Steelers, Bengals renew bitter rivalry
It’s rare for a rivalry to face calls for both teams to ratchet down their aggression, but the Steelers and Bengals have acknowledged a desire to keep things under control ahead of their grudge match.
The second of last year’s showdowns was a flashpoint for that animosity, as the teams combined for 20 flags, nine of which were for unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness. With the NFL further prohibiting the use of the helmet, there will be less leeway for the kind of hits leveled by Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who knocked out linebacker Vontaze Burfict and celebrated while standing over him, and Bengals safety George Iloka, who doled out a head shot to wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Regardless of the bad blood, Sunday could prove to be a defining day in the AFC North race. The Steelers’ once offkilter offense found its footing in a 41-17 win over the Falcons, but the Bengals have jumped to a lead in the division due to an opportunistic defense that has been able to overcome its deficiencies.
Perhaps the biggest matchup hinges on the health of Bengals cornerback William Jackson III, the burgeoning star who held Brown to zero catches on eight targets when the two faced off in last year’s games. Jackson is listed as questionable (knee), and his absence would have a ripple effect on a secondary that also must account for Smith-Schuster. Rookie Jessie Bates’ range in coverage will be vital, as Pittsburgh’s receivers provide gamebreaking potential.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who is tied for the league lead with six sacks and commands consistent double teams, will be counted on to continue to create havoc up front. But offensive guard David DeCastro and the rest of the Steelers line haven’t flinched often this year, ranking No. 4 in pass-blocking efficiency and allowing pressures on just 24.8 percent of all dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. If Atkins and Carlos Dunlap can’t generate heat on Ben Roethlisberger, it could spell trouble given that Cincinnati ranks second-to-last in third-down conversion rate allowed (52.7 percent).
The wild card might be Burfict, who will be playing in his second game since suffering a concussion in December’s melee. While the talented linebacker has shown he can be a difference-maker, his proclivity toward running hot and generating penalties could change the complexion of the game.
Here are more matchups that will define Week 6 in the NFL:
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes vs. Patriots’ pass rush: New England coach Bill Belichick has been effusive in his praise of Kansas City’s second-year standout and his arm strength, saying his ability to get the ball downfield forces teams to defend much more space. But it’s Mahomes’ mobility that should be of more worry, as he could continue to strain secondaries by extending plays and creating more opportunities for his playmakers. For New England, containment might be a priority over full-on pressure.
Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Ravens secondary: Still playing with a partial glove on his throwing hand, Mariota hasn’t been quite right for most of the year. He has been held to fewer than 130 passing yards in all but one of his games. But with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis combining to average 3.3 yards per carry, the Titans don’t have much recourse for lightening their reliance on Mariota. Awaiting Tennessee is a Baltimore defense that ranks as the NFL’s best in completion rate allowed (54.8 percent) and opposing passer rating (71.8) and yards per attempt (5.9). The Ravens boast a deep and talented secondary, so Mariota might have to continue to provide a spark by taking off outside the pocket.
Dolphins OT Ja’Wuan James vs. Bears LB Khalil Mack: Injuries have turned Miami’s offensive line into a patchwork product, and the pressure allowed by the front last week in a loss to the Bengals led to two fourth-quarter defensive touchdowns. Now that unit has to account for Mack, who has five sacks and four forced fumbles in four games. And the stakes are clear: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a 21.1 passer rating when pressured, second worst in the NFL, according to ESPN. The expected return of Laremy Tunsil at left tackle should help, but James is the one who likely will face Mack for most of the day. Tannehill also seems particularly vulnerable to the strip-sacks that the pass rusher has made commonplace, as he has 51 fumbles in 82 career games.
Jaguars RB T.J. Yeldon vs. Cowboys LBs Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch: Yeldon will again shoulder a significant load as Jacksonville’s lead back, even after the signing of Jamaal Charles. The fourth-year veteran has averaged 86 rushing yards per game in the three contests that Leonard Fournette (hamstring) has missed. The Jaguars also are likely in line for an offensive recalibration after Blake Bortles threw 99 passes in the last two weeks. Dallas’ defense, however, has allowed just 3.4 yards per carry. Smith and Vander Esch are among the brightest spots for the unit, giving the Cowboys a tandem of linebackers with impressive range in coverage and run support. Dallas will also benefit from the expected season debut of defensive tackle David Irving.
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown caught a TD pass against Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, left, and George Iloka, right, and the free safety was flagged for unnecessary roughness for a hit on the play in December.