The Thanksgiving holiday that just passed brings about gratitude for a number of things. Family, friends, employment and many other facets of life get appreciated while partaking in large feasts.
While it pales in comparison to those aforementioned blessings, football is also a big part of the holiday. And for fans of the Cincinnati Bengals, their 2021 season is also bringing an air of gratitude.
At 6-4, Cincinnati has defied many national pundits’ preseason expectations. Las Vegas had them struggling to get to this many wins for the whole season, while many predicted that Zac Taylor’s seat would be red hot by this point in the season.
Instead, Taylor’s Bengals are in the thick of the playoff race, along with every team in the AFC North. And, the remainder of the schedule is where Cincinnati will prove just how far they’ve come this year, as each of the remaining seven teams they face are currently right outside of the playoff bracket, or are currently slated to make it.
One such team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who trudges to Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday. They haven’t been the same world-beaters we’re used to, as evidenced by the Week 3 beatdown they received at the hands of the Bengals, but this Pittsburgh team isn’t going away quietly. The Bengals are currently 3.5-point favorites via DraftKings.
Expectations were largely low for Mike Tomlin’s squad, as a depleted roster and aging Hall of Fame quarterback plagued any serious run at a championship. Yet, despite some predictable, ugly results, the Steelers are 5-3-1 and largely have control of their own destiny.
This time around, Pittsburgh is healthier for their rematch, seemingly being able to field Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt. Cincinnati’s offensive line has been improved this year over the last few, but inconsistencies are still noticeable. That’s where the healthy edge defenders hope to re-establish their impact.
When we examine the Bengals’ season, the ebbs and flows bring questions on their overall viability. Four of their six wins can be deemed as against quality opponents (Vikings, Steelers, Ravens and Raiders), while two of their four losses are against subpar NFL teams (Bears and Jets).
To further dive into the madness that has been the 2021 Bengals, their average margin of victory in those four high-quality wins is 15 points. Yet, just a few weeks ago, the Bengals lost to the Jekyll-and-Hyde Cleveland Browns by 25 points at home. To boot, the 19-point win against Las Vegas last week was a three-point contest up until about five minutes left in the game.
Insert puzzled shrug emoji.
As usual, offensive line play will be paramount in this rematch. The Steelers’ group up front is not up to their usual standards, as the Bengals got after Big Ben to the tune of four sacks in the first go-round.
In that same game, a big key to the Bengals’ win was a goose egg in the sack column by the Steelers defense. Again, the returns of Watt and Highsmith will make this an extremely tough feat to copy.
I believe that a large, additional facet to this win resides in ancillary receiver targets making plays. Tee Higgins wasn’t available for Week 3, but Ja’Marr Chase continued his frenzied, early pace with two touchdowns in the contest.
Chase has quieted down from that wild first-half of the season these past three games because a myriad of reasons. Yes, defenses have been keying on him more frequently, but a lack of big-time production from Higgins, Tyler Boyd and others, as well as Joe Burrow focusing in on him perhaps a little more than he should in some situations are also to blame.
While it’s important to note that Chase still has two touchdown receptions in the 1-2 skid, this three-headed monster needs to awaken this week. Contested catches, a strength of this receiver group, need to be corralled with increased frequency, while forcing Pittsburgh to scatter their defensive focus to all weapons.
For Pittsburgh, they’ll not only need to catch the Bengals’ offensive and defensive units on one of their “off days” we’ve seen a couple of times this season, but they will need to exploit the limited absences for the Bengals this week. It might seem odd to not Trae Waynes in this vein, as Cincinnati has had his services for exactly one of 26 previous games since signing him to a big free agency contract, but big games from Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson (who missed the last game as well) and others will need to occur with Waynes continuing to be out of the lineup.
One other huge facet? Penalties.
Cincinnati is the least penalized team in the league with the least amount of penalty yards assessed to them. In the first matchup, multiple occasions were seen on film wherein the Steelers attempted to goad the Bengals into after-the-whistle flags—a plan that worked marvelously against Marvin Lewis-led teams.
It failed last time and the Bengals need to be cognizant of this potential plan by Pittsburgh once again. They need to embrace the discipline that has quietly been a major key to their success this year.
Still, the most important player for the Bengals this week, you ask? Riley Reiff.
With Watt looking like he’ll play, Reiff will need to show that veteran stability that has made the painful memories of Bobby Hart slowly fade. Watt had his way with Hart on many occasions, so Reiff will need to protect Burrow at all costs.
And, if we want to be overdramatic, this game could officially point to an AFC North power baton being passed if the Bengals were to complete the season sweep. If they fail, it could be a stark reminder to never count the Steelers, Tomlin and Roethlisberger out of anything and that the league’s perennial “big boys” still belong.
Regardless of which team wins, the result will play a big role in the future outcome of this division race and the Wild Card positions. It’s the first big game with true playoff implications between these two at Paul Brown Stadium since the 2015 Wild Card round debacle.
While it has been a fun and wild ride for the Bengals this year, it’s hard to know exactly how good they are right now. This one against the Steelers is the first of seven barometer games to see just how quickly this young team has developed and matured.
I truly feel this is a “coin flip game” and that the Steelers will play the Bengals much tougher than the first time. Still, I can see the Bengals engaging in a special season and taking advantage of an uncharacteristically inconsistent Pittsburgh squad at home.
Steelers 20, Bengals 22
AC — Ready to break out the brooms.