When the Bengals swept Pittsburgh last season, quarterback Joe Burrow was "Steeler Joe."
Translation: Even though he threw for less than 200 yards in each win, the Bengals won going away with him completing 81 percent of his 42 passes (four TDs against just two picks) while running back Joe Mixon averaged 5.5 yards on his 46 carries against a Pittsburgh defense that looks pretty much the way it looked the last time they met in Mixon's career 165-yard day.
What Burrow is going to be in Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at Paycor Stadium is anybody's guess.
"Every game calls for a different Joe. If our defense is playing great, I've got to protect the ball, we've got to run the ball well, take the opportunities when they're there, but don't push anything," Burrow said this week. "If they're scoring on the other side of the ball, I might have to take some chances. If we're not running the ball as well I might have to take some chances that normally I wouldn't otherwise in a different game. Every game calls for something different."
Will he be Steeler Joe or Seamless Joe, like he was throwing for 525 yards against Baltimore. All offensive coordinator Brian Callahan knows is the Bengals were 4-0 when Burrow threw for 190 yards or less last season.
"Hard to say," said Callahan after Thursday's practice on what kind of Joe they'll need. "Sometimes those games you start running the ball like that, you ride the hot hand. Sometimes you think you're going to run the ball and you don't and you get stuck in spots where you're passing the ball a lot more. We were really effective running the ball against Pittsburgh last year. To think that's going to happen again with the front that they have, I'm sure they're not going to give that to us. He was really efficient. He was over 80 percent in the two games. We'll take that any day of the week."
Callahan agrees with Burrow. It takes about the first quarter to figure out what kind of game is going to win the game.
BATES BULLISH ON DEFENSE: Two things the media has barely mentioned when it comes to the 2022 Bengals. Mixon and the defense.
Consider that box checked.
Free safety Jessie Bates III, making his Bengals-leading 64th start Sunday, sees everybody back from a defense that barely allowed 20 points per four playoff games.
"I think we can be damn good, honestly," Bates said before Thursday's practice. "We talk about it as a group. How we're good. How we got hot. I think being that every single play, being elite every single play, I think that's the next step we have to get to. We've got really smart guys, people that know exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it. We'll be a lot better this year."
Bates didn't sign his franchise tender until two weeks ago, but teammates and coaches are raving about how good he looks. He admits he jokes with his teammates about his fresh legs and reminded the media he had his best year in 2020, when there was barely a training camp and no preseason games.
It turns out the only rust he's had to knock off is from the celebrations.
"It was funny watching practices and film back in training camp, seeing how excited they get, instill some of the stuff we've always done," Bates said. "'Money on the floor' and stuff like that, thinking about what our handshakes are going to be again this year. I think I'm a little behind on that. I feel really excited. We've got a really good group of people. And we've got some of the younger guys that are coming along that's going to contribute. It's going to be fun. We've got to keep them up to speed on the 'Money on the floor' celebration and stuff like that."
EYE ON MITCH: The offense knows they have to keep an eye out Sunday for two of the league's best pass rushers, Pittsburgh's Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt. Bates also knows what he has to read from Mitch Trubisky making his first Steelers start at quarterback in place of Ben Roethlisberger.
"I expect a lot of out-of-the-pocket stuff. Obviously, with Big Ben, I feel like he's a very veteran quarterback so a lot of the play calls were called from the offensive coordinator but he had a lot of flexibility to be able to change calls," Bates said. "Change them into RPOs. It hard to watch film from last year and years before against the Steelers because Big Ben had a lot of say-so. But I think with having a younger quarterback that can move around, we'll see a little more boots, boot throwbacks just stuff like that that you have to be aware of."
THE SWITCH: Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't backing down this week in Pittsburgh during practices. And while Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has shied away from the live stuff (every Sunday starter but one didn't play in the preseason), Bates thinks that's no problem.
"I don't think the guys not playing in preseason games matter," Bates said. "We have a standard of practicing here and that's full speed. It's not flipping on a switch, flipping it off. When you go live and you have to make open-field tackles and stuff like that, that's bringing you back to training during the offseason. You have to rely on that. Our coaches have a really good trust with the players. Making sure we're doing the right stuff off the field along when we're here as well. I think we'll be fine."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Bengals punt returner Trent Taylor appeared to injure his hamstring Thursday. He was not on the injury report Wednesday but surfaced Thursday in what was called a limited practice …
Callahan says center Ted Karras' future is in the stars.
"He's a step away from being a coach. That's where his life is headed," Callahan said. "I don't care if knows it yet or not." …
Veteran right tackle La'el Collins is making his first Bengals start Sunday under much scrutiny. He didn't get back from a back issue until a few weeks ago, but here's a guy that needs no introduction to the Steelers series.
The former Cowboy saw plenty of the same against the Giants in the NFC East.
"Or Dallas-Philly, right?" Collins said. "It's physical. It's like the military. They fight on different battlefields, but they rely on their training."