A must-win game in September? What a novel concept. All NFL games are must win!
That is the feeling for the 1-1 Cincinnati Bengals right now. Coming off an uninspiring loss to the Chicago Bears, the Bengals will attempt to topple the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field for the first time since 2015. The Steelers are also .500 on the year, but the team with the most to prove will surely be the visiting squad.
This is Zac Taylor’s first chance to get a road victory with his franchise quarterback Joe Burrow under center. Burrow has yet to record a win outside of Paul Brown Stadium or inside the AFC North, and there’s no time like the present.
Here are the players and matchups that will impact whether or not the Bengals will go home with a victory.
Joe Mixon and Quinton Spain
Much has been said about the Bengals’ passing game lately. It wouldn’t hurt if the other dimension of the offense improved as well. It’s clear that Mixon is going to be fed the rock often this year, or at least that’s been the norm thus far. He has 196 yards through two games, but is only averaging four yards a carry, as just 10 of his rushes have gone for more than five yards. This is further shown in the team’s 23rd-ranked success rate on early down runs.
Per Pro Football Focus, Spain has been Mixon’s best blocker for zone concepts. The left guard is back to his natural position full-time and has played well enough to keep D’Ante Smith a healthy scratch for two weeks. He needs to continue the solid play against perhaps his most brutal matchup of the season.
Matchup to watch: Cameron Heyward
Aaron Donald might be the NFL’s defensive tackle king, but Heyward is a lot closer behind him than you think he is. There’s nothing the former OSU Buckeye can’t do at the position, and that he’s still an elite player at 32 years old is nothing short of incredible. Heyward lines up over the left guard for the vast majority of his snaps, meaning Spain’s going to get a full dose of the Steelers’ best defender on the field. Mixon will have to do his best to avoid him as well.
On the right side of center Trey Hopkins this week will be the rookie Carman, who is set to make his first-career start against his hometown team’s biggest rival. It will be quite a moment for the 21-year old left tackle convert. He spent the offseason learning a new position and fell behind two others as training camp began. With Xavier Su’a-Filo out for now, Carman will get his first chance to prove he belongs on the field instead of the bench.
Matchup to watch: Chris Wormley
Carman may not be getting 50 snaps of Heyward, but Wormley isn’t exactly a pushover in comparison. Now in his second season with the Steelers, Wormley is a steady run defender who can generate a pressure here and there. It’s a solid first test for the rookie right guard.
Most of Cincinnati’s defensive line has already eaten this year, specifically the new guys. Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, and B.J. Hill have all made their presence known in the first two weeks. Even D.J. Reader and Josh Tupou have been pushing the pocket. With production coming from multiple players, it’s been easy to ignore Hubbard’s slow start to 2021. He has the second-most pass-rushing snaps but just the sixth-highest pass-rushing win rate through two games. Having just signed an extension two months ago, now’s a good time for Hubbard to make some noise against the pass.
Matchup to watch: Chukwama Okorafor
Pittsburgh’s offensive line has seen better days. At right tackle, Okorafor holds a bottom-10 true set pass-blocking grade out of 53 qualifying tackles. The edges will be compromised if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has to hold the ball for longer than three seconds.
Jessie Bates III
It’s way too early to make something out of this, but Bates has quietly allowed a passer rating of 103.6 in 95 coverage snaps to begin the season. While he’s tackling a lot better, he’s not exactly been the eraser in coverage he proved he could be last season. Ironically, if Bates keeps up this pace of seven combined tackles a game, he might make the Pro Bowl considering that’s what fans look at when voting in safeties. Being a captain and the best player on a thriving defense, Bates needs to reassert himself as a dominant free safety in Pittsburgh.
Matchup to watch: Chase Claypool
No Diontae Johnson likely means more targets for JuJu Smith-Schuster and Claypool, with the latter being next up in terms of deep looks. Roethlisberger isn’t really looking downfield much this year, but when he does, Bates needs to be ready to break towards the sideline and help out Eli Apple.