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Tuesday Trenches: Next man up

The Bengals won again, but it cost them. Who will step up?

Syndication: The Enquirer Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Wow.

The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Minnesota Vikings! That’s three in a row with Jake Browning behind center. When the running game couldn’t move the ball, Browning was able to get it done through the air, throwing for over 300 yards, again. When the offense couldn’t score right away in overtime, and the defense was in a third-and-one and then fourth-and-one, with the game on the line and without DJ Reader, they stepped up, again. When Ja’Marr Chase left the game, Tee Higgins made one of the most incredible plays I’ve ever seen a wide receiver make in my 30 years of intently watching NFL football.

The point is this: for this team, this year, they’ve gotten up every single time someone has knocked them down. Don’t get me wrong, losing Reader is huge. He is the most important player in the defensive front, and he’s arguably the best defensive player on the team.

He’ll be missed.

But before we get into all that, here are a few things that I noticed during the game.

  • It’s not coincidence that the Bengals won their third game in a row and the offensive line played their best games over the last three weeks as well. Opposing defenses are going to do everything they can to stop Joe Mixon and Chase Brown, forcing the Bengals to be as one dimensional as possible. Burrow could handle it. So far, Browning has too, and the offensive line has been a huge help.
  • Mike Hilton had himself a game. He made three tackles, broke up a pass, and intercepted another when the defense’s back was against the wall. With so much youth in the secondary, Hilton has stepped up and his veteran leadership will help get the Bengals pass coverage through some growing pains.
  • Higgins had one of the gutsiest performances in the whole game. After a couple first-half miscues, it was Higgins who delivered one of the most incredible touchdowns I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if there are any other wide receivers in the league with the combination of strength and power needed to pull off what he did. If I’m a GM with a need at wide receiver, despite his down season, I know Higgins is worth the money that I’d throw at him to be my new number one.
  • BJ Hill now has two interceptions on the season. Do you remember when he had an interception against the Chiefs? I also remember that we traded Billy Price to the Giants straight up for BJ Hill. Hill has 17 sacks and three interceptions in his time with the Bengals. What a deal!

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming to town on a three-game losing streak and have just declared that Mason Rudolph will be the starting quarterback instead of Mitch Trubisky. Here are a few things the Bengals could see.

  • With Rudolph in, the Steelers are going to want to run the ball, and they’ll use Reader’s absence in the middle as an excuse to run early and often. The linebackers are going to have to be ready to plug up the middle more than they would have had to when Reader was healthy. Hopefully guys like Josh Tupou are able to step up as well.
  • The Steelers have a brand of football they played in the days before Big Ben and I think they’re going to try to play that same brand of football on Saturday. That brand is run the ball and play defense. Their defense is one of better ones in the league, full of stars, including TJ Watt, the current NFL sack leader, and others like Cam Heyward, and Patrick Peterson. Their defense is familiar with the Bengals offense. Moving the ball won’t be easy. If it was easy, everyone could do it.
  • The Steelers five top graded pass blockers include four tight ends and a running back. The offensive line gave up four sacks last week against the Colts in their 30-13 loss. The Bengals will be without Reader, that’s true, but they still have Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Hill, and Myles Murphy, who is starting to come on as a pass rusher.
  • The Steelers are a team in crisis right now. The starting quarterback is out, the backups are struggling, a star wide receiver is giving up on plays, fans are calling for the head coach’s head, and they’re in risk of finishing the season with a losing record for the first time in 20 years. The Bengals need to take advantage of this in any way they possibly can.
  • Tight end Pat Freiermuth tore the Bengals apart when the two teams last met with nine catches for 120 yards. You know Rudolph will be looking his way. The Bengals do too. Hopefully they can stop it.

Here are a few more random thoughts on the Bengals exciting win over the Vikings:

  • With their back up against the wall, against a very good defense, the offense did this:
  • This is what Jake Browning did. Browning led the offense making gutsy throws, getting hit, playing tough, and leading the team. He’s showing each week why Zac Taylor chose him over others to backup Joe Burrow.
  • I love watching Burrow on the sideline, helping where he can. That’s what a true leader does.
  • I still can’t get over this:
  • What a blitz pickup by Trayveon Williams!
  • Congratulations to Joe Mixon! He’s now tied with Rudi Johnson with the second most touchdowns in team history. Hopefully on Saturday he’ll be alone in second.
  • Chase Brown had almost as many carries as Mixon against the Vikings. I expect they’ll be close to even again against the Steelers.
  • I like Zac Taylor. I really do. I wish he wouldn’t try some of the crazy trick plays sometimes, but if that’s his biggest issue, it’s not such a big deal.
  • My heart is broken for Reader. He’s got a long road to recovery. I hope to see him back on the field as soon as he’s able, even if it’s not with the Bengals.
  • Chase’s shoulder injury didn’t hold the offense back against the Vikings. That may not be the case against the Steelers if Chase isn’t able to play. Chase just scares defenses to death, and without him they’re free to pay other receivers extra attention. Higgins will probably be doubled at times, which means it’s going to be on Tyler Boyd, Charlie Jones, Andrei Iosivas, and whatever tight end is in at the moment to make some more plays.
  • NFL referees need to learn what is pass interference and what isn’t pass interference. If they can’t get it right, maybe coaches should be able to add it to the plays and calls they can challenge. I don’t want a six-hour game any more than Roger Goodell does, but officiating is becoming a real problem. Something needs to change.
  • The Bengals are keeping their playoff chances alive, and winning on Saturday again will go a long way to making the dream of playing in the postseason even after Burrow was lost for the season a reality.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas weekend with family and friends. Stay safe, take care of each other, and Who Dey!