Matchup: Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) -13 @ Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1)
Time and place: 8:15 p.m. EST on Monday, 12/21 at Paul Brown Stadium
Tidbit: The last time the Steelers scored 30+ points was against the Bengals on 11/15
Alright, Steelers Nation- two straight losses but this should be a get right game against the Burrow-less Bengals. What do the Steelers need to do to ensure victory and clinch the AFC North on Monday night?
KEY #1: CATCH THE BALL (we're begging)
Of course, we're tired of receivers eliminating drops as a point of emphasis for yet another week, but until it actually happens it needs to be discussed. Diontae Johnson currently leads the NFL in drops, which is extremely problematic. Johnson dropped this ball on the first play of the opening series. Had he held on, he likely would have picked up 7-8 yards. Instead, Pittsburgh was thrust into 2 and 10.
This is especially problematic considering this kind of play is essentially a run for a Steelers offense that's had trouble getting anything going on the ground. Against the depleted Bengals, the Steelers should be able to win if they're able to the simple things like catch the football in these situations. Right now, that's a big "if."
KEY #2: Ben needs to create chunk plays
Another narrative we're all familiar with: the Steelers offense is completely reliant on the quick passing game. And while there's certainly some truth to this sentiment, Ben Roethlisberger can still sling it. Watch how he pump fakes to move number 97 and then rips it to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the intermediate cross. Roethlisberger saw the Bills in man coverage and knew he just needed a little bit of daylight to make the play. This is high-level stuff.
And the touchdown to Washington looks even better on the All-22 as Ben squeezes it 20 yards downfield between the corner and the single high safety (nice route by Washington too).
There's no doubt that Ben is still capable of holding the ball for a beat longer and pushing it downfield. Now that the offense has sputtered as the playoffs loom large, we need to see it more consistently.
KEY #3: Play action and creativity
It was a welcomed sight to see the Steelers actually give the ball to Chase Claypool on the jet motion early in the game, but we didn't see very much pre-snap motion or creativity after that. It'd be nice to see the Steelers try to attack the edge of the defense with similar concepts on Monday night, especially if they're struggling to run between the tackles.
Another way to create doubt for the defense? Play action. While the run game hasn't mustered much recently, play action is still an effective tool- in fact, the Steelers' largest gain through the air against Buffalo came via play-action. Look at how No. 49 and No. 58 bite down on the fake to Benny Snell, causing natural friction within the defense which leads to an easy pitch and catch from Ben to JuJu.
Play action can work especially well for the Steelers since it's a tendency breaker. The Steelers are pretty predictable as to when they're going to run or pass the ball, and mixing in more play-action would allow Pittsburgh to create some gray area for the defense. Hopefully, we see more Matt Canada influence against Cincinnati.
KEY #4: Do it, Tuitt
The Steelers really felt the absence of Bud Dupree against Buffalo. While T.J. Watt was still able to generate pressure, Pittsburgh's other defender in the NFL's top 10 for sacks- Stephon Tuitt- pitched a zero on the stat sheet for the first time since his rookie season. With Dupree out for the year and the middle linebacking core down to its last legs, Tuitt needs to return to an All-Pro level of play to give the Steelers a chance this week and beyond. When he's on, Tuitt is one of the best players in the league and the Steelers are still one of the NFL's most fear-inducing defenses.