By Nick Shook
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Comparatively, this should be a blowout.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (9-2) haven’t lost since Week 5. They’re ranked fourth in the NFL in passing, and seventh in total offense (in terms of yards per game). They hold an iron grip on the AFC North as we approach the final month of the season.
And yet, there remains the unsettling nature of Pittsburgh’s wins. The Steelers needed a field goal to edge a Brett Hundley-led Packers team last week. Earlier in November, Pittsburgh barely squeaked past Detroit and Indianapolis in consecutive games, with a bye week wedged between them.
There’s also Pittsburgh’s decimation of Tennessee on Thursday Night Football, and the Steelers‘ 15-point win over Cincinnati back in Week 7.
Which Steelers team will we see on Monday night? Well, it is December, and despite last week’s airborne shootout, a shift to winter, midwestern football is likely in the cards. Paul Brown Stadium isn’t exactly a fearsome environment for opposing teams, but (even with Monday night’s low of 49 degrees) it gets bitter along the Ohio River this time of year.
Here are four things to watch for in Week 13’s Monday night showdown:
1. Can Pittsburgh put together a game that matches its record? At 9-2, the Steelers are among prestigious company in the AFC, yet the majority of their wins have been less than convincing. With weapons like Antonio Brown (who is questionable for Monday night’s game), Martavis Bryant, Le’Veon Bell and the emergent JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh is armed to the teeth. The Steelers boast a top-10 offense in total yardage. And yet, they frequently play to the level of their competition.
The aforementioned close calls are prime examples of this. Cincinnati is a familiar divisional opponent, making this contest a little tougher than usual. We’re also in the final month of the season — it’s time for the Steelers to win over some skeptics by proving they’re as good as their record implies.
2. Was last week a fluke for Joe Mixon? The rookie running back has been one of the league’s most inefficient runners this season, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry despite also showing flashes of potential greatness. Then he played against the Browns, who own a maybe-good defense but were not good against the Bengals, specifically when Mixon was on the field. The rookie rushed for a career-high 114 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries, which contributed to one of Cincinnati’s best offensive outputs of the year in a 30-16 win over the still-winless Browns.
Can he do it again against a much better opponent? Statistically, Pittsburgh is only one place ahead of Cleveland in rushing yards allowed per game, but poses a much greater challenge to Mixon and the Bengals. The success (or failure) of Mixon, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill will go a long way toward determining how close this contest ends up being.
3. Speaking of Mixon… Le’Veon Bell might have a little something to say to the rookie running back. Back in late October, Bell found himself in front of a TV watching Mixon’s Bengals battle the Colts when he decided to turn his resting fingers into Twitter fingers: