In what I expect to be much like a moment in a superhero movie where the hero meets his arch-enemy for a long-awaited battle, the Cincinnati Bengals will play the Pittsburgh Steelers in Weeks 2 and 15 of the 2016 season. It’s almost certain that there will be some fireworks, and tensions will rise in these games; especially when Vontaze Burfict is on the field in Week 15 after serving a suspension in Weeks 1-3 and missing the first matchup with the Steelers. These games will likely be must-watch games for AFC North fans, so let’s take a look at what to expect.
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Team Blog: Behind the Steel Curtain
Division: AFC North
Coach: Mike Tomlin is entering his 10th season as head coach of the Steelers, and he’s been quite successful in Pittsburgh. He has a career record of 92-52, including a victory in Super Bowl XLIII. He has missed the playoffs just three times in his nine seasons.
2015 Season: The Steelers finished the 2015 regular season 10-6. Their season was a mixed bag of surprising successes, shocking defeats, and some crucial injuries. They had to deal with multiple injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as well as a season-ending injury to Le’Veon Bell, which he suffered against Cincinnati in Week 8.
On top of the injuries, Pittsburgh surprisingly got swept by Baltimore which kept them from taking the AFC North crown from the Bengals.
Despite the upsets and injuries, Pittsburgh still managed to make the playoffs after finishing second in the division. We all know how their postseason turned out, as the Steelers defeated the Bengals in the Wild Card round in an ugly, bizarre game that ended 18-16, and added a ton of fuel to the fire of this rivalry. Following that game, Pittsburgh lost in the Divisional round to the Denver Broncos, 23-16.
Pittsburgh impressed many people and played well when they were healthy, which is to be expected of a team with as many impact players as they have.
History With Cincinnati:
There is a TON of history between these two teams, and it goes way back. Looking over the past decade or so, one of the biggest moments in this rivalry was when Steelers defender Kimo Von Oelhoffen tackled Carson Palmer, causing his ACL to tear in the 2005 AFC Wild Card Round. Not much specifically happened in this rivalry after that until 2009 when the Bengals swept the division in the regular season, which was answered by the Steelers winning five straight matchups between the two teams. The Bengals snapped that losing streak in Pittsburgh in 2012, and the next great episode of this rivalry came just this past season.
The Bengals bested Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in the first game between the two, a game in which Bell suffered another season-ending knee injury that Steelers fans were quite upset about. The Bengals ended up winning that matchup. Then, in Week 14, quarterback Andy Dalton broke his thumb and Tyler Eifert suffered a concussion, and later on, Steelers defensive back William Gay danced all over Paul Brown Stadium after a pick-six, leaving Bengals fans annoyed and disrespected. The tension that arose in the two regular-season games in 2015 set the stage for the Wild Card matchup in Cincinnati in January 2016.
The Bengals, still without Dalton, struggled for the entire first half as Roethlisberger and company were cruising early on, leading 15-0 at halftime. After Roethlisberger was injured on a sack by Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals staged an incredible comeback and took a 16-15 lead. However, after a turnover by Jeremy Hill and penalties on Burfict and Adam Jones for an illegal hit on Antonio Brown and contact with an official, Pittsburgh took the game away and won 18-16. The game was filled with wild moments including Mike Munchak pulling Reggie Nelson’s hair, Joey Porter somehow ending up on the field, and Ryan Shazier knocking Giovani Bernard unconscious and then celebrating about it as if he had won a heavyweight fight while Tomlin became disgusted with the refs despite the fact that they did not penalize Shazier. It was one of the ugliest games in recent memory, both in play and in the actions by the players and coaches after the whistle. That game has brought the disgust and hatred of this rivalry to unheralded new heights. The rivalry even boiled over to draft day, when the Bengals took William Jackson III just one pick before the Steelers planned to take him, and that makes the matchups this season all the more intriguing. Though, the Bengals quite obviously took Jackson III because they wanted him, not to steal him from the Steelers.
As for the rivalry’s win-loss record, Pittsburgh holds firm control, leading 58-35 all-time.
The Steelers come into 2016 with much of their roster from last year still intact. The triplet combo of Roethlisberger/Brown/Bell will be back at full strength, wreaking havoc on NFL defenses. That trio was all over statistical leaderboards last season, as Brown finished 2nd in the league in receiving yards with 1,834 yards, while Roethlisberger finished in the top half of the league in passing yards. Despite getting hurt, Bell still finished 6th in the league in yards-per-attempt, and his backup DeAngelo Williams finished in the top 10 in total rushing yards. The offense will certainly have firepower from all skill positions, although they will miss Martavis Bryant, who is suspended for the season after violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, again. Pittsburgh will look to receivers like Darius Heyward-Bey to fill the void of that suspension, as the 6’4", 211-pound Bryant brings a lot to the table for the Steelers.
As for their defense, a unit that finished in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed, will look for help from their five defensive draft picks to solidify and improve their defense: cornerback Artie Burns, free safety Sean Davis, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, and linebackers Travis Feeney and Tyler Matakevich.
The defense still has some unanswered questions, but the Steelers are likely to put up double-digit wins and compete for the division once again this season.
Pittsburgh Game Date and Time: Week 2: Sunday, September 18, 2016; 1:00 p.m. ET, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cincinnati Game Date and Time: Week 15: Sunday, December 18th, 8:30 PM EST, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio
Both of these games could get ugly. Not in sense of the score, because I think these games will be close, but in sense of the action. The hatred between these teams has never been stronger, and there’s a chance that could boil over. As far as the actual football, this is a team that I think the Bengals can definitely defeat at least one time. Going into Pittsburgh early in the season without Burfict could be tough, and it’s a game I’m not so sure they can win. However, playing in Cincinnati in Week 15 is the game in this series that I definitely think the Bengals can win. Though, the Steelers have had a way to win in Cincinnati far too often. These are perhaps the two best teams in a division that has consistently produced two or three playoff contenders on an annual basis.
A healthy Dalton makes a huge difference for the Bengals. Cincinnati suffered heavily in their two games without him against Pittsburgh last year, and he would have easily made the Bengals a legitimate Super Bowl contender had he stayed healthy. However, a healthy Bell will be just as important for Pittsburgh. While Cincinnati’s defense is superior to Pittsburgh’s on paper, they’ll still have to slow down the trio of Roethlisberger/Brown/Bell, while Pittsburgh will have to deal with a combo of Dalton/Green/Eifert/Bernard/Hill, which should be just as dangerous. The Bengals have the upper-hand in this series, but having to go into Heinz Field without Burfict could be too much to keep Cincinnati from sweeping the series. I see Pittsburgh taking the first matchup, 24-17, and Cincinnati taking the second, 27-17.