After breaking down film of the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Scouts Inc. runs down what to pay attention to during their matchup Thursday night, including tremendous play from the Steelers' linebackers, possible trick plays and Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder injury.
• This should be a big game for Pittsburgh's linebackers because the Bengals cannot match up against the second level of the Steelers' 3-4 defense. In the teams' first meeting, the Steelers recorded 7 sacks, and all of them came from the linebackers. Cincy really struggles to pass-protect the edge, and that gives Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley a huge advantage because of their speed and quickness. Plus, inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote are very effective on inside blitzes, where they can cross in the A-gaps on X-stunts.
• Roethlisberger is really struggling, and everyone is trying to figure out why. Is it his sore right shoulder? Is it the Steelers' lack of a run game? Is it porous offensive-line pass protection? It probably is all of the above. Big Ben has been sacked 28 times in nine games, the Steelers' run game is ranked 31st in yards per carry, and Roethlisberger has thrown eight interceptions in the past three games. There are no more bye weeks to rest his shoulder, and he probably is stuck with his current offensive line, but his run game has a chance to get better with a healthy Willie Parker. Look for Pittsburgh to become a more run-heavy offense down the stretch and for Big Ben to use a lot of play-action. Roethlisberger also will look for the running back so that he can get the ball out quicker to avoid so many hits, but that is not really his style. The Bengals' defense will pressure him more Thursday night than most people expect.
• Cincinnati's offensive line has a nightmare matchup versus the Steelers' relentless attacking defense. Last week, Philadelphia sacked Bengals QB Ryan Fitzpatrick eight times and hit him several other times. This unit has given up a whopping 38 sacks and will face a Pittsburgh defense that has registered 36 sacks. The Steelers will attack from every direction, so Fitzpatrick probably will have to go to three- and five-step drops to avoid the blitz because Cincy's offensive line has no chance to protect him.
• Defenses seem to be playing a lot of Cover 2 schemes versus the Steelers' pass offense, and they constantly are forced to throw a lot of underneath routes because defenses just won't let them go deep. Roethlisberger's longest pass last week versus San Diego was only 9 yards, and the Steelers are trying to make their receivers get quality yards after the catch.
• Even though their record is awful, the Bengals have played hard the past couple of weeks versus two superior opponents, Jacksonville and Philadelphia. This team may improve a little down the stretch instead of throwing in the towel. Offensively, the Bengals are a mess without QB Carson Palmer, but on defense they are young, aggressive and ranked 20th in the NFL, which is surprising considering how much they are on the field. They likely won't beat the Steelers, but they will play hard. That's something to build around.
• It would not be shocking to see Cincinnati use some Wildcat formations versus the Steelers -- especially because the Steelers are on a short work week and would have little practice time to prepare for it. WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh could take the direct snap and give this lethargic offense a boost. The Bengals have nothing to lose, and some gimmick plays probably would be well received by the players.
• A big challenge for the Bengals' offense is to recognize and adjust to Pittsburgh's blitz package. Ironically, the Steelers do a lot of their defensive damage before the ball is snapped. The perception is that they bring several defenders when they load up in the box. In reality, on a lot of snaps, only three attack while the defensive line plays two-gap, read-and-react schemes or drops into coverage during zone blitzes. A lot of the blitzes are overloads to one side, where there are too many blitzers for the blockers to pick up. It is not as complicated as it looks, but identifying before the snap who is coming can be really tough for an offensive line.
• Cincinnati must figure out how to pass-protect for Fitzpatrick versus the best (and most aggressive) defense in the NFL. Do they go to two-tight-end sets and compromise their passing game? Do they max-protect and have their backs stay in to block? Do they shorten the pass offense to mostly three- and five-step drops? To make matters worse, starting LT Levi Jones is questionable, which means Harrison is licking his chops.
• Pittsburgh tends to get away from the run game at times, and its play-calling is somewhat unconventional. In Week 11, on a snowy and cold field, the Steelers threw the ball 41 times but ran it only 28 times. Granted, injuries have really taken their toll on the running back position, but pounding the ball and controlling the clock is the identity of this team, no matter who carries the ball. Pittsburgh can control the clock and wear down the Bengals' defense with the run, which will set up play-action and take some pressure off a struggling offensive line.
• The difference in this game could be who does the best job in the red zone. The Steelers have the fourth-best offense in the red zone, which is surprising considering their lack of consistent power runs. They face a Bengals defense that is ranked 26th in the red zone, so there are plays to be made. The Steelers also have a huge edge when they are on defense in the red zone because they have allowed only 10 touchdowns on 29 possessions.
Gary Horton, a pro scout for Scouts Inc., has been a football talent evaluator for more than 30 years. He spent 10 years in the NFL and 10 years at the college level before launching a private scouting firm, The War Room.