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Bengals at Steelers Week 3 game preview: Baton-passing

The Bengals head to Heinz Field to face their old nemesis after dropping a winnable game in Chicago. Pittsburgh seems more vulnerable than usual, but this remains a tough test for Cincinnati.

Steelers Week”.

It’s an idiom engrained in Bengals’ nation’s collective mind wherein the bi-annual clash with Pittsburgh often equates to Cincinnati’s version of its season’s Super Bowl. Even in the Bengals’ recent and most successful seasonal campaigns, the Steelers have had a knack for putting Cincinnati in its place—be it in the regular or postseason.

Zac Taylor took over the Bengals’ head coaching reins in 2019 and has just a 1-3 record against the hated Steelers. However, his lone win versus the Black and Yellow last year on national television was a foundational building block for the pivotal year three in the Taylor era.

Taylor’s predecessor, Marvin Lewis, carved his 16-year Bengals head coaching niche with a 19-13 record against Baltimore and a 22-10 mark against the Browns. But, with just an 8-26 record against the Steelers, including two devastating postseason losses, it led to one of the myriad of reasons that Lewis wasn’t retained after 2018.

Regardless, the message is pretty clear: if you want to be a successful team in the AFC North, you have to beat the Steelers with some semblance of regularity. And, the Bengals need to start grabbing divisional wins on the road like the one in front of them this Sunday.

In the early part of a critical season in the franchise’s history, Cincinnati travels to face their familiar foe. Opinions are mixed on just how competitive the Bengals can be in 2021, but if they are to be a sneaky playoff team, this one reeks of “must-win”.

Even though the Steelers and their faithful likely look at the Bengals as “little brother”, so to speak, they need this one just as badly as Cincinnati. The AFC North is gridlocked at 1-1 for all teams, and the Steelers have undoubtedly heard the national chatter that they’ve lost “it” in 2021.

Both teams have key players who are either a coin flip to play in the contest, or have already been ruled as unavailable. Ben Roethlisberger will play, but it has been announced that he’ll be hindered with a pectoral injury.

The major key factor in this game should please fans of old school football. The end result at Heinz Field will be determined in the trenches of both teams.

Oddly enough, both defensive fronts have been stout in two games this year. Pittsburgh’s loses quite a bit of its punch with edge rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith ruled out, but guys like Cam Heyward still know how to give offensive lines fits.

And, where Heyward thrives is the same area wherein the Bengals’ offensive line has had the majority of its issues. Joe Burrow has been sacked 10 times in two games, with the bulk coming from interior blitzes and/or issues with linemen properly dealing with stunts. The tackles played well in Week 1, but no one was immune to criticism in the ugly loss to the Bears.

On the flip side, Lou Anarumo and his unit are having a quality start to the season. Cincinnati’s defensive line, particularly the interior players, have thrived with depth and rotations. The Bengals’ defense is currently tied for fifth in the NFL with six sacks, after finishing dead-last in the category with 17 in 2020.

While the Steelers’ offensive line has just allowed four sacks in 2021, it hasn’t been pretty up front for Pittsburgh. Having one of the best offensive lines in football is an annual tradition for the Steelers, but they just don’t have the same level of talent as usual, which is creating a lot of questions about the offense as a whole.

But, while the game will be defined by the lines, it’s also about how the quarterbacks respond to the pressure they may or may not see. Roethlisberger is at the end of a Hall of Fame career and likely sees the writing on the wall with the stable of young, talented quarterbacks within his own division.

Burrow handled numerous hits and sacks well in Week 1, playing very efficient and clutch football. Big Ben did a bit of the same in his team’s own big season-opening win in Buffalo. Both had turnovers in Week 2 losses after not giving any away in the openers.

While there is a rematch later in the year, this game could symbolize a young AFC North quarterback taking the mantle of power from a perennial winner, should the Bengals emerge victorious.

A lot of media members are picking the Bengals, regardless of the aforementioned injuries. They seem to be of the mindset that Sunday could be the visual representation of Cincinnati leapfrogging the transitional Steelers for more divisional power.

I can see it happening, but I’ve also seen many other seemingly winnable games against the Steelers slip through the Bengals’ grasp. I have belief that this team can be competitive and hang around in the playoff picture late into this season. Heck, I was on-hand in Week 1 to personally witness the fortitude shown by this club to change many of our previously-held “here-we-go-again” mindsets.

Still, one thing that continues to be missing with Taylor and his team is consistency. Had they taken care of business in another winnable one last week, I’d be supremely confident in this one. After all, we’re still talking about a 31% win percentage from Lewis and Taylor combined against the hated ones.

When I began writing this piece late in the week, I was prepared to go against the grain, having pegged the Steelers to win a close one on their home field. But, as the injuries began piling up for Pittsburgh, culminating in Watt being declared out alongside Highsmith and Diontae Johnson, this may just be the absences needed for an already-more-vulnerable-than-usual Steelers squad.

Why not us?

Bengals 20, Steelers 16

AC — Also 1-1 on the year.