While it’s possible for the Cincinnati Bengals to make the playoffs with four losses in the division, it’s a path that has very little promise. The only time it’s happened for them in the modern divisional format was back in 2011, when rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green snuck into the playoffs despite a 2-4 record against AFC North teams.
It’s no secret this Bengals team is considerably better than the 2011 iteration, and yet, they’re on the verge of dropping to 0-4 in the division. These matchups will help decide if that ends up happening tomorrow against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jonah Williams vs. Alex Highsmith
T.J. Watt will generate the storylines as he’ll play in his second game since coming back from a pectoral injury. His teammate on the opposite side of the defensive line commands just as much respect from the Bengals, and Week 1 proved that. Highsmith gave Williams the business with three sacks and six pressures in the season opener. As dominant as Highsmith was that day, his run defense has been his forte this season. He’s third among all edge defenders in run stops with 26. He’s an all-around weapon against left tackles.
Williams needs a statement game against a quality opponent. His production as a left tackle has been entirely dependent on the strength of competition, which is normal for most offensive linemen, but nevertheless an indictment on a player with first-round status at 25 years of age. A solid outing against Highsmith would put a lot at ease in Cincinnati.
Tee Higgins vs. Minkah Fitzpatrick
Not all appendectomy’s are the same, as evidenced by Fitzpatrick playing a little over a week after his own operation. The Steelers’ talented free safety set the tone in Week 1 with a pick-six on the Bengals’ second play of the day. It was the beginning of an all-world performance for Fitzpatrick, and the exact opposite for Joe Burrow.
Finding a different outcome this time around will involve getting Higgins more involved. In that 100-play game for Cincinnati, Higgins was on the field for just 26 snaps before he got concussed on a tackle Fitzpatrick was a part of. Pittsburgh will play a similar defense like they did back in September to keep Higgins and the offense in front of them. When the third-year receiver gets a chance over the top against Fitzpatrick, he’ll need to provide the big-play sparks.
DJ Reader vs. Kevin Dotson
Losing Reader for six games wasn’t ideal, but the Bengals ended up going 4-2 in those contests and their run defense managed to avoid total collapse. Reader’s value isn’t going to tip the scales in the realm of wins and losses, but his sheer presence makes things so much easier on defense. Pittsburgh felt this in Week 1 when Reader notched two tackles for loss and caused mayhem for their interior offensive line.
Dotson got all he could handle against Reader last time around, though the left guard has put together a solid season thus far the Steelers despite the eight penalties charged against him; only Carolina Panthers rookie left tackle Ikem Ekwonu has more this year. He’s cut the flags down to just one in the past three games.
Germaine Pratt vs. Najee Harris
Dotson and Co. have not done nearly enough in giving Harris room to operate at the line of scrimmage, but the second-year back has put together a nice little stretch of late. He’s eighth out of all featured backs since Week 7 in missed tackles forced and 10th in breakaway yards percentage, which is how many yards have come on runs of 15 yards or more.
The Bengals’ linebackers have been near perfect tacklers in run support this season, as Pratt is the only one with missed tackles (4) on the season. He also leads the group with 14 run stops. Against a back that’s not known to go down easy, Pratt will need to leave the tackling issues back home.