It’s the kind of hate that’s built up over decades of having to suffer (sometimes from self-inflicted wounds) at the hands of the team with some of the worst uniforms in the NFL.
Anyway, here are a few matchups to keep an eye on when the Bengals face the Steelers at what used to be Condiment Field and now has nothing to do with the city of Pittsburgh.
At least Paycor is in Cincinnati.
Orlando Brown Jr./Jonah Williams vs. TJ Watt/Alex Highsmith
Watt and Highsmith are the Steelers’ best two pass rushers, and they’re both going to come off the edge. Watt leads in the NFL in sacks, and the last time these two teams met, the Steelers sacked Jake Browning four times in his first-ever NFL start. Watt accounted for two of them.
The Bengals offense and Jake Browning have come a long way since then, partially because of the last three performances put together by the offensive line. Watt and Highsmith will be bringing the heat. Based on the last three weeks, and where these two teams are right now, the Bengals tackles will be able to handle it.
Cordell Volson vs. Cam Heyward
Like the rest of the offensive line, Volson has stepped up big time. In fact, over the last four weeks, Volson has posted some of his highest-graded pass-blocking games, per PFF, of his career, and he’s been solid as a run blocker as well. There have been questions about Volson since he won the job his rookie year, but if he keeps this up, it looks like there won’t be any more questions about the future of the team’s left guard position.
He’s going to see a lot of Heyward on Saturday. Heyward, a future Hall of Fame defensive lineman, had one sack in Week 12 against the Bengals. Hopefully, that number will be zero when the game is over in Week 16.
Joe Mixon/Chase Brown and Bengals o-line vs. Steelers front seven
In Week 12 when the Bengals lost to the Steelers at home by a score of 16-10, the Bengals offense only attempted eight runs. Over the next two weeks, they committed themselves to the run game. Mixon had at least 20 carries in each of those games. Then, against the Vikings, they still ran, but not nearly as often. However, what we did see is an almost equal share of carries between Mixon and Brown (10 to seven).
The Steelers are going to want to force Browning to throw the ball, but I don’t think this Bengals team is the same one that got beat up a few weeks ago. I think the Bengals' offensive line is going to look to set the expectation early that they’re going to run the ball. Hopefully, from the film, the Steelers' depleted secondary is too worried about Jake Browning to try to load up the box. After all, another backup quarterback, Gardner Minshew, threw three touchdowns against them last week.
Trey Hendrickson vs. Dan Moore Jr.
I said earlier that Watt is leading the NFL in sacks. That’s true. He has 16. Hendrickson is right behind him, though, with 15, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bengals defensive end had a multi-sack game on Saturday. He’ll be going up against Dan Moore Jr., who has struggled as a pass blocker in 2023. Per PFF, he has given up seven sacks and has earned a pretty awful pass-blocking grade of 37.6, the second-worst on the team.
Hendrickson is having a career year, and is coming off his second straight two-sack game and has five sacks over the last three weeks. He’s primed to have another great game, and the Steelers will be trotting out Mason Rudolph to take the hits. I think he’s going to need an ice bath when it’s all said and done.
Tee Higgins vs. the double team
We know that Ja’Marr Chase isn’t officially ruled out on Saturday, but if I had to make a bet on whether he played or not this weekend, I’d bet he doesn’t. That means Higgins is the No. 1 receiver in Week 16, which is totally great because Higgins is a true No. 1 receiver. If you don’t agree, watch his second touchdown against the Vikings last week.
IF Chase is out, Higgins is going to receive a ton of focus. He’s absolutely capable of beating double coverage, as he’s excelled when Chase has been out in the past. The other factor in the Bengals' favor is the availability of the team’s safeties.
Damontae Kazee was suspended for the rest of the season after his dangerous hit on Michael Pittman in Week 15, and Minkah Fitzpatrick left that same game with a knee injury and has been ruled out for this week.
Even with the double teams, I see another big Tee game coming if he comes prepared to play.
Bengals linebackers/safeties vs. Pat Freiermuth
Freiermuth didn’t score a touchdown against the Bengals, but he just tore them up all game long. He caught nine passes for 120 yards and just made the whole Bengals defense look silly in the middle of the field. That cannot happen again. Considering who the quarterback is, he’ll likely be looking for his tight end in the middle of the field a lot.
That can’t happen again. Having difficulties covering tight ends has been an issue this season for the Bengals. Unfortunately for them, Freiermuth is the real deal, and then they have Travis Kelce next week and David Njoku the week after that. If they want to get into the NFL Playoffs, they’re going to have to cover the tight end well, starting now.
Josh Tupou/Jay Tufele vs. Steelers running game
This isn’t Rudolph’s first rodeo. He’s started plenty of games before. However, he hasn’t played much this year, and he’ll be working with a new offensive coordinator in a game for the first time. Just like the Bengals, the Steelers are going to want to run the ball. Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren lead the way, combining for over 1700 yards on the ground and through the air.
DJ Reader is gone for the rest of the season, and he was the resident run stuffer. Someone else is going to have to step up, and the top candidates are Tupou and Tufele. Tupou is on top of the depth chart at the nose tackle position for now, but they’ve both shown flashes in the past. Reader was possibly the most important player on the Bengals defense, so Tupou and/or Tufele are going to need to play their best.