PREGAME STRETCH: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

Banged-up Steelers may be primed for a prime-time letdown

THE GAME: PITTSBURGH STEELERS (9-2) VS CINCINNATI BENGALS (5-6)

ESPN, MONDAY, 8:30 P.M., PAUL BROWN STADIUM, 65,515.

Announcers: Sean McDonough and John Gruden. It’s interesting to us that the most interesting things McDonough says come outside the booth, where he’s been highly critical of the NFL and ESPN both. Not surprising, we guess, for a newspaper man’s son. In the booth, though, he remains the vanilla ice cream of play-by-play guys. Of course, we think Gruden is the weakest of the big-time analysts, a caricature of his coaching persona who adds very little insight, but don’t tell him we said that. Information courtesy www.the506.com

Weather – or not: Partly cloudy, warm, temps falling into the 50s. The warm weather continues for Pittsburgh games, although it looks like just maybe we’ll have some winter for Ravens v. Steelers next week. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Walt Anderson. The terms “Walt Anderson” and “blunder” have become almost synonymous (do a Google search and enjoy) so buckle up for what could be a bumpy ride. This crew did the Steelers-Ravens game at Baltimore earlier this season so a potentially chippy division game is nothing new to them. Before that game, Mike Tomlin warned his team about this crew’s penchant for penalties and that is holding true this year with the crew averaging 15 flags and 127 penalty yards per game against league averages of 13.5 and 117. They threw 14 flags for 115 yards in that Ravens game in September. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com (it takes three, count ’em, three web sites to provide you with the best each week in officiating background information).

The last time: The Steelers defense kept both A.J. Green and Joe Mixon in check and Pittsburgh’s struggling offense scored the final 15 points of the game on five Chris Boswell field goals in a 29-14 win at Heinz Field in October that gave the home team a stranglehold on the AFC North. Mixon rushed for 48 yards and Green caught only three passes for 41 yards as the Bengals failed to score in the game’s second half.

The line: Pittsburgh -5/43.5

Smarts say: This opened at -6.5 and there was a run on the Bengals before it settled at -5 where about 55 percent of bettors are the Steelers. The low over/under means something like 24-19 Steelers. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 5th passing, 19th rushing, 12th scoring (23.5 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (15)

CIN defense, 5th passing, 28th rushing, 10th scoring (19.5 ppg), 4th sacks (33)

When the Bengals have the ball:

CIN offense, 28th passing, 31st rushing, 25th scoring (18.1 ppg), 23rd sacks allowed (28)

PIT defense, 3rd passing, 6th rushing, 4th scoring (17.5 ppg), 2nd sacks (38)

So…: The biggest mismatch on paper in this game is the (lowly) Cincinnati offense against the (vaunted) Pittsburgh defense. Um, let’s see how that turns out Monday, K? Information courtesy www.nfl.com

Key matchups: Bengals A.J. Green vs. Steelers corners

Why: In case you didn’t know, Joe Haden has had A.J. Green’s number for pretty much his whole career, including holding him to a quiet three catches for 41 yards in these teams first meeting this year. You saw the dumpster fire at corner Sunday night that was exploited by Brett Hundley and Davante Adams, Jamaal Williams and Randall Cobb. What might Green and Andy Dalton have in store?

Player on the spot: Artie Burns

Why: Burns was virtually invisible for the first six weeks of the Steelers season, which is a very good thing. But the Pittsburgh defense’s recent penchant for surrendering long pass plays and a dreadful prime time performance last week have placed a bullseye squarely on his back. He’s now the guy Steelers fans would like to run out of town and it’s going to be difficult to improve that standing covering A.J. Green and Brandon Lafell.

Quick hits:

+ The Steelers are second in the league with 38 sacks and only one-third of those sacks have come from outside linebackers (5.0 T.J. Watt, 4.0 Bud Dupree, 3.0 Anthony Chickillo, 1.0 James Harrison) and FIVE of those 13 sacks came in Week 1 vs. Cleveland. While linebacker sacks are not the end all and be all as they were in the Blitzburgh 3-4 defense days, that’s still a very concerning lack of production and obviously the bullseye on that is pointed at Dupree and Chickillo, both of who seem to be regressing in their careers. There’s a theory floating around out there that Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler are holding James Harrison back until the final stretch (read, New England game) and playoffs, but we can’t believe that’s the case.

+ There’s wide agreement that David DeCastro is now the best guard in football, which is exactly what was forecast for him when he was drafted with the 24th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. DeCastro was available at #24 because the Bengals, who also needed help at that position, traded down from #21 to #27, where they eventually selected Kevin Zeitler, generally considered to be a second round talent. For a while, it looked like the Cincy braintrust were geniuses as Zeitler excelled in the NFL early while DeCastro struggled. But in five seasons since, DeCastro has gotten better each year while Zeitler has settled in as a good not great NFL starter. Of course, that didn’t stop the Browns from making free agent Zeitler the highest paid guard in football earlier this year, but that’s a story for another day.

+ If we really wanted to be a glass half empty type, we’d point out a simple toe injury shortened Jack Lambert’s career by about three years.

The pick: We have a pretty strong inclination here that the Bengals are going to light the Steelers up on Monday night with the caveat that it only applies if Antonio Brown and Ryan Shazier DO play for the Steelers (and we are assuming they will). If they do not play, this becomes a gut check/character game and we think Pittsburgh will ugly it up and win. But if the Steelers field a team that is nearly full strength, they’re in trouble. (Got that reverse logic?) They have been flirting with disaster in games against Detroit and Green Bay and it’s time for that to come home to roost this week. This is also a game that ultimately means everything to Cincinnati and not that much to Pittsburgh. The Steelers can afford to lose one game down the stretch as long as they beat the Patriots and if they don’t beat the Patriots it probably won’t matter seeding-wise if they lose another game beside that one. Capish? We’re expecting big games from A.J. Green and Joe Mixon and a comfortable Bengals win that will have yinzers on the ledge come Tuesday … Bengals 33-17.

Last week: My word, we nailed that last game, taking the Steelers to win and the Packers to cover, missing the actual score by two total points and noting that we expected Brett Hundley to be much better than he was at Baltimore. That elevates us to 7-4 straight up and 7-4 against the spread. Now, we’re making (imaginary) money!

COMMENTS