#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Will revenge plans be bad JuJu for the Bengals?

WEEK 5

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (1-2-1) VS. CINCINNATI BENGALS (4-1)

CBS, SUNDAY, 1 P.M., PAUL BROWN STADIUM, 65,515

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: THAT’S BETTER / Everything clicks for Steelers in critical win over Falcons

The Steelers finally got it together and got huge plays in all three phases to whip the Falcons, 41-17, in a game where Atlanta looked very much like the team Pittsburgh has been in its first four games: Missing tackles, committing critical penalties and seeming totally out of sync on offense. Whether this is a turning point for the home team will become apparent very quickly with a showdown with the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals looming on the schedule.

This week’s announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and Evan Washburn. This is CBS’s No. 2 crew now, but they’re still a bit too uneven for our liking. Eagle makes too many mistakes on names (although he is nothing like Chris Myers, who was all over the place last week on FOX) and Fouts can be spot on one minute and clueless the next (case in point, earlier this year in Chiefs at Steelers when he didn’t know the rule on illegal forward pass). Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Mostly cloudy, high 50s. Perfect football weather (and as we write this it seems certain the remnants of Hurricane Michael will stay well south and east of the Queen City. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Clete Blakeman. We’re glad to see one of the most respected white hats and crews in the league on this game (although the NFL doesn’t take things like potential for mayhem into consideration when scheduling so it’s pure chance). Interestingly, this crew’s 2018 averages, 13 flags and 103 yards assessed per game, are right in line with their 2017 line so, on the surface, it would appear the new points of emphasis have not made them any more flag happy. Of course, Mike Tomlin (member of the Competition Committee and usually a solid “league guy”) finally had enough last week and took the NFL to task for its botched handling of new safety points of emphasis after two asinine roughing-the-passer fouls were thrown by Referee John Parry. We won’t debate the fouls. You saw them. We would like to note that pattern, though, between the rollout of these changes this year and the rollout of centralized replay last year. For both, preseason concern became regular season chaos, resulting in an emergency meeting to try and mitigate damage, followed by more chaos. There’s one thing other thing in common: The man in charge of doing it right and getting it right – and that’s Director of Officiating Alberto Riveron. Centralized replay: Good idea. Protecting quarterbacks: Good idea. Implementation of rules aimed at doing those things: Disaster. That’s a leadership problem and that’s squarely on Riveron and his boss, Roger Gooddell. 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: Don’t look now, but Pittsburgh was won the last six meetings between these teams, nine of the last 10 and 14 of the last 17. In 2017, the Steelers won handily at Heinz Field in October then rallied from a 17-0 deficit to win 23-20 on a Chris Boswell field on the game’s last play in December in Cincy. Despite the W, that game will long be remembered as the game where Ryan Shazier was injured after making a seemingly benign first-half tackle.

The line: Cincinnati -2.5/54.5. Smarts say: Just a half-point nudge on this one, after opening at -3, just about exactly what you’d expect for any NFL division game these days. Once again, the over is in vogue for this game with about 75 percent of bettors on it at this writing. Putting the line and o/u together and you get something like 29-26 Bengals. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 4th passing, 27th rushing, 5th scoring (28.6 ppg), 7th sacks allowed (9)

CIN defense, 21st passing, 25th rushing, 21st scoring (26.0 ppg), 13th sacks (13)

When the Bengals have the ball:

CIN offense, 15th passing, 23rd rushing, 4th scoring (30.6 ppg), 7th sacks allowed (9)

PIT defense, 29th passing, 21st rushing, 25th scoring (26.6 ppg), 1st sacks (19)

Giveaway/Takeaway: CIN +0 (15th in league); PIT -2 (26th in league)

Strength of schedule (games played so far): CIN .458; PIT .565

So…: Doing this exercise each week reveals some things that are hidden in plain sight, like the fact that the Falcons team stats mirror the Bengals team stats in every single category, yet one team is 4-1 and one is 1-4. That’s life in the NFL. Information courtesy www.nfl.comand www.espn.com.

Players on the spot:

Pittsburgh: Joe Haden

Why: Rightly or wrongly, Haden is getting the reputation as Pittsburgh’s defensive savior. Haden played the biggest role last week in completely eliminating Julio Jones from the Falcon’s game plan and for an encore he gets A.J. Green with Pittsburgh’s division title hopes likely on the line already in Week 6.

Cincinnati: Vontaze Burfict

Why: The Bengals are 4-1 and playing excellent football and the last thing they need is another stupid, macho controversy with the Steelers that somehow always ends up with someone getting hurt and Pittsburgh winning. Enter Burfict, the out-of-control whacko, freshly back another season-starting suspension, this one for PEDs. Of course, the last time we saw Burfict, JuJu Smith-Schuster was standing over him (eliciting a taunting penalty) after delivering a vicious block on the edge of the rules. It would be best for the Bengals if Burfict went out Sunday and did the talking with his play. But, as we all know from having watched him play, the likelihood of that happening is slim. If Burfict goes off and the Bengals lose, watch their season spiral out of control. Can he control himself?

Key matchups:

Browns DBs Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson vs. Steelers WR Antonio Brown. Why: Ben Roethlisberger and Brown appeared to finally find some semblance of rhythm in the second half last week (according the NFL’s next gen stats, Brown has been open 21 times this year and Roethlisberger has missed him, more than double the next highest missed connection rate) and with the Bengals emotional focus likely to be on JuJu Smith-Schuster, this could be the game where AB breaks loose. On the other hand, if the Bengals DBs, who are good but streaky, can put the clamps back on Brown, it could be a long afternoon for Pittsburgh.

Quick hits:

+ It’s beginning to look more and more like the biggest obstacle to Le’Veon Bell returning to the Steelers and giving them a two-headed backfield for a playoff push will be…Ben Roethlisberger. It strikes us that this is the exact kind of situation Mike Tomlin excels at handling, removing emotion, boiling it down to X’s O’s and professionalism. It also strikes us that this is the kind of thing Roethlisberger handles emotionally. Could make for an interesting tug of war in a couple weeks.

+ So, one week after we called him out for invisibility, T.J. Watt played one of the most dominant games by a Steelers defender in years. Pro Football Focus, which had him rated 86th out of 111 outside linebackers entering the game, graded him as the top edge performer in the league last week and he’s now ranked 71st on their list. His six sacks put him atop the league stats (along with a bunch of other players, including his brother J.J.). So, which player is Watt? The hell raiser we saw against the Browns and Falcons or the benign presence we’ve seen otherwise? A player that records one sack per week would be a record setter and a multimillionaire. But does a player who bunches those sacks into four or five games over the course of a season have the same value? Hopefully, Watt will get more consistent in his play and we won’t have to find out.

+ Whenever a high profile free agent hits the market, we like to do a Twitter search for that player’s name + Steelers to see how many fans are begging the Steelers to sign a player they usually a) can’t afford, given their current cap situation, and b) doesn’t really fit their style of play or needs. Khalil Mack? Sign him! Shady McCoy? Sign him! Colin Kapernick? Sign him! Josh Norman? Sign him!!!! All that said, we think the Steelers should take a look at signing Giants castoff Ereck Flowers, the massive offensive tackle taken with the ninth pick in the 2015 Draft, who has consistently ranked as the worst blind-side protector in football. The reason we think this situation is different is because of Pittsburgh offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who’s shown again and again the uncanny ability to coach up and develop linemen.

+ Speaking of draft picks, we’d like to see James Washington catch a football or two this weekend.

+ Antonio Brown used to be known as an insanely hard worker, but with each new bizarre story and twist in his life, he’s getting close to just plain insane.

The pick: Talk about a season shaping game: Win and you’re back in the thick of the AFC North race and control your own destiny; Lose and your effectively three games behind the leader and heading into what’s sure to be a bye week of controversy and turmoil. We said it two weeks ago and we’ll say it again: This season just doesn’t feel like one where the Steelers are going to miraculously get it together. There’s too many things going wrong on too many different levels. No, it feels like the Bengals year (about once a decade, they have a year)… Cincinnati 31-21.

Last week: We were happily wrong about the Steelers being unable to stop the Falcons’ three-headed WR corps (although we think Matt Ryan had a lot to do with that), leaving us at 1-3-1 straight up and 1-4 against the spread (giving back all the pretend money we won last year).

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