Key matchup: Steelers run defense vs. Bengals ground game

Posted Oct. 20, 2012 @ 10:33 a.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

Can the Bengals get their running game going? If so, it won't hurt their chances at beating Pittsburgh for the first time since 2009. We take a closer look in Saturday's key matchup.

Steelers run defense vs. Bengals ground game 

The Bengals' passing game can hurt the opposition in quick-strike fashion. Such is the luxury of having A.J. Green in the lineup. 

The Bengals' running game is a different story. 

Through six games, the Bengals are gaining 99.3 rushing yards per game, good for 21st in the NFL. The more salient statistic, however, is the club's yards-per-carry average: 3.87, which is just about what the club gained per carry a season ago (3.91). What's more, if that average holds through the entire season, it will mark the sixth time in seven campaigns that Cincinnati gained less than four yards per carry. The lone exception was in 2009, when the Bengals, powered in part by the running of Cedric Benson, won the AFC North. And even then, the Bengals ranked 24th in yards per carry (4.07). 

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has replaced Benson (now with Green Bay) as the Bengals' featured back, is a tough, dependable inside runner without a great deal of speed. Green Ellis (107 carries, 362 yards, two TDs) is also known for his ball security, but he has fumbled three times this season, losing two. With Brian Leonard hurting, Cedric Peerman figures to be Green-Ellis' top backup on Sunday night. 

When the Bengals lost Bernard Scott to a season-ending knee injury in Week Five, they lost their lone real big-play threat in the backfield. However, Green-Ellis still can be a productive and successful back in this offense, one that's going to stick with the ground game even if it struggles. If he can consistently gain between 4-6 yards on early downs and put the offense in workable situations on second and third downs, he will have done his job well. However, to this point, he has gained just 213 yards on 69 first-down carries, per STATS — a 3.1 yard average. 

While the Bengals' ground game has some room for improvement, the same can be said for the Steelers' run defense. Pittsburgh, which allowed a mere 3.02 yards per carry just two seasons ago, is allowing 4.13 yards per rushing attempt entering Week Seven. That places the Steelers at No. 20 in that category. Of particular note: The Steelers are allowing 4.82 yards per carry on middle runs, close to a yard worse than a season ago. 

There will be a lot of focus on whether the Steelers' pass defense can stop Green, who's one of the NFL's very best receivers. Forcing Cincinnati into obvious passing situations alone won't slow Green, but it won't hurt the cause. That's one of reasons why this matchup matters as these teams fight to avoid losing their fourth game of the season.