When the Cincinnati Bengals engaged in an offseason full of transition this spring, many predicted that there would be struggles—especially early on in the process. The prognosticators have since been proven correct, as the team has stumbled to an 0-3 start.
In some ways, Zac Taylor looks to have the team headed in the right direction, despite being winless at the moment. Through three games, quarterback Andy Dalton was second in the NFL in passing yardage, while talent has been mined from guys like John Ross, Darius Phillips and others who were tossed by the wayside by the previous staff in recent seasons.
However, Taylor’s boys have still committed errors that are the trademark of an NFL cellar-dweller. Silly turnovers, mental lapses in the form of dropped passes and missed tackles, as well as failing to grab points in critical situations have all contributed to a September to forget.
What wasn’t as predictable, though, is in the Steelers’ mirrored start to 2019. Many believed that a small step back would be taken without the services of Le’Veon Bell (again) and Antonio Brown, but the common thought was that Pittsburgh would still be in the hunt. After all, they have Ben Roethlisberger and the club is known as one of the elite franchises in professional sports.
But, Roethlisberger is done for the year with an elbow injury and Pittsburgh has been scrambling to put the pieces back together. Whether it’s in trying to get a young quarterback up to speed quickly, or in trading for a high-profile defensive back, the Steelers are pushing their chips to the middle of the table amidst turmoil.
But the troubles began before No. 7 landed on I.R. In Week 1, Pittsburgh was embarrassed on primetime television by the reigning NFL champs in Foxborough.
They return to primetime this Monday to host the Bengals, as both seek their first victory of the year. If we know anything about this matchup, it’s to expect some chippiness and crazy results.
These contests have ranged from the sad (the 2017 Ryan Shazier game), to the outright insane (2015 Wild Card), but this one should have a different feel. The cast of characters have changed, largely without Bell, Brown and Ben suiting up for Pittsburgh, as well as Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones no longer patrolling the Bengals’ defense.
Yet, in many ways outside of just the 0-3 record, the paths these two teams have taken to their respective rough starts have quite a few parallels. They’ve played and lost to common opponents (49ers and Seahawks), as well as having a blowout loss apiece.
Taking over for Roethlisberger is Mason Rudolph, who previously spearheaded the explosive Oklahoma State offense. He has his former college receiver in James Washington to throw to once again, but it’s been a struggle for the second-year quarterback.
Before Rudolph was called into action, Pittsburgh shipped former 2017 fourth-round pick, Joshua Dobbs, to Jacksonville. The Jaguars lost Nick Foles in the season-opener, but the Steelers lost their Hall of Fame signal-caller one week later, prompting them to start Rudolph.
He was part of the equation that led to a topsy-turvy loss to San Francisco last week. The Steelers forced five turnovers, but still came up short out west, 20-24.
Pittsburgh’s new quarterback threw two touchdowns in the loss, but big plays came at a premium. It’s painfully apparent that the Steelers are easing Rudolph into a pro offense and are keeping a tight leash on him.
The Steelers completed 2 passes yesterday vs #49ers that traveled more than 1 yard downfield. That's fewest for any team in any game since Tim Tebow and Broncos had 1 vs Chiefs on 11/13/11. Tebow went 2 for 8 for 69 yards and TD in 17-10 win— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) September 23, 2019
Meanwhile, the Bengals are still figuring out how to pull off a win. They’ve been close with two of their loss margins totaling just five points, but the team’s favorite pastime of tripping over their own feet has been on full display.
Some believe that the Taylor era is heading towards that of David Shula’s reign in the 1990s. It’s too early to really tell, but other impressive signs of life have been more obvious under Taylor than he-who-shall-not-be-named.
After the Bengals squandered another opportunity to get their season back on track last week in Buffalo, Taylor was overheard giving his team a passionate postgame message. Even though we’re just three games into his tenure, that message could be pinpointed as a fork in the proverbial road for the Bengals this year.
For on-field purposes, Cincinnati might be getting a big boost to their beleaguered offensive line this Monday night. Cordy Glenn has begun practicing this week after being out since Week 3 of the preseason with a concussion. Unfortunately, A.J. Green won’t be suiting up this week, while the statuses of talented defensive ends in Carl Lawson and Sam Hubbard are hazy.
We could talk X’s and O’s all day, but this clash is always about emotion and the ability to impose one’s will. Pittsburgh has frequently dominated these aspects, with many recent contests being marked by the Steelers grinding the clock out with a pounding rushing attack.
The two contests last year gave us quite the thrills, though. Cincinnati took a late lead at home in Week 6, only to see it disappear in front of their eyes for a 28-21 loss. The Bengals’ season took this hit from which they never recovered.
In the regular season finale, Pittsburgh needed a win to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, while Cincinnati played for pride. The Bengals held a lead or had the game tied for a good chunk of the contest, but a late Steelers field goal and a turnover on downs by the Bengals sealed an ugly 16-13 loss.
This week, Cincinnati is catching Pittsburgh at one of its most perceived weakest states in recent memory. That isn’t to say this is an easy contest, though, nor does beating a winless team mean that the Bengals will be punching a postseason ticket, but it’s an opportune time for Taylor’s boys to mature.
A lot of what marked Marvin Lewis’ many losses to Pittsburgh in the previous 16 seasons, aside from a large amount of them being on primetime T.V., was in the obvious coaching gaffes. Lewis’ staff seemed to be outsmarted in almost every contest, whether the Steelers were being headed up by Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin.
After a solid Week 1 game plan, Taylor and his staff have made major mistakes the past two weeks. If this team is to win and potentially salvage the season, the young rookie coach will need to be the anti-Marv in Three Rivers.
As was referenced in the Week 1 preview, the first half of this season is about baby steps. A win at Heinz Field on Monday Night Football would be putting a leg into a pair of Cincinnati big-boy pants.
Simply put, this is a game that both teams can use as a checkpoint to a potential turnaround. It’s the first divisional game for each squad and getting that first win against a rival in front of the eyes of the nation provides an opportunity to change their 2019 trajectory.
Quite a few things scream “Steelers in a blowout”. Still, something tells me this Bengals team, that is slowly getting healthier, will respond to Taylor’s impassioned plea from last week.
Bengals 23, Steelers 21
AC — Get right.