By Sean Tyler – Cincinnati Bengals Writer
Unusually, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot in common at the moment. Neither can win, run the ball or beat the San Francisco 49ers or the Seattle Seahawks. But who will get the upper hand on Monday night?
Heinz Field, prime-time television, Monday Night Football and star wide receiver AJ Green out injured: that’s the stuff of nightmares for the Bengals, a perfect storm. But this time, things feel different. Due to big-name departures (both permanent and temporary) since we last locked horns, our rivals across the state line don’t have their usual swagger.
To the uninitiated, the meeting of two 0-3 teams pegged at #26 and #28 in our latest power rankings promises to be an exhibition of incompetence. But there’s always something special (sometimes even unpleasant) in the air when these two AFC North teams meet and the fact that it will be their 100th meeting – Pittsburgh easily lead the series 64-35 – only adds to the spice.
With neither side able to put in a complete 60-minute performance, consistency is going to be key on Monday. So where will this one be won or lost?
Bet on red
A month ago, if you’d said that Andy Dalton would be the second-best quarterback for yards thrown after three weeks, I’d have laughed in your face. But it’s true: Dalton is only 22 yards shy of a thousand already, only trailing the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. Our flame-haired #14 had an abysmal first half against the Bills but recovered to deliver 250 yards, throw a touchdown and run in another. That kind of rollercoaster ride won’t cut it this week but luckily, I expect him to produce from the start, and in all four quarters, for a change.
2018 third-round draft pick Mason Rudolph began his first start as the Steelers QB in equally inauspicious fashion. In the 24-20 loss to the 49ers, he only made two passes over a yard, although they went for 39 and 76 yards, and logged a 56% completion rate (14-of-27). This caution was probably an attempt to kick-start their run game, tinged with some first-start nerves. Big Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t exactly pulling up trees before his season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 but Rudolph needs find his feet quickly if he’s going to prove a worthy stand-in. Dalton takes this one for me.
No Green, no Brown, no point?
Tyler Boyd is the most consistent of the Bengals receiver corps (fifth in the league with 24 receptions) but has yet to record a touchdown, while John Ross was all at sea in Buffalo (2-of-6, 22 yards, 1 INT) after two super-hot weeks. With AJ Green only just back on the rehab field, the wide receiver double-act of Boyd and Ross really need to click at the same time. That way, Head Coach Zac Taylor can build in some much-needed play action, missing since his impressive debut in Seattle.
The days of Antonio Brown lining up in yellow and black are now over, and his whistle-stop tour of teams incapable of handling a total space cadet seems to have ended in the sidings and in disgrace. JuJu Smith-Schuster has looked a viable replacement for AB at times but last week’s 3-of-7 for just 8 yards suggests Cincy may have the edge in this area too.
Somebody do something!
Joe Mixon finally turned in a half-decent performance (95 total yards and a TD) last week but he needs to bring his A-game on Monday night if Cincy is to stand any chance. He’s certainly bullish off the field but now it’s time to back up his words with prime-time fireworks.
For the Steelers, running backs have been similarly disappointing but I’m expecting the power back James Conner to finally hit his stride. His season-high 43-yard haul and fumble last week suggest there’s plenty of room for improvement, but I’d be shocked if we didn’t see Rudolph continue to feed Conner the rock and let him grab the headlines. One to Pittsburgh.
Drawing the line
The Cincinnati offensive line is a mess and yet, somehow, it’s just about holding up, largely thanks to current centre Trey Hopkins. As for our defense, we’re ranked 31st against the run so we clearly need to sharpen up there too. Some help for the key trio of Sam Hubbard, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap wouldn’t go amiss, and the secondary need to start making some tackles.
The Steelers have been pretty porous so far, giving up over 400 yards in all three games, but with five turnovers last week in California, they should’ve won regardless. More interceptions from rookie linebacker Devin Bush (the NFL’s leader with three) and new safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (involved in two turnovers in his Steelers debut) could prove crucial. On both sides of the ball, I call this one pretty even.
Experience versus enthusiasm
The Head Coach battle isn’t a fair fight. The home HC, Mike Tomlin, has been at the helm for 12 years and never had a losing season, while Zac Taylor only has three NFL defeats under his belt. Taylor is at least talking a good game, telling the press “We just have to find a way to win, we have to find that killer instinct,” but this is definitely advantage Steelers.
Who’s fit and healthy?
Injuries are definitely a factor in how this one will pan out. For the Bengals, promising cornerback Darius Phillips was placed on injured reserve this week with knee cartilage damage, denting our special team’s return game. It’s also still too soon for concussion victim left tackle Cordy Glenn but pass rusher Carl Lawson and left guard Michael Jordan (no, not that one) should be good to go.
As for our opponents, Roethlisberger misses a Bengals game for the first time in his 15 years at Pittsburgh. The Steelers may also be without tight ends Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble, so recent acquisition Nick Vannett could get some snaps. Not much between the sides here, as both have stars and starters missing.
Home sweet home for the Steelers
It’s arguably a good time to be playing the Steelers, who are lacking their usual air of invincibility, but they haven’t lost at home on a Monday since 1991 (16 wins straight). The Bengals last recorded a Monday night road victory in 1990 (seven consecutive losses) and we’ve also won just five of the 22 games we’ve played without AJ Green – so no good omens there.
Past form isn’t everything but such stats reinforce what feels like a lifetime of losing in ‘Steelers Week’. If the Bengals are defensively solid, offensively creative and more consistent, we’ll run ‘em close. But home advantage – combined with bitter experience – makes me lean towards a Steelers victory.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Steelers 28
(Feature Photo – Credit: Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports)