Key matchup: Bengals running game vs. Steelers run defense

Mike Wilkening
Bengals DE Johnson receives franchise tag

Here’s a matchup to watch in Sunday’s Bengals-Steelers game:

Bengals running game vs. Steelers run defense

When we first explored this matchup two months ago, the Bengals' running game was shaky

Now, it is rolling. 

In the last five games, Cincinnati has racked up 841 rushing yards, which is just about as many yards as it gained on the ground in the first nine contests (843). 

On Sunday, that ground game will go a long way in determining whether the Bengals can knock off the Steelers in Pittsburgh and clinch a playoff spot for the second consecutive season.

A productive running game will take pressure off of their passing game, which hasn’t done much against Pittsburgh in the last two seasons. QB Andy Dalton is winless against Pittsburgh, failing to throw more than 170 yards in any of his previous three starts. If this game ends up solely on Dalton’s right shoulder, the Bengals will be one-dimensional and thus at a disadvantage against the Steelers’ sound, experienced defense, which is allowing fewer yards than any other team.

Ideally, the Bengals can mix the run and the pass, keep Dalton in ideal down-and-distance situations and string a few scoring drives together early in the game. If the Bengals can force the Steelers into pass-first mode, Cincinnati could have the edge. The Bengals have a robust pass rush. 

That said, the Steelers, with QB Ben Roethlisberger and a strong pass-catching corps, are more equipped to play a pass-first game than the Bengals. The Steelers have more of a margin for error in this game simply because of Roethlisberger’s presence. He can make the game-changing play.

On his very best, Dalton may have that ability Sunday, too. But that is no guarantee.

Nor is it a guarantee that the Bengals will be able to establish the run against the Steelers, who are allowing the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game (92.7) and per play (3.72).

Nevertheless, the Bengals need to stick with the ground game. Featured back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is in top form, exceeding 100 yards in four of the last five games and giving Cincinnati its top rushing threat since Cedric Benson three seasons ago.

In the first meeting with Pittsburgh back in October, the Bengals’ ground game got off to a strong start, with Green-Ellis racking up 44 yards on eight carries as Cincinnati put together a 15-play, 80-yard TD drive on its first series. The Bengals repeatedly found success rushing off right tackle.

Thereafter, the Bengals’ ground game — and offense — stalled. Green-Ellis rushed for just 25 yards on 10 carries the rest of the way in a 24-17 Cincinnati loss.

However, that first drive is all the motivation the Bengals should need to stick with the run on Sunday. That 15-play march took more than eight minutes — close to 15 percent of regulation.

In their biggest game of the season, the more the Bengals can keep Roethlisberger on the sidelines, the better.