Six weeks ago, the Bengals – at 2-3 and coming off a bye week – traveled to Pittsburgh for a late-afternoon kickoff game. The final score, 29-14, didn’t do justice to the demoralizing beating they incurred. Bill Lazor, expected to fine-tune the offense he’d then recently inherited, managed one first down throughout the entire second half. Zero drives ended in scores. Three ended in turnovers.
The worst part: the Steelers never stepped on the Bengals’ throats and decisively locked the game up. They led 20-14 at halftime, and they only managed to convert three field goals in six more drives. The demoralizing part of it all wasn’t their quality of play, it was how low the Bengals were setting the bar for them. Le’Veon Bell ran the ball 21 times in the second half and accumulated 83 yards. Ben Roethlisberger completed two short passes for 31 yards. Robert Golden completed one 44-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey on a fake punt because the Bengals didn’t cover the gunners.
All in all, it was a shameful, forgettable outing for Cincinnati. So what’s changed since?
In five games against the Colts, Jaguars, Titans, Broncos, and Browns, the Bengals pulled out a 3-2 record. As with their first matchup against the Steelers, their most convincing wins came in their two most recent games. As with their first matchup, they enter the weekend with a chance to break even in the win-loss column. The Steelers are certainly still a favorite, at 9-2 overall with six wins in their past six games.
That being said, they’ve won three of their last four by 5 points or less, most recently requiring overtime to put away Brett Hundley’s Packers. They’re still notorious for playing down to their competition, especially on the road – where they’ll be for this upcoming game.
Most importantly, the margin for error the Bengals had in the first matchup no longer exists. They can crash the playoffs with maybe one more loss on their schedule. If they’re a team that truly deserves a bid, it shouldn’t come this week.
OUT: LB Vincent Rey, LB Nick Vigil, S Shawn Williams
QUESTIONABLE: DE Michael Johnson
Also listed: WR A.J. Green, LS Clark Harris, TE Tyler Kroft, OT Cedric Ogbuehi
OUT: CB Joe Haden, TE Vance McDonald
DOUBTFUL: S Mike Mitchell
QUESTIONABLE: WR Antonio Brown
Also listed: LB James Harrison, LB Ryan Shazier, WR Juju Smith-Schuster
OddsShark Predicted Score: Pittsburgh 28.1, Cincinnati 15.0
Spread Consensus: Pittsburgh -5
In the first matchup against Pittsburgh, Kevin Minter left the game with an elbow injury that sidelined him for weeks. Vincent Rey and Nick Vigil – the two guys who were left to flank Vontaze Burfict – have both been ruled out. The Bengals should be fine rolling with Burfict and Minter in nickel packages, with the athletic but lightly-used Jordan Evans coming in with base personnel. It’s a better physical matchup against Bell, even if the depth behind them is light.
As far as the other injuries are concerned, Joe Haden’s confirmed absence carries the most weight. Regardless of Joe Mixon’s performance against Cleveland, the Steeler’s defense will build their game plan around containing A.J. Green. Historically, they’ve had some success doing this, but it’s nothing that Artie Burns or Coty Sensabaugh have been part of. If the recent play of the two is any indication, that’s unlikely to change.
(Peek this article from Steelers editor Parker Hurley, where he expresses zero confidence in said corners against Green.)
When Andy Dalton can find Green at will – and it appears he’ll be able to – everything else falls into place. The floor for the offense, regardless of blocking and rushing production, moves up to 20 points. If Mixon’s breakout showing against Cleveland last week translates into another strong performance, then the offense is cooking with gas.
As far as defensive concerns? Aside from the aforementioned Bell bit, the Bengals didn’t drop the last game due to those. Antonio Brown was held in check, although that doesn’t mean he won’t get his this time around. The Steelers’ passing attack in general has dynamic potential, but whether they reach it is a week-to-week proposition. Regardless, the Bengals have their full deck of cornerbacks available, and plenty of reason to be comfortable with them. It’s certainly a better matchup than Green against the Steelers’ defensive backfield.
Bengals 30, Steelers 27