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Bengals-Steelers pregame stretch...

December 10, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode

At a glance

Broadcasters: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf.

Annoyance factor: Gumbel is still among the best play-by-play announcers in the game. Dierdorf? Not so much. Dierdorf’s biggest problem is the same as many ex-jock analysts. He resorts to clichés almost exclusively in key situations. We can almost guarantee he’ll use one of these terms Sunday: It is what it is; Tough as nails; Ageless wonder.

Refereee: Walt Coleman

Competence rating: Coleman is regularly embroiled in controversy, the author of both the “tuck rule” decision and the San Antonio Holmes touchdown at Baltimore in 2008, so buckle your seatbelts and move all heavy and sharp objects at least an arms' length from your chair. It’s also become clear at this point that the referees are just as confused and gunshy as the players on the violent hits calls so make sure you keep the harness of that seatbelt over your shoulder.

Smarts say: The Steelers opened as a nine-point favorite, but that’s fallen to +8.5, meaning considerably more money was going on the Bengals and the points. You can see what the Vegas insiders think when the Las Vegas Hilton’s Supercontest picks are posted here sometime Saturday afternoon:

A lot to be concerned about

We thought we’d take a much-needed break from talking violent hits this week and take a look at the Steelers areas of concern (and there are many) heading into playoffs:

1. Offensive line

The Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2008 with a line that was worse than this one, but this one is a mess right now. Jonathan Scott is shaky at left tackle as you'd expect from a backup pressed into long-term starting. Ramon Foster is hoding is own at left guard (which is the easiest line position to play, by the way). Maurkice Pouncey was solid at center the first half of the year but might be hitting the wall that first-year players because they've never played into December before. Chris Kemoeatu is still a force in the running game, but he's playing with multiple injuries to both his upper and lower body and has been shaky in pass protection. Flozell Adams has been the Steelers best lineman at right tackle, still dominating in the run game and suprisingly adequate as a pass protector away from the spotlight of LT. However, Adams age is catching up with him as he seems to suffer a new injury each week.

2. Defensive line

Brett Kiesel's return last week was welcome, but the Steelers chances of making the Super Bowl probably hinge on the return of an effective Aaron Smith more than any other single player. Smith was cleared to start lifting weights last week and the sentiment is that the team is aming for a playoff return for Smith. Whether that's too soon for him to be effective (the triceps injury he suffered is usually a six-month rehab for a full tear, Smith's tear was partial) is yet to be seen. Smith's ability to set the edge and chew up blockers is the engine that drives a lot of the big plays the Steelers D traditionally makes. Ziggy Hood has been adequate, and getting better, in Smith's stead, but if you remember how the defense played the first four weeks of the season vs. how they've played since then you know the kind of impact the return of a healthy Smith would have.

3. Bryant McFadden

McFadden's skills have obviously diminished (although Steelers fans should always remember that his pass defensed against Reggie Wayne in the end zone in the waning seconds of the playoff game with the Colts in 2006, which set up Mike Vanderjagt's missed field goal, had as much to do with the team's Super Bowl championship that year as any other single play) but a hamstring injury is exacerbating the situation now. Probably no player on the Steelers would be more thrilled to see Aaron Smith back than McFadden, who was solid (and virtually invisible) the first month of the season but has been exposed badly in the past eight weeks. With Smith on the line, the Steelers' schemes can favor pass coverage support for McFadden, rather than run support for Ziggy Hoold or Nick Eason.

4. Kicking game

If we'd have told you September 1 that the Steelers' kickers on December 12 would be Shaun Suisham and Jeremy Kapinos you might have assumed things had gone terribly wrong with the season. Most fans, though, are pretty happy with the kicking situation. Suisham is beloved right now (because he hasn't missed a kick yet in five tries) and Kapinos is a home-state replacement for the injury-prone Sepulveda. Please bear in mind that Suisham has yet to attempt a field goal at Heinz Field and December and January is not when you want to be developing chemistry between your long snapper, holder and kicker. We will officially be holding our breath on every kick and punt until the end of this season.

5. Rashard Mendehall's health

Mendenhall's 257 carries are third in the league to Pocket Hercules (261) and Steven Jackson (260). And while it's great to have a reliable feature back, it's a disaster to have an injured feature back. Where would Jacksonville and St. Louis be without the other two? While the situation might not be quite so dire with Pittsburgh in a one-game scenario, it's unlikely the Steelers could mount the three- or four-game win streak needed to claim the Super Bowl with Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore in the backfield.

All eyes turning to beating New England

Now that the Patriots are starting to look like the 2007 juggernaut again, it's time to remind ourselves that the formula for beating New England is fairly simple and straightforward (although difficult to execute):

1. The first rule of beating the Patriots is DON'T TALK ABOUT BEATING THE PATRIOTS! Countless players and coaches have yet to learn the lesson that Anthony Smith, Rex Ryan and soon Brian Urlacher, already have learned.

2. The second rule of beating the Patriots is to ATTACK THEM VERTICALLY with your offense. They're near of the bottom of the league in passing defense for a reason, but you've got to turn those passing yards into points.

3. The final rule of beating the Patriots is the most difficult for most teams (including the Steelers) to handle. You have to be able to GET CONSISTENT PRESSURE ON BRADY WITH FOUR RUSHERS to beat New England, as most famously executed by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. If you can do that, you can play mostly dime behind it and take away the majority of those short and intermediate passes that killed Pittsburgh earlier this year. Then, you've got a fighting chance.

The pick

This looks like a classic letdown game. But the mere fact that a lot of what was gained by the Steelers on Sunday night would be given back with a loss here (especially if it is coupled with a Ravens win in Texas Monday night) should keep the home team on point. That being said, the Bengals are still largely the same team talent-wise (perhaps with the exception of Carson Palmer, who everyone admits has now fallen from the top tier of NFL QBs) that was picked by many to win this division. Cincinnati's problems have involved scheme (too much passing, not enough Ced Benson) and execution (too many mental errors) and those are both things that can be fixed quickly on a one-game basis. We're expecting your usual AFC North donneybrook complete with a T.O. touchdown, a Polamalu pick, a Mike Wallace bomb, Shaun Suisham's first miss and a last-minute TD drive from #7 and the Steelers ... Steelers 28, Bengals (-9) 27.

Prediction record

Last week: Steelers (-3) win and cover; CORRECT, CORRECT

Season straight up: 6-6, .500 (Hey, that would get us in the playoffs in the NFC West!)

Season vs. spread: 3-9, .250 (Sadly, this remains fodder for harassment by Neil Rudel)

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