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Week 3 in Pittsburgh is pivotal for long-term direction of the Bengals

It’s still very early in the season, but the road test against the Steelers this week is a barometer of the progress the Bengals have made and more that may be ahead in 2021.

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Can an NFL team’s season be decided by Week 3?

Not likely, but the picture of what that team is for said year starts really coming into focus. Right now, the Cincinnati Bengals have showed us they are a middle-of-the-pack team in the league, with glimpses of having both great fortitude and the propensity to make familiar, maddening mistakes.

After starting 1-1, a big test waits for them this Sunday, as they head to Heinz Field to take on the Steelers. This heated rivalry is not really seen as such from the Pittsburgh side of the fence, with the Bengals going just 2-11 in head-to-head contests since 2015.

However, one of those two wins came the last time these two clubs faced each other, with the Bengals shellacking the Steelers on Monday Night Football last December. It was a major confidence-builder for a Cincinnati team with a battered roster, and a win that some believe saved Zac Taylor’s job for 2021.

Fast forward nine months later and the Bengals have Joe Burrow back, alongside upgrades around the roster. Their roster health is much better than it was around Christmas time last year and the summer mantra from Burrow, C.J. Uzomah, Sam Hubbard and other locker room leaders was to “win the division”.

Simply put, these tough tests like the one in Week 3 are those that teams on the upswing of a rebuild need to start winning. And, whether it has been Taylor or his predecessor, Marvin Lewis, the abhorrent, previously-mentioned .181 winning percentage against Pittsburgh since that bittersweet 2015 campaign began is not the type of formula to get a team back on top of the difficult AFC North.

Additionally, the Steelers may be the most vulnerable they have been in years. In talking to folks who cover the team and watching with our own eyes, the Steelers’ offensive line is uncharacteristically bad, Ben Roethlisberger is in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career and a number of Pittsburgh players are banged up this week. That’s not to say this is a sure-fire win because we can’t ever fully count the Steelers out of the AFC playoff picture until the conclusion of a season, but the goal of victory at Heinz Field seems more obtainable than in recent matchups.

If you’re preaching that things are heading in the right direction, that you’ve got the right players in the building and you’re serious about competing in the very near future, this is a game the Bengals need to at least start occasionally winning. The Ryan Finley-led win last year had us all feeling good in an otherwise glum season, but a Burrow-helmed victory in Pittsburgh will have us elated about what’s ahead.

As the Bengals’ head coach from 2019-present, Taylor has just one tie and one win in 16 tries away from Paul Brown Stadium. Burrow doesn’t have any in his six Bengals road starts. The trend needs to switch if the Bengals are to truly turn the corner as a franchise under these two and it would be quite the sharp one if it comes against the Steelers.

If the Bengals are unsuccessful this weekend, it won’t spell the end of Taylor’s job for the immediate future. It doesn’t even mean the Bengals can’t have one of their trademark late-season surges to breed optimism for 2022. After all, there are a lot of new faces on this team, the offensive line could gel deep into autumn and they may sneak into the playoff picture, regardless of the outcome this week.

Still, this is about building blocks in the Taylor era and breathing confidence into a young team. They lost a mistake-laden contest last week that most people feel they should have won, so how will they respond with a second-straight difficult road test?

It’s also a key game, given what’s ahead on the schedule. Another clash with Pittsburgh, two against Baltimore, two against Cleveland and one apiece versus Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes, respectively. You’re going to need to grab a win some don’t feel you will at certain spots in the year.

Rebound. Beat a divisional bully. Get Burrow’s first NFL road victory. Grab a win in these elusive one-possession contests. Make your presence known in the AFC early this year and get everyone confident in where this team is headed.

Also on this week’s Orange and Black Insider Bengals podcast:

  • What was the deal with the offensive game plan versus the Bears and what adjustments can the Bengals make against the Steelers?
  • What impact can Jackson Carman have, either positively or negatively, if called upon to start at right guard?
  • What’s going on with Cincinnati’s offensive line?
  • Who are the key players in this week’s matchup and what do we predict to happen?

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