What else must the Cincinnati Bengals do in 2018 to prove they’re in the echelons of the NFL’s big boys? They’re 4-1 with wins over a tough division rival on primetime and another against a squad that was 3-1 last week.
Well, beating the Steelers this Sunday would definitely crowd up the Who Dey bandwagon.
It’s essentially been two years since the Bengals last beat Pittsburgh. In the last six matchups in which Cincinnati is 0-6, we’ve basically seen it all: a postseason implosion heard ‘round the world, a letting up of a big lead in primetime and other debacles in between.
When Cincinnati last beat the Steelers, linebacker Vontaze Burfict was back for the first time in Week 8 of 2015 to dominate Ben Roethlisberger, as well as unintentionally injuring Le’Veon Bell. That November 1st win was pivotal in the Bengals’ capturing of another AFC North crown under Marvin Lewis.
Fast-forward through two straight losing seasons and a hot start to 2018 and the Bengals are set to host their bitter rivals once again this Sunday.
One could argue that the Bengals have crammed a season’s worth of excitement through these first five games of 2018. We had an inkling that they’d be improved and be much more fun to watch than the 2016-2017 squads, but what they’ve given us is the stuff in which Hollywood script-writers make their living.
The Bengals have found creative ways to get to the top of the AFC North in their first four wins. A 27-point comeback victory, a one-point eke-by in a shootout, a hot start with a big lead they never relented and a last-minute touchdown in the opener have been the blueprints so far.
So, what could they possibly have in store for us this week?
On the other side of the fence, Pittsburgh is enduring many of the same issues that plagued the Bengals from 2006-2010. Malcontents in the locker room, a sense of underachievement and even legal issues have been part of the past half-year for the Steelers.
Bell continues to hold out for contractual reasons without an end in sight. Cynical Cincinnati fans contrived a scenario in which Bell would march out of the tunnel for a return against the hated Bengals. Nope—not this week.
James Conner has filled in admirably for him at running back, though. Pittsburgh’s favorite son is averaging over 116 yards from scrimmage per game and is tough to tackle at 6’1”, 233 pounds.
Even with the Conner band-aid, other issues have emerged. Antonio Brown and his quarterback Roethlisberger haven’t always been on the same page this year and Brown has had semi-public fits about it, while staving off some lawsuits that have recently surfaced.
Fellow wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has become a very reliable weapon for Big Ben, grabbing two touchdowns and notching an average of seven catches for 90 yards a game. Nevertheless, that Roethlisberger-Brown connection found its magic against the Falcons last Sunday and the heat is being taken off of head coach Mike Tomlin for the moment.
It’s in that dominating win over the Falcons that has the Steelers faithful feeling better about things after a tumultuous first five weeks of the season. They looked more like the Pittsburgh squad we’ve grown accustomed to, and just in time to face their bitter rivals.
In that win, the maligned Steelers defense came through, largely thanks to three sacks from linebacker T.J. Watt. They also forced a fumble for a touchdown, so that Steel Town unit looks to be gaining momentum as well.
Even so, much about this week and the rivalry itself is about “bulletin board material”. Roethlisberger came out this week saying he wants a low-key game this Sunday.
“You know, it’s AFC North football,” said the Steelers’ quarterback. “It’s one of those games that can get chippy at times. You hope it doesn’t. You hope it’s just a hard-fought football game but sometimes it gets a little chippy. So, we’ll do our best to put all that in the past behind us and play like it’s a normal football game.
“It’s not about just the physicality of the football game to me,” he continued. “It’s when it gets the extracurricular stuff that you wish would be cut out of it — and hope is cut out this time.”
When you have to address it, well, you know what’s coming...
Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap talked about the challenges Big Ben gives a defense, including, by No. 96’s estimation, the fact that Roethlisberger tips the scales at 300 pounds. This was on the same day that Pittsburgh linebacker Bud Dupree essentially acknowledged the fact that Steelers players were seeking to injure Bengals players after Ryan Shazier’s nasty neck injury against Cincinnati on Monday Night Football last year.
You remember that sequence of events, right? Shazier injures himself on a poor-form tackle, melees and big hits continue to ensue in the game, culminating in Smith-Schuster’s devastating block that knocked Vontaze Burfict out of the game with a concussion.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned that Burfict came back last week for the first time in 2018... moving on.
Regardless of what you think of this year’s Bengals team, history is not on their side in this rivalry. For all of the success Marvin Lewis has had against the Browns and the Ravens, he just can’t regularly get past Pittsburgh.
Ben Roethlisberger is 12-2 at the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium and his 85.7 winning percentage in Cincinnati is the best by a quarterback on the road in his career. He is similarly dominant against Cleveland, making his homecomings to the state of Ohio a bi-annual parade of success.
In 32 tries, Lewis’ Bengals have only been successful against the Steelers eight times for a .250 winning percentage in the past 15 seasons. This includes two playoff losses and a current 0-6 streak.
Oh, and the injuries right now aren’t helping. Billy Price, Giovani Bernard and Tyler Kroft look to be out this week, while the team is still reeling from the loss of Tyler Eifert. Meanwhile, guys like Clint Boling, John Ross and William Jackson have been in and out of practice this week, but should be good to go.
Still feeling pretty good about things?
In just five short games this year, Cincinnati has bucked major trends and shed many preconceived notions that they themselves have previously created with their successes and failures for a decade and a half under Lewis. These next two games are huge midterm examinations for a team starving for validation.
Look, we know that the Bengals aren’t going to win all 16 games—heck they’ve already got one tick in the “L column”. We’re also pretty sure that every one of their games won’t be decided in a thriller rivaling summer opuses featured at Regal Cinemas.
There are a lot of signs that point to this being a shootout. Andy Dalton has played well and is tied for third in touchdown passes right now, while Roethlisberger is third in the NFL in passing yards.
However, conventional wisdom can be thrown out the window for this one. Pittsburgh is ready to show everyone that patented mid/late-season surge that always gets them into the postseason, while Cincinnati and its fan base are dying to take that next step.
And, unfortunately for Cincinnati, playing Pittsburgh is pretty much a bi-annual Super Bowl for them. It will be a playoff-like atmosphere this Sunday, but this time, something else happens when the clock strikes zero.
Steelers 21, Bengals 23
AC: We all have to grow up sometime, right?