Sunday, December 15, 2013

NFL Preview 2013 Week 15: Bengals vs Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals vs Pittsburgh Steelers

Market Watch

This game is sure to get a lot of attention this week, not only because of its prime-time status, but also due to the evolving point spread.

A week ago LVH set the look-ahead line at Bengals -1.  After the Steelers lost at home to the Dolphins and Cincy took care of Indy, the line re-opened at -3.

Almost immediately the early money told us that 3 points was too much to give Pittsburgh as a home dog, and now we are seeing -2's across the board.

The true line for this game should be around 'pick em', so I do agree with the market move off the key number of 3.

Right now, 70% of the bets are still coming in on the Bengals.

Keep an eye on

When it comes to forecasting the future of the Cincinnati Bengals, most analysts will say something along the lines of, "Andy Dalton can run the system, but he does not elevate it".  Through 14 weeks, he ranks around the middle of the pack in QB efficiency. He's had stretches of really good play mixed in with some duds.

He has the smarts to play the position effectively, and he has the tools an offense can build around, but he lacks arm strength and athleticism. We are also waiting for him to step up in a big spot and deliver an impactful win.

The good news for Cincy fans is Dalton has a really great surrounding cast, and they matchup well with the Steelers defense across the board.  While Pittsburgh's defense isn't as bad as they were earlier in the season, they still rank below average in every single meaningful statistical category.

Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Fame coach, but he can only do so much with what he has to work with.  It would be a tremendous boost if they excelled in one particular area, whether that's sacking the QB, pass coverage, third down or red zone defense, etc. Instead, they'll simply have to hope that they can do enough to allow their offense to win the game.

With guys like Gio Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jermaine Gresham, and A.J. Green on the roster, Pittsburgh might have to pick their poison. On top of that, the Bengals offensive line is playing some great ball right now. Over the last few weeks, this group has vaulted the Cincy red zone offense near the top of the NFL.

On the flip side, Big Ben has really turned his game around over the past month. Unfortunately for them, it's a case of 'too little too late' when it comes to playoff hopes, but they've played well enough to avoid a disastrous season.

The challenge for the Pittsburgh offense is they are going to have to earn all their points on Sunday. There's not one area where they have a clear-cut advantage. For instance, the Steelers have had fantastic results with their third down/red zone offense over recent weeks, but Cincy's defense have played equally well in those areas (if not better).

It usually starts up front with Pittsburgh's offensive line. It's been a mess for what seems like forever, and now they are trying to figure out how to secure the center spot with Cody Wallace. According to ProFootballFocus, he only gave up two pressures in his first start last week, but both of them went for sacks.

This is a position that is often overlooked, but it can have a huge impact on the outcome of a game. The Bengals defensive line hasn't produced like expected this year, but they do have the weapons to exploit weaknesses up front.

Bottom Line

If you're leaning towards Pittsburgh, it's tough to make a legitimate case for them. The only factors in their favor are home field advantage and a little more reliability at quarterback. Most of the advantages favor Cincy in all areas of the game, including special teams. The problem is those advantages aren't significant, which leaves us with a fairly accurate point spread.

The only option I would look at are the Bengals, but it's hard to put faith in Andy Dalton in a divisional prime-time game until he proves himself more. His performance in this game could give us an indication of what to do with the Bengals in the following weeks though.