When the Cincinnati Bengals roll into the Three Rivers city on Sunday to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, fans might be forgiven if they feel like they’ve been transported to an earlier time. Even in these high-flying modern days, when the NFL is dominated by quarterbacks, the AFC North division championship is likely to be carried home by a running back: the production of Jeremy Hill or Le’Veon Bell will be the key to the game, and to the title.
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The Bengals have struggled to stop the run all season long, including in Week 14, when the Steelers rode a fourth-quarter surge to an easy 42-21 road win. In that game, Bell ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns, and he also chalked up 50 receiving yards on the day. For the season, Bell has 1300+ yards and eight touchdowns, and there figures to be little the Bengals’ 23rd-ranked run defense will be able to do to stop him.
Hill, meanwhile, has thrust himself into consideration for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award on the strength of 1024 yards and nine touchdowns, totals enhanced by four games with 140+ yards on the ground. In the first Pittsburgh game, Hill was held to 46 yards on eight carries, and his ineffectiveness was a big reason that the Bengals could not close out the Steelers in the fourth quarter.
If you assume that Bell will get his yards agains the Bengals, then Cincinnati’s chances to win hinge on Hill’s ability to turn pile up stronger numbers in Pittsburgh. That’s going to be a tall order against a Steelers team that has not allowed 100 yards on the ground since November 30 and who will be fighting for the division title and maybe a first-round bye.
Expect both backs to get their licks, but for Bell to crack 100 yards with relative ease, while Hill will struggle to get into the upper double-digits.
If it plays out that way, the Bengals will be lacing up for a Wild Card game come January.