“Play for pride”. “Put up or shut up”. “Find a way to win”.
These sometimes-nauseating football sayings are cliches for a reason. It’s because there are instances wherein they are truths to the sport.
Those phrases can easily be applied to both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers this week, with their seasons hanging in the balance. Yet, oddly enough, with playoff hopes being alive for both teams, they’re living in completely different realities right now.
Of course, as we all know, the former is dealing with their franchise quarterback nursing a season-ending injury for the second time in the first four professional seasons. Joe Burrow was shelved for 2023 after suffering a wrist injury last Thursday night in what should have been a critical divisional matchup.
Enter backup Jake Browning, who is attempting to Frank Reich/Jeff Hostetler his way into keeping the Bengals competitive. The prevailing opinion is that Cincinnati’s season went down with Burrow, but all eyes are on Browning, who will be playing behind an offensive line of starters and throwing to a star-studded receiving corps.
Unfortunately for Browning, Tee Higgins isn’t suiting up this week, missing his fifth AFC North game since coming into the NFL with Burrow in 2020. Tyler Boyd, who has had three critical drops the past two games, Trenton Irwin, and a now-healthy Andrei Iosivas will need to step up.
As will emerging tight end weapon, Tanner Hudson. He has 14 receptions over the last four games and should prove useful if the Bengals actually look his way beyond the initial (scripted) drive.
But, as is always paramount, the offensive line will need to step up its game. Protecting Browning and not allowing him to get rattled by numerous pressures, hits, and/or sacks will be key to a salvaged season.
But, while all eyes are on the offensive side of the ball and if/how Browning will be able to carry the baton, the defense has quietly been a letdown this year. The once-stout “get-off-of-the-field” group has become a feast-or-famine one, relying on the occasional sack and/or turnover to turn the tide.
While they’re tied for second in the NFL with 12 interceptions and middle-of-the-pack in sacks netted with 26, they’re 26th in rush yards allowed and have the highest percentage of runs for first downs in the league. It’s a very uncharacteristic trait of a Lou Anarumo-coached unit and the hope is that having Sam Hubbard back will remedy some of the ills there, but their best weapon in causing turnovers, Cam Taylor-Britt, is out this week as well.
Their opponent has loads of questions to answer, as well. While the ever-competent Mike Tomlin has this rag-tag Steelers team in the hunt yet again at 6-4, they are working through a midseason coordinator change and attempting to figure out if Kenny Pickett is the long-term answer.
Oddly enough, the answer to the latter question may very well be directly tied to the aforementioned coaching change. Steelers faithful got their wish with Matt Canada’s walking papers, so the hope is that a new Pickett emerges amid a potentially different game plan.
Questions on another former high pick, Najee Harris, have also surfaced, given his lack of high-end production and the emergence of Jaylen Warren as a co-starter. Warren has back-to-back 100-yard rushing games and a 6.2 average on the season.
That’s not exactly playing to the Bengals’ strength right now. Neither is T.J. Watt being back to playing at a Defensive Player of the Year-type level, notching 11.5 sacks through 10 games.
While this is a trench game (it usually comes down to that in this rivalry), this Sunday is a litmus test for long-term outlooks.
Do the Bengals have a viable spot starter in Browning? Just how good is the Burrow-less roster? Are the offensive minds on the staff going to prove their prowess without their franchise guy?
All of these are important facets in 2024 and beyond for the Cincinnati Bengals. But, the Steelers just may have more pressing matters at hand.
How much patience is there with Tomlin, should the Steelers keep competitive but either miss the playoffs or have an extremely early exit? Is Pickett their guy? What about the Harris/Warren touch splits?
While the Bengals have taken care of the Steelers of late (4-2 in 2020-2022), Pittsburgh has historically used games against Cincinnati as “get right weeks”. And, with Burrow out, it’s safe to assume they are viewing this one through a similar lens—right or wrong.
If Browning outplays Pickett and the Bengals get the win, the Steelers will have a lot of soul-searching to conduct. Their passionate fan base won’t stand for mediocrity very long, and more changes could be on the way.
As for an outcome in this one, it’s a complete mystery. Gut feelings eerily have this one being a bit of a higher-scoring contest than many are led to believe.
It’s a game that means a lot to both teams because of playoff pushes and the intensity of the rivalry. Key guys are out of the game for both teams, making points potentially easier to come by.
Then again, a backup quarterback getting his first NFL start against a tough defense and a Pittsburgh offense that mustered 10 points a week ago doesn’t exactly point to “shoot out,” does it?
Steelers 22, Bengals 20