Matchup: Cincinnati Bengals (2-5) +7.5 @ Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0)
Time and place: 11/15 at 4:25 @ Heinz Field
Tidbit: The Steelers have won their last 10 games against the Bengals
KEY #1: Come out hot
Although the Steelers were able to score a first-drive touchdown a few weeks ago against Tennessee, they were slow out of the gates again the last two weeks, and didn't get on the board against the Cowboys until deep in the second quarter. If Pittsburgh keeps taking a while to get going, it's eventually going to cost them.
The good news is that the majority of the Steelers' early-game struggles are easily fixable. This pass winds up incomplete because Diontae Johnson slips out of his break.
And Chase Claypool dropped this touchdown pass on 3rd down after taking the top off the secondary.
Attention to detail matters. The Steelers can't afford a sloppy start against Joe Burrow and a competitive Bengals team.
KEY #2: Bring back the jet
The Steelers had virtually no success rushing against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last week and much of that is because of the predictability of the offense. Pittsburgh often ran on first down and while they made use of jet motion, they mostly did so in an attempt to move the eyes of the second level, and haven't given the ball to the receiver enough in recent weeks to force defenses to respect the jet.
Watch how quickly Demarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch are able deduce that the ball is being handed to Conner despite the jet motion.
On the contrary, look at the flow of the defense on this play. Aside from Vander Esch, who makes a great tackle to save a big play, Dallas is locked in on Conner.
Not only do these jet plays have a high rate of success, but they're crucial in keeping the defense honest and softening up the second level in the run game. Look for the Steelers to use similar concepts against the Bengals.
KEY #3: Disrupt timing and make plays on the ball
Rookie Joe Burrow has been extremely impressive this season, especially on second and third level throws. He plays with good pocket mobility while keeping his eyes downfield. Here's Burrow recognizing that he has a free play, staying cool in the pocket, and delivering a strike 22 yards downfield on the boundary. This is high-level stuff.
He's not the same physical presence as Big Ben, but he brings similar things to the table as vintage Roethlisberger in terms of extending plays and having a feel for the pass rush. It will be important for the Steelers secondary to get physical with the Bengals receivers in order to disrupt Burrow's timing. Additionally, Burrow does not possess the strongest arm, but he has confidence in his ability to make tight-window throws. If the Steelers can deflect passes and be around the ball, it could create moments of doubt for the rookie.
KEY #4: Bring the heat on Burrow
Burrow's worst game this season came against the Ravens, who are the only team that blitzes as much as the Steelers. The Bengals have allowed 3.5 sacks per game, good for third-worst in the NFL, while the Steelers sack the quarterback and NFL-best 4.0 times per game. This is a mismatch the Steelers must exploit early and often in order to make Burrow uncomfortable.
And Burrow has good reason to squirm- Mike Tomlin is 22-4 against rookie quarterbacks as head coach of the Steelers.
KEY #5: The return of Alualu
A few weeks ago, the Steelers were one of the best run defenses in the league. The last two weeks have been...a letdown. Thankfully, defensive tackle Tyson Alualu is set to return on Sunday and his presence in the interior will be welcomed. Alualu is an unsung stud on this defense and his play this year has been a pleasant surprise in lieu of Javon Hargrave's departure.
When Alualu is on the field, it gives opposing offensive lines another problem with his hand in the dirt alongside Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
Here's Alualu completely blowing up the backside A-gap and coming downhill to stuff De'Ernest Johnson for a loss on 4th and 1.