The rematch is upon us and the Cincinnati Bengals desperately need this one against the hated Steelers. It’s hard to gauge exactly how good each of these teams are and in where their current identities lie.
For a little help on these questions, we tapped the expertise of Jeff Hartman over at SB Nation’s Behind the Steel Curtain. Here’s what he had to say about some burning topics.
1.) AC: Going into the season, us on the Bengals’ side of the fence thought there was a distinct possibility that Cincinnati would see two different Steelers quarterbacks this year. That has come to pass, as Kenny Pickett took over for Mitchell Trubisky.
Pickett has had predictable rookie struggles, but there have been some semblances of improvement week-to-week, as evidenced last week against the Saints. What is he doing well and what should the Bengals’ defense expect to see from him, play-call-wise, this week?
JH: I think it’s safe to say Pickett came into the lineup midway through the Week 4 game and saw some immediate success. The Jets hadn’t prepared for him, and he was able to make some throws during that game.
However, what he has learned since is how fast things can change in the NFL. The throws he made in college won’t cut it in the NFL, and he turned the ball over at a ridiculous clip over the next three games. Since the bye week, Pickett looks to be more in control of the offense and what the coaching staff wants him to do. In other words, he has become a lot safer with his decision-making.
Pickett’s skill set will be tough for defenses to keep in check, and the Bengals should know all about it based on the fact they are similar attributes as Joe Burrow. Pickett doesn’t have Burrow’s arm, but he has his moxy and running ability.
However, he doesn’t get rattled and is able to use his legs to break off big runs. Last week vs. the Saints, Pickett had 51 yards rushing, and several of those runs were when the Saints did a great job in coverage, but no one accounted for the quarterback to run the football.
Rookie mistakes still happen, and that’s expected, but we’ve seen less and less of them as the season has progressed. The hope is that trend continues and he proves he is the next franchise quarterback by season’s end.
2.) AC: A lot of folks had George Pickens as an early favorite as a possible OROY candidate, but it’s been a bit of an uphill climb for him because of the quarterback carousel. With Chase Claypool out of the picture, might he start to ascend to the next solid Steelers receiver as early as the end of this year, or is more growth still to be had?
JH: There is still growth which is needed for Pickens, mainly with his route running and the coaching staff trusting him with a full route tree. However, he, like Pickett, has shown tremendous growth throughout the season.
With Claypool now out of the picture, it’s Pickens who has picked up increased snaps and responsibilities. He had a couple runs in Week 10, one which went for a TD at the goal line and another which went for 20+ yards on a jet sweep.
They are using Pickens in a variety of ways, and it is allowing the rookie to showcase his full skill set. Pickens is going to be a problem for defenders this season, and beyond.
3.) AC: What kind of snap/pitch count, if any, will T.J. Watt be on? He’s been a game-wrecker for the Bengals, and it’s quite admirable he came back midseason from a tough injury.
JH: If the Steelers had Watt on a snap count, it was in Week 10 vs. New Orleans. I would assume this week he would have more of a standard allotment of snaps. This is great news for the Steelers, especially being at home, and tough news for the Bengals as Watt has had some memorable games vs. Cincinnati in his career.
On top of Watt’s history vs. the Bengals, he makes the Steelers defense better. Sure, everyone says that about big-name players, but the reality of the situation is the Steelers have won only one game when Watt doesn’t play since being drafted in 2017. When he is in the lineup, they have a chance against anyone.
4.) AC: The Steelers’ defensive back group has taken a hit this week with Minkah Fitzpatrick suffering an appendix issue and newly-acquired cornerback William Jackson III landing on I.R. with the back injury. I’ve been a fan of Damontae Keizer since he played at SDSU, and he had a nice game against New Orleans last week, but is his return, coupled with corners Ahkello Witherspoon, Cameron Sutton and Co. enough to hold the Ja’Marr Chase-less Bengals offense once again this week?
JH: Mike Tomlin was hopeful for a potential return of Minkah Fitzpatrick this week, but that seems like wishful thinking after having an organ removed in the human body. Nonetheless, Kazee returning was a welcome sight, and provided a valuable veteran presence in the back end of the defense. As for keeping the Chase-less Bengals offense in check, there are multiple levels to this challenge. The Bengals offense hasn’t looked as dynamic without Chase in the lineup, but if they pick up where they left off prior to their bye week, the concern would be stopping Joe Mixon.
Mixon has torched the Steelers on more than one occasion, and he should be priority No. 1 for the defense this Sunday. However, to answer your question, the Steelers’ secondary made up of Levi Wallace, Cam Sutton and Arthur Maulet will still have their hands full with Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Hayden Hurst. If the Bengals are smart, they’ll target Hurst A LOT when he is matched up one-on-one with Robert Spillane...if they do that their TE will have a big day.
5.) AC: DraftKings Sportsbook has the Steelers at five-point underdogs at home this week—a true rarity in this rivalry. The Bengals have somewhat-righted the ship with a 5-3 record since that wacky opener, but the Steelers have Watt, Kazee, DeMarvin Leal and others coming back. Where do you stand on this line and how do you see this game going?
JH: Before going into my pseudo prediction for the game, DeMarvin Leal just had his 21-day clock started to return from IR, and the Steelers rarely, if ever, bring a player back to the 53-man roster the first week of this happening. However, Watt being back in the lineup and Pickett be at quarterback gives this game a very unique feel.
The Bengals are coming off their bye, and that’s big, but their offense without Chase, on the road, leaves a lot of question marks for me. I’m not about to say I’ll take the Steelers on the moneyline, a +175 bet, but I’ll take the Steelers getting 4 points, the current line, at home. I think this game will be close.
Our thanks to Jeff Hartman and the fine folks over at Behind the Steel Curtain! Be sure to check out our answers to their questions over there as well.