, № 4, courtesy of the Raiders.) It was counterbalanced by their lowest pick during this time, Kevin Zeitler, at № 27. Both Green and Zeitler were taken in the same year. The Steelers’ average draft position during this time span was 21, their highest pick was № 15, and the Steelers had one fewer pick.

In the second round the average draft position for the Bengals was № 48, but they also had two picks right near the top of the round, Andy Dalton, at № 35, and Giovanni Bernard at № 37. The Steelers’ highest pick in the second round was № 46, Stephon Tuitt, and their average pick was № 53. They also had one less second-round pick.

There are still five first-round players drafted prior to 2009 in the first round on the teams—Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, and Lawrence Timmons for the Steelers, Andre Smith and Leon Hall for the Bengals. The average draft position was 12 for the Bengals, 19 for the Steelers.

In the second round the only players still on either roster are both Bengals—Rey Maualuga and Andrew Whitworth. The average draft position was 47.

I hope this wasn’t too confusing. To summarize, the Bengals have a total of 17 first and second round players on their roster. One is on IR and one may or may not be active, as he just came off the PUP list, for a total of either 15 or 16 active players.

The Steelers have 14 players on their roster from the first and second rounds, with four of them on IR, for a total of 10 active. This may not sound like a huge difference, but it is over 1/5 of the gameday roster.

In both the first and second rounds the Bengals had better draft position, and the Bengals had the only top-five pick in the draft between 2004 and 2015 and also had two more top-ten picks (Andre Smith, still on the roster, and Keith Rivers, who isn’t.)

This is why it seems the Bengals are stacked with high-round draft players—because they are. And to their credit, like the Steelers they have also developed some low-round or undrafted picks such as Vontaze Burfict, Marvin Jones, and George Iloka. Perhaps one day I’ll do a head-to-head on high-achieving low-round or undrafted players in the AFC North. Sounds like a good project for the off season.

Injury Report

The Bengals are still, relatively speaking, quite healthy, although the “bumps and bruises-type things” are adding up. Since the previous Bengals/Steelers game they have placed one player, CB Darqueze Dennard, on injured reserve. LB Sean Porter, who has been on the PUP list all year, was waived on November 30th. On the other hand, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, who had been on the reserve/non-football injury list all season, was activated on November 27.

Here is Thursday’s injury report:


Full Participation: G Clint Boling, TE Tyler Eifert, TE Ryan Hewitt, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB Josh Shaw

Limited: T Jake Fisher, CB Leon Hall

Did Not Participate: S George Iloka, CB Adam Jones

There were two others who did not participate, but it wasn’t injury related—WR Mario Alford, who I assume is a special teams guy, and LB Vontaze Burfict. The latter was perhaps out having fittings for some special protective equipment.

As to the others, we can cross our fingers that Iloka and Jones won’t play. It would definitely help slow down a secondary which is pretty proficient. I’m guessing both Fisher and Hall will play. Fisher isn’t a big deal one way or the other, as he doesn’t play more than a handful of snaps. (He had the most all season last week, playing 24.) Leon Hall would, conversely, be a big deal. As for the full participants, it’s a pity but clearly Eifert and Boling are going to play. Dre Kirkpatrick gets a lot of snaps, although he also gets burnt a lot, and Josh Shaw is newly signed off the practice squad to replace Dennard. He has played pretty well in limited snaps. But Jones and Hall are their two best CBs by far, and Iloka is an excellent safety, so we can hope for the loss of as many of those as possible.


Full Participation: Sammie Coates (he was ill, not injured,) William Gay, James Harrison, Sean Spence, Greg Warren. Harrison and Warren were “Maturity Days” on Wednesday.

Limited: Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth

No players on the Did Not Participate list. (Other than the dozen and a half on IR, naturally.) This may be a first for this season.

Hopefully one of either Heath Miller or Matt Spaeth can play. It’s a comfort that Jesse James has subbed in so well for one or the other, but he can scarcely substitute for both. If they should both miss the game I suppose Will Johnson will turn back into a tight end.

The news about William Gay is especially heartening. Not only do the Steelers really need him on the field, but it seems a shame to destroy his 140 consecutive game streak, the longest in the NFL.

Sunday’s game may be the most critical game of the Steelers 2015 season. Should they win, next week will be the most critical game, and so on. Earlier in the season a seemingly weak AFC made it look as if possibly even a 9-6 record gave you a chance to get into the playoffs straight up, but things have tightened up a good deal since then, and the only guarantee of a wild-card slot at this point looks like 11-5.

The Chiefs not only hold the tiebreaker but their remaining four games are against opponents with a combined 14 wins and 34 losses. At this point they look like a lock for the fifth seed.

While the Jets have a more difficult schedule (they play the Patriots, the Bills, and the Cowboys at home in addition to the Titans) you can’t be sure they won’t win out against a depleted Patriots team and a streaky Bills team. And if the Steelers lose any of the next four games they might also have to worry about the 6-6 Bills and Texans. So the best plan is, just win out. As they say, it puts you in control of your own destiny.

But this Sunday is also the game which provides the litmus test for the Steelers’ playoff-worthiness. If the Steelers can’t beat the Bengals on Sunday, when they are finally about as healthy as they are likely to get this season, perhaps a playoff run just isn’t in the cards in this star-crossed (perhaps “star-crushed”) season.


  • If you add players drafted by other teams, add at least Darius Heyward-Bey and Mike Mitchell.


  • Really starting to dislike cinnci. Always despised the ratbirds and just felt sorry for the browns. I was indifferent with cinnci until the last few years.


    • It actually reminds me of how things started with the Ravens. Cincinnati was easily dismissable before… they can’t be dismissed now. Their team is good. Their team performs. Bengals fans are insufferable because…well…they havent been there before, really. But their team isn’t a laughingstock…can’t be dismissed as flukish… and they love it.
      Remember, it took 3-4 years of Steelers/Ravens clashes before the hate turned to respect on both sides.


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