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Steelers-Bengals Wild Card Preview

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For the second season in a row, the Steelers will meet a division rival in the opening round of the playoffs. And for the second year in a row, the Steelers will do so without their top running back.

After a rocky season filled with injuries, suspensions and more injuries, the postseason is finally here and the Steelers have earned a seat at the table. Pittsburgh will travel to Cincinnati for a Saturday night, prime time showdown against the AFC North-champion Bengals.

 

Pittsburgh (10-6) at Cincinnati (12-4)
NFL Wild Card Round
Saturday, Jan. 9
8:15 on CBS
Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio

What's On The Line: A trip to the AFC Divisional Round. The Steelers have not won a playoff game since the 2010 AFC championship game against New York Jets. If the Steelers beat the Bengals, they'll travel to Denver to face the top-seeded Broncos.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game, and the Bengals have not done so since the 1992 Wild Card round against the Houston Oilers. A Cincinnati win sends the Bengals to New England.

The Steelers enter the game as a 3-point road favorite.

Steelers Player to Watch: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. This is getting repetitive, but with DeAngelo Williams out for Saturday's game, even more of the offensive workload will fall on the Steelers' veteran QB. Receivers Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are polished route runners and legitimate vertical threats, but the Bengals are one of the best teams in the NFL against the deep ball. And with no Williams to balance Pittsburgh's attack, Pittsburgh risks becoming one-dimensional on offense.

Cincinnati's defensive line of Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Domata Perko and Michael Johnson has combined for 34.5 sacks between them and will pressure Roethlisberger. If the Bengals' defense can make Roethlisberger force the football down the field, it will be a long night for the black and gold. Roethlisberger, who has thrown six interceptions in his last three games, needs to be patient and rely on the explosive stop-start quickness of his receiving corps via slants and underneath routes that challenge Cincinnati's linebackers.

Bengals Player to Watch: Wide receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones. Despite AJ McCarron replacing Andy Dalton behind center, the presence of Green and Jones will put significant pressure on a shaky Steelers secondary. Green, Jones, Tyler Eifert and Mohamed Sanu have helped the Bengals become one of the most efficient passing offenses in football, with a passer rating of 104.1 -- second in the league, behind only the Seattle Seahawks. McCarron will be expected to manage that danagerous group of weapons.

"We're pleased with with AJ's preparation, his 'diving into everything' mentality, and how anxious for this opportunity he has been throughout the season," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's how he's gone about it, how he's directed the football team and assumed the role of leader of the offense. He knows the hat's on his head, and number one, it's paramount to direct the offense and do his part and take care of the football."

The Pittsburgh secondary has been unable to slow down prolific aerial attacks and McCarron should be confident in taking deep shots at the corners. Green and Jones will also open up room for Eifert and Sanu underneath, which should create some interesting matchups against the Steelers' athletic linebackers. 
 
Secondary Storylines: Running game. Steelers' defensive linemen Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and Stephon Tuitt -- as well as the entire linebacking corps -- will be challenged to keep Bengals' running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard in check.

If the Bengals can run downhill, it will take significant pressure off of McCarron. Expect to see Sanu take snaps out of the wild cat as well to give the Steelers defense yet another dimension to deal with.

For the Steelers, the team will be without Williams, who has played an enormous role in the absence of Le'Veon Bell.

After Bell was lost for the season and Williams became the every down back, the veteran averaged 4.7 yards per carry while rushing for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. He caught 32 passes for another 326 yards. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will carry the load while Williams heals.

"We’re extremely comfortable in terms of their ability to do what’s required. We may look a little different or we may not ask them to do some of the things specifically that we ask DeAngelo to do, but we expect those guys to be capable of delivering winning football for us,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

Of Note: Bengals safety Reggie Nelson has intercepted Roethlisberger six times in the last seven games he's faced him, including four times in the last three. Earlier this year, Nelson picked off Roethlisberger twice in the Bengals’ 16-10 win on Nov. 1 at Pittsburgh, and once in Cincinnati on Dec. 13 in a 33-20 Steelers win.

Injury Report: Both teams are relatively healthy heading into this playoff matchup with one obvious exception on each side.

In addition to Dalton (thumb), tight end/H-back Ryan Hewitt (knee) missed practice this week, and will likely sit out Saturday night's game. Keith Wenning will backup McCarron, who is making his first playoff start.

For the Steelers, Williams (ankle) will be replaced by Toussaint and Todman in the backfield.

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