Some of the biggest key players for both the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers will be absent when the Bengals travel to Pittsburgh this Sunday. Suspensions and injuries alike have resulted in a reduced numbers and weapons for each team, some of which could change the dynamic of the game. Granted, none of these players played in Week 1, so each team has a bit of experience playing without them. But, a number of key players from the Bengals and Steelers rivalry will be out and their absences will make an impact.
Let’s go ahead and get the most obvious and glaring absence out of the way first. Due to his actions the last time the Bengals and Steelers met, as well as other safety violations, Vontaze Burfict is suspended for the first three weeks of the 2016 NFL season.
Despite missing six games due to injury in 2016, Burfict still managed to record the third most tackles on the team with 57. In addition, he recorded two interceptions, five passes deflected, and a sack. Due to the suspension, Vincent Rey started last week against the Jets and will likely continue to start at the weakside linebacker position until Burfict returns in Week 4.
Rey was one of the two players on the Bengals to record more tackles than Burfict last year, the other being Dre Kirkpatrick. Granted, Rey played in all 16 games, so his 62 tackles, one interception, five passes deflected, and one sack are less impressive than Burfict doing almost all of that in only 10 games. That said, Rey is an extremely reliable backup linebacker and should play well in Burfict’s absence, like he did when he recorded five tackles last week against the Jets.
However, the production that the Bengals receive from Burfict is not the only thing that the Bengals will be without in his absence. The very reason that Burfict is suspended is that he let his emotions get out of control in the Wild Card round against the Steelers last season. Much has been made about the Steelers dodging a bullet by missing Burfict in the first matchup of the season between the two teams. But, the absence could help the Bengals in the long run if Burfict uses his suspension as motivation to get his emotions in control and play with a more professional demeanor going forward.
The Bengals should have a more focused and motivated linebacker returning with plenty of time to adjust his mindset before the Bengals face the Steelers again in Week 15.
In addition to Burfict’s absence, the Bengals will be missing Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert, who racked up the second most receiving touchdowns in the NFL in 2015 (13), despite playing in only 13 games. However, the Bengals still have A.J. Green, Brandon LaFell, Tyler Boyd, Tyler Kroft, C.J. Uzomah, and Giovani Bernard as receiving threats. The Bengals would clearly prefer to have Eifert’s services in such a potentially pivotal game, but, they should be able to overcome his absence, despite the departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu.
The Steelers will be without one of the league’s best all-around running backs on Sunday in Le’Veon Bell. When on the field, Bell can be a huge problem for any opposing defense that hopes to force the Steelers into a one-dimensional offensive strategy. But, a history of injuries and multiple suspensions for the dynamic running back create questions about his overall reliability.
The Steelers probably aren’t as worried about his absence, given that backup running back DeAngelo Williams recorded an incredible 126 yards and two touchdowns on eight touches last week against the Redskins. However, he has never broken 100 yards as a Steeler against the Bengals. Granted, in the Steelers’ Week 13 win over the Bengals in 2015 he did record two touchdowns. But, he only managed to put together 76 yards on 23 carries. Like Jeremy Hill throughout the entire 2015 season, he was essentially a touchdown vulture in that game.
Bell has been much more effective running the ball against the Bengals. In 2014 alone, Bell’s last healthy season, he recorded 205 yards rushing on 34 touches in the two regular season games against the Bengals. Throw in three all-purpose touchdowns and you have an absence that clearly favors Cincinnati.
The Steelers are relatively healthy heading into Week 2, save for a few bumps and bruises, mostly to reserve players, but they will be missing both of their top two receiving threats from 2015 not named Antonio Brown. Two time Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller retired back in February. That was about a month before news broke of Martavis Bryant’s season-long suspension for the same reason that Le’Veon Bell was suspended - missing multiple drug tests. Currently on the roster, offensive lineman Cody Wallace and fullback Roosevelt Nix have been ruled out, as has reserve cornerback Senquez Golson. Linebacker Ryan Shazier is questionable as is wide receiver Markus Wheaton.
Miller and Bryant, combined, recorded 110 receptions for 1,300 yards and nine all-purpose touchdowns in 2015. Those numbers still don’t add up to the numbers that Brown put together on his own last year. But, the Steelers did well at using new and up-and-coming members of their offense to their advantage in Week 1 and will look to continue that in Week 2.
For the Bengals, in addition to Eifert’s ankle injury, Pat Sims is questionable for the game with an ankle injury of his own. But, the rest of the Bengals’ active roster should be healthy and ready to go in Week 2 against the Steelers.