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Week 15 Steelers-Bengals News & Notes

The Steelers won their first 11 games and are in a little bit of a drought right now after losing back-to-back games. The Steelers will face a 2-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals team on Monday night, so it could be a game where the Steelers kickstart some of the issues that they've been having in the last few games -- the run game, catching passes and second-half defense. If the Steelers can't correct some of these problems against a hapless Bengals team, they could be in for a rude awakening in the playoffs, along with when they play the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16 and Cleveland Browns in Week 17.

The Steelers have already clinched a playoff berth, but they can clinch the AFC North for the first time since 2017 with a win over the Bengals on Monday night. The Steelers would then be guaranteed at least a home playoff game. The Steelers can also clinch the AFC North with a Cleveland Browns' loss to the New York Giants on Sunday Night Football or if the Steelers and Browns both have ties in their games this week, which is obviously very unlikely to happen.

- The Steelers are 67-35 all-time against the Bengals and have won 11 straight games (including playoffs) against Cincinnati. The Steelers haven't lost to the Bengals since Nov. 1, 2015. It's the most consecutive wins by the Steelers since the two teams started playing each other in 1970. The Steelers are 23-5 (including playoffs) under Mike Tomlin against the Bengals and Ben Roethlisberger is 26-7 (including playoffs) in his career against Cincinnati. The Steelers are 12-2 under Tomlin when playing in Cincinnati and Roethlisberger is 15-2 at Paul Brown Stadium.

- The Steelers are currently 14-point favorites against the Bengals and the over/under is 40 points, according to The Steelers are 10-3-2 against the spread in its last 15 games against the Bengals, and Cincinnati is 1-8 straight up over its last nine games, per The under is 5-1 in Pittsburgh's last six games. The Steelers are 23-5 straight up when they are 10-point favorites or more under Tomlin, according to Pro Football Reference.

- The Steelers are 16-2 on Monday Night Football under Tomlin and are 9-2 on the road. The Steelers have won nine straight games on MNF, with their last loss coming against the Bengals in Cincinnati in 2013. The Steelers' nine straight wins on MNF is the longest active streak in the NFL. With a win, the Steelers can become the third team ever to win 10-plus straight MNF Games (Raiders 14 - 1975-81, Seahawks 11 - 2005-16). The Steelers are 49-24 (.671) on MNF since 1970 and are 22-19 (.537) on the road. The Steelers' 67.1% win-rate on MNF is second-best in the NFL behind only the Seattle Seahawks (27-10 73.0%). The Steelers are 8-3 on MNF against the Bengals and are 3-2 when playing in Cincinnati.

- Per NFL Research, with 163 yards passing against the Bengals, Roethlisberger would become just the seventh quarterback in NFL history to pass for 60,000 yards. Roethlisberger also enters the game needing just four completions to become the sixth quarterback in NFL history to complete 5,000 career passes. If Roethlisberger reaches the 5,000 completion plateau on Monday night he would reach the milestone in the fourth-fewest games in NFL history (232).

- According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Roethlisberger has just four completions of at least 40 yards this season, which is the fewest among all quarterbacks who have started every game in 2020. He has 36 completions of 20 or more yards, which is the second-fewest among quarterbacks who have started every game.

Ben Roethlisberger had just one completion for 20 yards or more against the Buffalo Bills last week. Roethlisberger also threw a deep ball intended for James Washington that was underthrown and picked off by Bills' cornerback Levi Wallace in the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger's hasn't been very accurate on deep balls this year, and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner is hoping it's something they can fix with three games left in the regular season and the playoffs on the horizon.

"We'll throw deep balls today. We'll do it in individual (periods) and there won't be a defender on them and we won't tangle anyone's legs up and be falling down 30 yards down the field," Fichtner said on Thursday before practice. "But it does give you that sense of timing and rhythm again and, potentially, just the idea of seeing the throws and catch and the adjustment by a receiver.

"We know we have to get back to that. We know that in any one given year since I've been here the opportunity to throw the ball past the sticks in possession downs is critical to us. And being able to take shots on first and second down has to be completed at a greater rate."

The Steelers have the players to stretch the field and it's not like Roethlisberger isn't capable of completing deep passes. In Week 2 against the Denver Broncos, Roethlisberger completed an 84-yard touchdown pass to Chase Claypool. He also completed a 46-yard pass to Diontae Johnson in 21 mph wind in Week 10 against the Bengals, a game in which Roethlisberger threw for a season-high 333 yards and four touchdowns and led the Steelers to a 36-10 win.

"I would say that (Ben Roethlisberger) is more than capable of throwing the ball down the yard and making plays," Fichtner said. "We have enough guys that can actually go up and make a play. I think we have probably done it less than most. Just those numbers alone might say that and that might be an emphasis for us moving forward. I’m not afraid to throw it deep. I think a couple weeks back, we started the game in Washington, and we are going to attempt to throw it down the yard. It can be as early as the first play and definitely can be the last play. It’s something that we have to keep working and getting better at because they create chunks."

- The Steelers rushed for 47 yards on 17 attempts (2.8 average) in their 26-15 loss to the Bills last week. The Steelers have rushed for 48 yards or fewer in five of their last seven games and are currently ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards per game (89.1) and are tied for second to last in yards per attempt (3.7).

If the Steelers can't at least have a respectable rushing attack against the Bengals, then they probably will continue to be unsuccessful for the rest of the season and in the playoffs when it comes to running the ball. The Bengals allow 131.9 yards rushing per game and 4.6 yards per attempt, which both rank 27th in the league.

A lot of people in the media and fans have pointed the finger at the offensive line for the struggles in the run game due to not being physical enough. Analyst Booger McFarland called the Steelers' offensive line "soft" on ESPN the night after the game against the Bills.

"I just don’t think we are being as physical as we should be and need to be all of the time," Ben Roethlisberger said in a Zoom interview with the media on Wednesday. "I think that’s something we always took pride in as the Pittsburgh Steelers, being physical and coming out. Physicality isn’t just about the line. People just think that’s where it is, but really it’s about picking up blitzes. It’s about getting the tough yards. It’s about blocking the perimeter, things like that. Sometimes physicality is mental too. You have to be mentally tough.

Roethlisberger thinks the offensive line is getting blamed too much and collectively as a team, they just have to be more physical.

"When you talk about physicality, that’s where everyone automatically looks. Your eyes go to o-line, d-line because that’s every single play you have to be physical," Roethlisberger said. "I think it naturally falls in that area. I don’t think all the fingers should be pointed there by any means. I think when we talk about physicality, the line takes it personally because they want to be physical, but being physical doesn’t always just mean I’m going to blow him off the line of scrimmage or overpower him. Sometimes, like I say, being physically tough mentally in your mind, you have to find multiple ways to be physical. I think blitz pick-ups. I think all those things. I don’t want to get off track, but I don’t want to lose track that’s it not just about the line.

"It’s about all of us. As runners, sometimes there’s a guy in the hole, an unblocked guy. You have to put your head down and get the tough one or two yards. Sometimes receivers have to put their head down instead of stepping out of bounds and get those tough kind of yards. It’s not everybody, but collectively, we all need to be more physical. I hate that the finger gets pointed at the line because it shouldn’t be there, but that’s where it naturally kind of starts when you talk about a football team or an offense."

- The Bengals have scored just 31 points since rookie quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a season-ending ACL and MCL tear in the third quarter against the Washington Football Team in Week 11. Cincinnati has scored 17 points or fewer in each of their last five games. Ryan Finley will start at quarterback for Cincinnati in place of Brandon Allen, who's been ruled out with a knee injury. Finley is in his second year and was drafted in the fourth round out of North Carolina State last year by the Bengals. Finley has made three career starts, all of which came in 2019 and all losses. One of those starts came against the Steelers in Week 11 last year. Finley completed 12 of 26 passes (46.1%) for 192 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 84.1 in a 16-10 loss to the Steelers. Finley was also sacked four times and fumbled twice, losing one of the fumbles in the game. In his career, Finley has completed 51 of 106 passes (48.1) for 549 yards, two touchdowns, four interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 54.3. This year in relief, Finley has completed 10 of 19 passes (52.6%) for 75 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and has a quarterback rating of 22.8.

With all things considered and the Steelers ranking No. 1 in points allowed per game (18.2) this season, the defense should have its way against a debilitated Bengals' offense.

- The Bengals have been decimated by injuries this year. Along with Burrow -- the Bengals have running back Joe Mixon, left tackle Jonah Williams, tight end C.J. Uzomah, defensive tackles D.J. Reader and Geno Atkins, and cornerback Trae Waynes all on injured reserve. In total, the Bengals have 11 players on IR. The Bengals are not a great team, to begin with, but the injuries have really hampered them this year, especially losing Burrow for the rest of the season, as the offense scored 30 points or more in four games with him under center.

- The Steelers and Bengals are at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to sacks and sacks allowed this year. The Steelers lead the league in sacks with 45, while the Bengals' offensive line has allowed 46 sacks, which is the second-most in the NFL. T.J. Watt should have a field day against right tackle Bobby Hart. Watt has dominated Hart throughout his career. The Steelers' offensive line has allowed just 11 sacks, which is the fewest in the league and the Bengals have a measly 15 sacks, which is the second-fewest in the NFL. Defensive end Carl Lawson leads the Bengals in sacks with 4.5 and is by far their best pass rusher.

- The Steelers have struggled in the second half in their last two games, both of which ended in losses. They led 14-3 at halftime against the Washington Football Team and allowed Washington to drive down the field on a 14-play, 82-yard drive that was capped off with a 1-yard touchdown run by Peyton Barber on the first possession of the second half. Washington outscored the Steelers 20-3 in the second half and won the game, 23-17.

Last week against the Bills, the Steelers were down 9-7 at halftime and allowed the Bills to score a touchdown on their first two possessions of the second half. The Bills scored 23 unanswered points after the Steelers took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and ultimately won the game, 26-15.

"What happens in the second half is a lot of us not executing, not paying attention to the details," Minkah Fitzpatrick said on Thursday in a Zoom interview with the media. "It's late in the season, guys are beat up, guys are hurt, guys are mentally tired. It's not an excuse, but it's something we try to fix and correct.

"Any game is close when we give up big plays on defense. We could be holding them the entire game and then like what happened against Buffalo, where I missed a tackle and they ran it for 20 plus yards. They got in good field position. When plays like that happen it puts teams in good position. It gives them extra juice. It all starts with stopping those big plays that happen. We watched some film over the last five games, and we see it's a trend when we are not doing well is when we give up one or two big plays a game."

The Steelers should have an easier time in the second half against the Bengals, as Cincinnati has scored just 10 points in the second half in their last five games and has scored no points in the third quarter during that span.

- Steelers' guard Kevin Doston suffered a shoulder injury in the third quarter against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday night and did not practice all week. Dotson has been ruled out for Monday night, and it's expected that J.C. Hassenauer will start at left guard with Matt Feiler placed on injured reserve earlier this week after suffering a pectoral injury against the Bills. It will be Hassenauer's first career start at left guard. His first two career starts came at center against the Baltimore Ravens and Washington when he was filling in for Maurkice Pouncey, who was on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

The Steelers announced on Monday afternoon that running back James Conner was downgraded from questionable to out for the Bengals game. Conner suffered a quad injury against the Bills last week. Conner missed practice on Thursday but was limited on Friday and Saturday.

Cornerback Joe Haden was a full participant at practice all week after being out against Buffalo due to a concussion that he suffered on Dec. 7 against the Washington Football Team. Inside linebacker Vince Williams is still on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

For the Bengals, quarterback Brandon Allen (knee) and linebacker Logan Wilson (ankle) both did not practice all week and have been ruled out for Monday night's game. Safety Brandon Wilson (hamstring) is listed as questionable. Wilson was limited on Thursday and Friday but was a full participant on Saturday.

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