The Bengals are coming into this Week 15 battle with the Steelers handicapped. Not only are they down their promising rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, but now his backup Brandon Allen is also out for this week, too. They placed star defensive tackle Geno Atkins on injured reserve earlier this week, ending his season.
As such, they are a walking wounded 2-10-1 team that is facing an 11-2 division leader trying to find their identity. For the Steelers, this is the ideal “get right” game by any standards. However, what can the Bengals bring to try and be competitive against the Steelers?
The Quarterback Dilemma
The Bengals have quite the situation at quarterback. Down to third-string quarterback Ryan Finley, it is tough to see how they exactly can build around him with this offense. Finley has a below-average and simply can not push the ball down the field.
That means if the Steelers want to get aggressive and play some press coverage to take away easy, open throws and clog up the throwing windows, they can score some turnovers off of Finley. While mentally savvy, he just is nothing more than a check down champion who will be looking for the short throw nearly all game.
The Steelers faced Finley last season and employed a similar strategy of man coverage. They tried to really condense those throwing windows to dare Finley to make those throws. Giovanni Bernard will key in this area as the check down running back. The Washington Football Team and JD McKissic had success out of the backfield two weeks ago versus the Steelers, so that could be an area the Bengals look to attack.
Regardless, much like they have had to do since Burrow was injured, the Bengals will have to tailor their offense to a limited quarterback. They can try to rely heavily on the running game, but this is not a great offensive line either. If Finley were surrounded by elite talent or perhaps a top-flight play-caller, the Steelers would worry a lot more. Currently, Cincinnati has neither of those things and they should have numerous opportunities to take advantage of Finley.
Players to Watch
WR Tee Higgins
The last time these two teams faced off, Higgins went over the century mark on the day and was the Bengals leading receiver. He is a guy that Finley will rely upon given his size and physicality. Maybe Higgins can make a play or two happen for Finley and they can get a chunk play out of it as a result. Higgins has been marvelous in his rookie season and that is unlikely to change this week even with the return of Joe Haden to the field. They will need all hands on deck to slow down Higgins and keep him contained this time around. Expect the Steelers to potentially play tight off-man coverage instead of press coverage against Higgins given his size and physicality at the line of scrimmage.
S Jessie Bates
As mentioned prior to these teams meeting up for the first time, Jessie Bates is an elite free safety. The Steelers have talked about trying to get that deep passing game on track, and that will not be easy with the presence of Bates in the secondary. He is the whole package. From elite range to ball skills, the Bengals have a gem of a player on the back end of their defense. The Bengals defense in general has been somewhat stingy against the deep pass at times this season thanks to the play of Bates. He takes away most of the deep middle just with his presence, so if the Steelers want to connect on a deep pass, they will need either schematic creativity to open up the middle or hit it outside of the numbers. Last time out, they hit a few sharp deep balls outside of the numbers. A double move to Diontae Johnson is the notable deep ball they hit to spark the offense.
WR Tyler Boyd
Highlighting yet another receiver, Pittsburgh native Tyler Boyd is always a headache to face. His crisp route running and toughness out of the slot make him a weapon to reckoned with. Mike Hilton has struggled against him in the past, and it is likely that Boyd will get his victories on Monday night in that matchup. The contested-catch aspect of his game is one he uses less because he gets so open, but Boyd can go up and get it. Still, the Steelers want to play him tight and try to force him off his route. Those tight window throws are a low percentage play, and even Boyd will not win them all.
Matchup to Watch
Diontae Johnson vs Bengals secondary
It feels like Johnson finds himself as an integral part of the Steelers offensive gameplan every week, and for good reason. He is the guy that Ben Roethlisberger wants to feed this offense through. His targets are consistently through the roof as a result of his ability to get open and win after the catch. Against a depleted Bengals secondary and cornerback room, Johnson should be a guy that they target at all three levels of the field. Expect a couple of vertical targets for Johnson on top of all his usual underneath stuff. If he can reel in the drop issues, there is no doubt that Johnson can be electric and an essential part of any Steelers offensive gameplan. This is a perfect week for him to prove it.