This week’s game against the Steelers should be treated like an elimination game for the Bengals. if they win, there’s a slight chance they could make the playoffs. If they lose, that chance essentially evaporates. That said, the Bengals could still be mathematically eliminated if the Ravens beat the Eagles, but the Bengals can’t worry about that until after the fact. Right now, the only way to achieve the seemingly impossible, is to win out and that begins this week against the Steelers. That said, if you’re watching the game this week and the nearly impossible outside chance for the Bengals to sneak into the playoffs isn’t enough to keep you intrigued, you’ll want to pay close attention to these key matchups.
Tyler Boyd vs Ross Cockrell
A.J. Green might be back this week, but I wouldn’t count on it. Even if he does return to the field on Sunday, he will probably be limited after spending the last few weeks recovering from a partial hamstring tear. Therefore, the Bengals are going to need to rely more on the production of their lesser known receivers.
One of those receivers is Tyler Boyd. He grew up in the Pittsburgh area and went to college at the University of Pittsburgh. That said, he has confirmed that his respect for his hometown team doesn’t trump his desire to “punch them in the mouth” as a Bengal.
He has proven to be an effective option since Green went down with a hamstring injury during the Bengals’ Week 11 game against the Buffalo Bills. In the last four weeks, his 21 catches for 231 yards and a touchdown in addition to two runs for 40 yards have been huge for the Bengals, especially in the last two weeks as they have dominated their competition.
This week, he will be going up against a Steelers’ defensive backfield that virtually shut Green down in Week 2. A big part of that defensive effort was Ross Cockrell, who has improved in spades after being released by the Buffalo Bills in the offseason. As the No. 2 cornerback on the Steelers’ depth chart, he will likely be asked to guard Boyd this week. It will be a tough test for Boyd but, if he can prevail, it will be a great way to further announce his presence on the NFL scene as well as his role on the Bengals’ roster.
Vontaze Burfict vs Ben Roethlisberger
You had to know this one was coming. Vontaze Burfict missed the first game against the Steelers in Week 2 as a result of his suspension from his actions in the Bengals’ January Wild Card matchup against the Steelers, as well as other safety rule violations. However, this week, Burfict hasn’t spoken about the matchup and the only relevant news regarding him was Antonio Brown says Burfict offered a personal apology for the infamous hit in that playoff game.
That said, you have to know he is itching to play this team for the first time since that terrible series of events in the playoff loss. And many Bengals fans are itching to see one of the Bengals’ star defenders return to this matchup for an impact game.
Since returning in Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins, Burfict has recorded an impressive 71 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble, and 2 interceptions returned for 54 yards. He has arguably been the Bengals’ best defensive player on a (mostly) consistent basis since returning. With only a difference of eight points between the two teams in Week 2, the Bengals very well might have been a Burfict sack or interception away from turning the tides the other way and being in a much less precarious position this season.
Randy Bullock vs Steelers’ 10th ranked ST unit
One of the Bengals’ biggest stories of the past week has been the release of long-time kicker Mike Nugent after a series of notable missed field goals and extra points that can be traced back couple of years. To replace him, the Bengals signed Randy Bullock, who has become somewhat of a journeyman with multiple teams since being released by the Houston Texans in 2015.
His release from the Texans is the subject of some controversy, as he was nearly perfect through the first three games of the season. He was also known for his strong leg at the time, as he made 50 percent of his field goals from 50+ yards with the Texans, although he missed his only attempt from 50+ after leaving Houston, with the Jets. That said, he did make a 49 yard attempt in his eight games with the Jets last season.
In addition to his performance in relief of the embattled Nugent, part of the reason this matchup is interesting is because Bullock spent Weeks 12 and 13 of the 2016 season with the Steelers, playing only in Week 12 in relief of the injured Chris Boswell. During the game, he was perfect, making all three of his field goal attempts (34, 38, and 44 yards) and his one extra point attempt. He also recorded three touchbacks on his kickoff attempts.
He now has a chance to put up a similar performance against the Steelers, who have allowed the 10th least field goals in the NFL this year (19), and secure his job with the Bengals. Given how close games between the Bengals and Steelers tend to be, he also has a chance to be the Bengals’ hero by actually hitting key field goals and extra points when the team puts him in position to do so.