Like the Bengals, the Steelers have been decimated by injuries, with Pro Bowl running back James Conner and Pro Bowl receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster out Sunday.
Taking Conner’s place would be second-year North Carolina State product Jaylen Samuels, a runner that Bengals’ linebacker Germaine Pratt, as his former teammate, knows well. Samuels only has five starts under his belt, but has performed well each time. He averages over 19 carries in those starts for just over 90 yards per game, an average of nearly five yards per carry.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, is getting healthy at just the right time. The Bengals defensive line was nearly intact last week, with only tackle Ryan Glasgow (injured reserve) on the sidelines.
Fellow tackle Josh Tupou is finally starting to live up to the potential the Bengals saw in him when they signed him as a college free agent out of Colorado in 2017. Last week, Tupou, at 6-3 and 345 pounds, became Cincinnati’s first player this season to receive a grade of over 90 from Pro Football Focus when he scored an overall mark of 91.7.
“We were healthy up front for maybe the first time all season since Seattle,” Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com recently. “[Other than Glasgow], we had all our defensive linemen available. That’s encouraging to see what a healthy defensive line can do. It gives you a pass rush, it can help the run game. Outside the first run of the game when they got loose a little bit, they did a really nice job and that helps the back end too, it helps those guys in coverage.”
Cincinnati’s rush defense had one of its better performances of the season last week when it held Oakland, which featured the offensive rookie of the year candidate in running back Josh Jacobs, to 113 yards on 34 attempts for an average of 3.3 yards per carry.
Only in the season-opening loss to Seattle did the Bengals perform better when they limited the Seahawks’ dangerous ground game to 72 yard on 25 carries, an average of 2.9 yards per carry.
And Cincinnati’s own ground game is finally coming to life. Against Baltimore, Joe Mixon finally cracked the 100-yard mark when he totaled 114 yards rushing on 30 carries. He also added two receptions for 37 yards.
In the loss to Oakland, Mixon finished with 86 yards rushing on only 15 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per carry, as part of a rushing attack that tallied a season-high 173 yards on just 22 carries. Mixon also added a 17-yard reception.
And, despite the struggles of rookie quarterback Ryan Finley, Cincinnati hopes to have an advantage in the passing game, as well. Finley, who through his first two games has completed only 48 percent of his passes, had a completion percentage of over 64 percent in college and 73.4 percent in the preseason.
“You know there are going to be ups and downs with any young quarterback,” Taylor said. “He didn’t go to training camp as the starter. He didn’t get starter reps until the last few weeks and I feel we continue to see growth in a lot of different areas with him.”
But the Bengals’ struggles in the passing game are not on Finley alone. With A.J. Green and John Ross both sidelined, Cincinnati has had to make do with a bevy of young receivers, and has had to live with the mistakes that come with youth.
And that’s not to mention an offensive line that was porous to start with but has suffered injury after injury at the all-important left tackle position throughout the season. But it looks like Cordy Glenn is finally ready to make his season debut against the Steelers, which should provide some stability.
“It’s the whole unit working together,” Taylor said. “It’s not just the quarterback. We have to find ways to get open and be detailed with the routes. We have to protect for him. And then he’s got to make great decisions. There are times he did some really great things [against Oakland] and there are some things we continue to learn from.”
With perennial All-Pro Ben Roethlisberger out, Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph ranks dead last in the NFL in passing grade, according to PFF. He has managed only five big-time throws while recording 15 “turnover-worthy” plays.
Bengals’ safety Jessie Bates had an interception for the same game in a row against the Raiders and Tupou forced a fumble that Cincinnati turned into its only touchdown of the day. And sacks by Geno Atkins (1.5), Carlos Dunlap (.5) and Carl Lawson (1), along with a couple of quarterback hits by Sam Hubbard, give Cincinnati reason for optimism going into the game.
Oh, and making things even better for Cincinnati is Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is out for this game due to suspension for his actions in the Browns - Steelers debacle. That’s a massive lose on the interior of Pittsburgh offensive line that should make it even easier for Atkins and Tupo to wreak havoc.
“Just keep rolling on,” Taylor said. “We believe and have a positive attitude about it. We can control what we can control. It’s our effort and how we approach our responsibilities each week. We’re all hungry for a win. And it’s hard when you put in all the work and the wins aren’t coming. It’s a test of character and how we’re going to respond to it and our guys have responded the right way.”
All that is missing is a win.