The NFL has an odd dichotomy when it comes to histories been franchises. Some of it is doomed to repeat itself, bringing about themes, while changing-of-the-guard moments elicit the dramatic storylines everyone craves from the league.
Such is the case with the Saturday Evening Special this week in the form of the Cincinnati Bengals clashing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the 1970s, Ken Anderson and Terry Bradshaw had many iconic clashes, but it was Bradshaw and his crew winning Super Bowls.
And, while the Bengals had more success in head-to-head games in the 1980s, the woeful 1990s told a different tale, as did the Marvin Lewis era. It’s been a bit of a different tale since Joe Burrow and Zac Taylor moved to the Queen City, but the Steel City challenge is omnipresent.
As it was with Lewis and Carson Palmer and/or Andy Dalton, as well as Taylor/Burrow, this week’s contest highlights the importance of finding the right guys at imperative franchise positions. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin also headlines that prominent fact.
Cincinnati lost Burrow for the year, prompting the masses to hit up the 2024 mock draft simulators. It ensued after Jake Browning’s first start against these Steelers, wherein the Bengals scored just 10 points.
Yet, with Taylor at the helm, he and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan concocted a scheme to play into Browning’s strengths, cementing their belief in his viability as an NFL starter. Cincinnati has since rattled off three wins, currently planting them in the No. 6 seed.
While Tomlin deserves praise for his trademark ability to have his Steelers remain competitive despite various tumultuous events, it’s been an opposite kind of streak for Pittsburgh. Quarterback issues have them on a three-game losing streak, putting them in the oh-so-dangerous mindset of do-or-die.
Mason Rudolph enters the fray once again, supplanting an ineffective Mitch Trubisky, who was in for the injured Kenny Pickett. Rudolph is an enigma of his own entering Week 16, as he is 3-0 against Taylor and the Bengals as a starter, but hasn’t started a game since 2021.
Cincinnati’s defense has had its struggles this year, placing 27th in the league in rushing yards allowed. They face an uphill climb to improving this facet, as run-stopping savant, D.J. Reader is now out for the year.
It’s a facet of the game the Steelers are undoubtedly looking to exploit this week—both for a general victory and to make a statement to Cincinnati. As we know, Pittsburgh has a physical running game deeply engrained in its DNA.
Cincinnati hasn’t been nearly as effective in their ground game, having the second-lowest amount of rushing yards in the league (the Steelers are smack in the middle of the pack at No. 16), but it’s improved lately.
With Ja’Marr Chase out this week, Cincinnati may want to give Pittsburgh a taste of its own medicine with a more methodical, run-heavy approach this week.
Yes, that makes Joe Mixon a key figure this week, but also Chase Brown. The rookie back has had a great play the last three weeks (all wins) since returning from I.R., with his versatility being a key.
Then again, maybe not?
the Bengals have seen NO SUCCESS trying to RUN the ball vs the Steelers— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 22, 2023
last 2 yrs, early down RB runs:
52 runs, 120 yds, 2.3 YPC, 13% success, -0.34 EPA
early down RB passes?
9.7 YPA, 78% comp, 74% success, +0.62 EPA
Cincy MUST limit RB runs & pass to RBs @SportsGrid pic.twitter.com/wmeSje81YG
For the Steelers, a lot of eyes have to be on talented wideout George Pickens. He’s teetering on having that title being changed to “talented, but troubled”, as his effort and attitude are raising concerns in Pittsburgh. Still, he had a nice game a month ago when the Steelers made another big change on offense, so he will need to be a catalyst for a potential Pittsburgh win.
Cincinnati’s defense has struggled with a number of the basic fundamentals, but they’ve been a unit that feasts on big plays. Whether it’s in interceptions, sacks, or late-game fourth-and-short stops, they have been extremely opportunistic in their couple of winning streaks this year.
On the surface, this game appears to be one that will be a grind, with the Steelers going extremely run-heavy. Even so, Rudolph will need to make the occasional play through the air to get the Steelers the win.
And with the threat of a four-game losing streak for the Steelers occurring on the hallowed grounds of
Heinz Acrisure Stadium, there comes a dividing line on who will do just enough to win.
From an overall talent and roster perspective, one is inclined to trust Browning over Rudolph and the duo of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard over the up-and-down Steelers offensive line. Yet, from a “been there, done that” mentality and overall trust in a franchise, the scales tip back a little toward Pittsburgh’s way.
Nick Mullens provided sparks for Minnesota against the Bengals last week, utilizing a mix of sneakiness from a lack of recent game film and a seizing of an opportunity. But, when it came down to it, Cincinnati’s defense caused enough turnovers by him and late stops of others to grab an improbable overtime win.
Oh, and Tee Higgins did a couple of things, too.
DraftKings has fluctuated the line between 2.5-3 points in favor of Cincinnati this week. It’s a curious line given the injuries the Bengals are facing, but it also shows Las Vegas’ lack of trust in Rudolph.
Did Cincinnati use up all of their magic last week against Minnesota? Or, will they take advantage of a Pittsburgh team that is absolutely reeling right now?
Bengals 20, Steelers 16
And here are this week’s Bengals Reacts results.
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