This was already one of the NFL's best rivalries, but it's been taken to another level in the most recent matchups. It really began escalating in Week 17 of last season when Bengals safety Reggie Nelson's low hit on Le'Veon Bell knocked the Steelers running back out of the game and effectively ended his season.
Later in that game, Steelers safety Mike Mitchell returned the favor by laying a concussion-inducing hit on A.J. Green that knocked him out of the game and the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Mitchell then nearly did the same to Bengals receiver Marvin Jones in Week 8 this season when Cincinnati pulled off a win in Pittsburgh. Jones simply had the wind knocked out of him before Mitchell went over to Green and told him he was next.
Jones said Thursday he expected this week's clash between the AFC North rivals to be "bloody on both sides." Mitchell has since responded, saying while he expects blood to be shed, "We won't be the ones bleeding" was his response, via Chris Bradford at the Beaver County Times.
It's certainly not the caliber of the threat Mitchell made when he told Green, "you’re next," after that big hit on Jones in Week 8, indicating he planned to cause some harm to Green as well. That's something he's certainly done before with that hit in Week 17 last year that put Green in the NFL's concussion protocol. Mitchell would probably love nothing more than to put another key Bengals out for the rest of this game and possibly the season, but Jones doesn't think Mitchell is much of a tough guy to begin with.
As he told ESPN's Coley Harvey back in November, Mitchell is good at laying big hits on players when they don't see it coming, just like his hits on Green and Jones.
"When you turn on the film, you don't see him hitting anybody when they're going head up. That's fake tough," Jones said. "It's whatever. He hit me. I just got the wind knocked out of me, and it's OK. It’s whatever. When guys get all hyped off minor stuff like that, hitting somebody that's not even looking, that's fake tough to me."
Adding to the Steelers' campaign for blood this week is wanting revenge for Vontaze Burfict's hit on Bell in Week 8 that resulted in the All-Pro running back tearing his ACL, which led to his placement on Injured Reserve. After that hit, Burfict appeared to be celebrating while running across the field, though he later said he wasn't, but the Steelers were still very upset and critical of him.
It's easy to see why Mitchell will likely be head-hunting this week and looking to put another big hit on Bengals players Sunday. While Cincinnati's receivers can't play scared, it's clear they need to be a little more alert going up for passes across the middle with Mitchell lurking.
Mitchell, who grew up in Highlands, Kentucky and played college football at Ohio University, has been around the Bengals for much of his life, but he's becoming a villain after just three games against them. He played a big role in helping limit Cincinnati's offense for much of that Week 8 matchup as he deflected two passes and picked off another.
Hopefully, both of these teams can come out and play a fair and clean game with no one getting injured. Between the Steelers' dwindling playoff hopes and the Bengals' tight battle for one of the AFC's top two seeds, it's clear neither team can afford another lost player right now. At the rate this rivalry is going, I can't imagine what a potential playoff matchup would look like.