The Cincinnati Bengals, sans Joe Burrow, will be home at Paycor Stadium on Sunday to face off against their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, as part of the NFL’s Thanksgiving weekend slate of games.
The Bengals (5-5) are coming off a loss in which they lost their franchise quarterback for the season, and the Steelers (6-4) are coming off a last-second loss to the Browns in Cleveland. Both teams are at the bottom of the division and are each desperately trying to stay in the crowded AFC Wild Card picture.
Here are a few matchups that could sway the game one way or another.
TJ Watt/Alex Highsmith vs. Orlando Brown Jr./Jonah Williams
Watt and Highsmith might be the best duo of edge rushers in the league. Watt has 11.5 sacks so far on the season and 89 over his career, which is a crazy number considering he’s still under 30. Highsmith isn’t a slouch, coming in with 4.5 sacks on the season, but he had 14.5 sacks on the season last year.
Brown and Williams will be protecting Jake Browning on Sunday, and you better believe Pittsburgh will be putting pressure on him to keep him off balance until he proves he can beat it. This is going to be a major test for the Bengals tackles. They’re going up against great edge rushers with a quarterback making his first NFL start.
Cam Heyward vs. Cordell Volson
Hey, look, a future Hall of Fame defensive tackle to deal with on top of Watt and Highsmith. Heyward won’t always line up against Volson, but he’ll be in Volson’s area more often than not. He missed several weeks this season, but he’s been back for the last three games. He doesn’t have any sacks yet, but he had a solid game against the Browns, making five tackles and pressuring the quarterback a couple of times.
Volson has been a pretty decent run blocker, but he’s struggled as a pass blocker. The Steelers know it and will probably try to take advantage of it. Hopefully, the Bengals defense can help keep the score close, allowing the offense to run the ball.
Pat Freiermuth vs. Logan Wilson/Germaine Pratt
The Steelers' offense is struggling, and this has all the makings of a low-scoring and ugly offensive game. Kenny Pickett hasn’t been able to move the ball through the air consistently and is often under pressure. When that’s the case, a quarterback’s best friend is often a good tight end, and Freiermuth is a good tight end who just recently came off IR following an extended absence due to a hamstring injury.
The Bengals have two of the best pass-coverage linebackers in the league, and they have five interceptions between the two of them. They’re great at covering slot receivers, tight ends, and running backs coming out of the backfield, and hopefully, they can keep the Steelers fans in attendance (and you know there will be a lot of them) from chanting “MUTH” too often.
Steelers linebackers vs. Bengals tight ends (Voltron)
The Bengals continue to mix and match their tight ends, mixing them into plays and spreading the ball around. Tanner Hudson continues to lead the way when it comes to targets and receptions, but Drew Sample and Irv Smith Jr. are getting involved too.
Like I said above, a young or struggling quarterback has two best friends: a good running game and a good receiving tight end to act as a safety valve when he’s being rushed. I expect the Steelers to send pressure, and hopefully, Voltron (I’m really trying to get this off the ground here, but Voltron is easier than typing out Hudson/Smith/Sample/Wilcox) is available.
Steelers defensive front vs. Frank Pollack
Pollack’s job very well could be on the line, as the offensive line, full of prized free agent acquisitions and high draft picks, has struggled. He’s also the run game coordinator on a team that just lost its franchise quarterback for the year, and you better believe that’s going to change the playbook.
If Pollack wants to save his job, and if the Bengals offense wants to move the ball for the rest of the season, they’re going to have to run the ball. We’ve heard a lot of talk about Pollack and his glass-eating offensive linemen. Now it’s time to see them go to work. If they can’t, heads will roll.
Bengals linemen vs. Steelers linemen
More than maybe any game they’ve played so far this season, this game will absolutely be won and lost in the trenches. Both teams are struggling or will struggle to move the ball through the air, and they’ll both want to establish the run game.
Because of that, whichever line is able to move the other against their will is going to win. That can be the case in general in the NFL, but not always. I mean, take a look at the Bengals' run to the Super Bowl in 2021, and then think about where all those linemen are right now. Only Jonah is on the team, and he doesn’t even play the same position that he used to. However, in general, and especially in this weekend’s game, whoever wins at the line of scrimmage will win this game.