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Behind Enemy Lines: Steelers’ defensive depth will get tested

The Steelers are going to be without a number of key defenders this week.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Cincinnati Bengals are gearing up for an early divisional test against the Pittsburgh Steelers this week. However, these aren’t your parents’ Steelers. There are plenty of changes to keep an eye out for, so we caught up with Jeff Hartman of Behind the Steel Curtain to get his perspective of this week’s game.

Patrick Judis: It seems like Ben Roethlisberger always has some sort of injury pop up around the time the Steelers play the Bengals. How much of an impact do you think it will have on the game and how has he looked through two games?

Jeff Hartman: Roethlisberger is known for always being banged up in some way, and this week is no exception. His pectoral injury, to his left (non-throwing) pectoral, will certainly play a role when it comes to the Steelers as they prepare for Cincinnati. Anytime a quarterback is dealing with an injury to his upper body can impact what they can, and cannot, do. As for Roethlisberger’s play through two games, it has been inconsistent. With that said, not all of those inconsistencies can be pinned on the aging quarterback. The Steelers’ offensive line has been less than stellar in the early goings, and have resulted in Roethlisberger getting hit early and often. They aren’t surrendering sacks, but Week 2 was a perfect example of what Roethlisberger is seeing. He was only sacked twice, but was hit 10 times during the loss to the Raiders. If the line can gel, Roethlisberger should be able to make plays necessary to win.

PJ: Pittsburgh’s defense really seems like it is the team’s strength this season. T.J. Watt is obviously the gas that gets the motor going, but who are some of the other key pieces on that side of the ball?

JH: The Steelers’ defense is certainly the straw which stirs the team’s drink. Not only do you have Watt, but you have Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward, Melvin Ingram, Devin Bush, Joe Schobert, Joe Haden and Stephon Tuitt, who is currently on IR. The issue facing the Steelers’ defense heading into Sunday’s game is the health of the unit. The Steelers’ defense is currently dealing with a rash of groin injuries. Watt, Haden, Bush and Alex Highsmith are all sidelined with groin injuries, and could have their participation in Week 3 in jeopardy. Throw in Tyson Alualu fracturing his ankle in Week 2 and heading to IR, the Steelers’ stout defense is having its depth tested early. Keep your eye on the injury report leading up to the game, who is available will have a direct impact on just how good the defense will perform.

PJ: The Steelers seem to be in a similar situation as the Bengals with four young skill position players that give defenses headaches. Running back Najee Harris is the newest piece to that set. What has he added to this offense?

JH: Harris is a tremendous running back. His stats don’t show it, but the offensive line has been a big problem in 2021. There are times when Harris is being met 2-3 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and is having to make a defender miss, or drag a player, to get back to the line of scrimmage or gain a yard. If the line can give Harris just a glimmer of daylight, he will be a dynamic playmaker. In the early stages of this season you might see Harris more of an impact player as a receiver than as a running back. His touchdown reception vs. the Raiders would be a perfect example of the Steelers utilizing his receiving skills to help impact the game. He is a work in progress, but every time he touches the ball he is dynamic.

PJ: Who is a player on offense and defense that you feel like Bengals’ fans should know about going into Sunday’s matchup?

JH: The Steelers’ offensive weapons are rather known, so I’ll go with rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth got rave reviews from Ben Roethlisberger this preseason, and has seen his targets and receptions increase by the week. Just one catch in Week 1 turned into four in Week 2. Freiermuth is the most well-rounded tight end the Steelers have had since Heath Miller, and it would be safe to assume he will continue to be a bigger part of the offense by the week.

As for the defensive side of the ball, I would suggest keeping your eyes on James Pierre. Pierre is a player who will see significant snaps in different sub packages, and will likely be tested early and often. The undrafted rookie in 2020 has developed into a reliable defender, but he is still a work in progress. With the Bengals’ weapons I wouldn’t be shocked to see Joe Burrow looking for No. 42 and testing him early.

PJ: What is your prediction for the game?

The Steelers are coming off a game where they played a good Raiders team and despite injuries came up just short. The Steelers aren’t the team that will blow anyone out anymore, but they will be in every game they play, regardless of the opponent. The Bengals will have their attention coming off that loss, and after the Monday night defeat in 2020. I think this game will be a tough one for the home team, but they will pull out the win in the end.

Steelers - 23

Bengals - 17

Thanks again to Jeff Hartman for taking the time out to answer our questions. If you’d like to check out more of his work or Steelers’ coverage ahead of the game, check out Behind the Steel Curtain.