PITTSBURGH - Bengals rookie right guard Jackson Carman drew his first NFL start and wide receiver Tee Higgins missed his first pro game as injuries forced head coach Zac Taylor to juggle his starting lineup in Sunday's first AFC North game of the season.
Carman, the second-rounder, got the unsurprising call at Heinz Field when Xavier Su'a-Filo was deactivated in the wake of not practicing last week with a knee injury. Higgins, who scored a touchdown last week after injuring his shoulder, went limited Friday but was put on the inactive list.
It's a tough one. Higgins is tied with slot receiver Tyler Boyd's team-leading 10 catches and Ja'Marr Chase's team-leading two touchdowns and backups Auden Tate and Mike Thomas have one catch between them this season.
Carman figures to get a heavy dose of Steelers four-time Pro Bowler Cam Heyward in one of the more anticipated Bengals debuts in quite a while. Heyward has pretty much had his way against the Bengals since he came into the NFL in the same first round they got A.J. Green in 2011. Heyward doesn't usually line up over the right guard, but he comes into his 20th game against Cincinnati with 9.5 of his career 59 sacks.
But the Bengals believe Carman is ready after coming on since the early days of training camp. He's lost about a dozen pounds, is at 325 and looks more comfortable at guard after playing left tackle at Clemson.
"I just try to take it in stride," Carman said last week of the transition. "Between tackle and guard, probably the biggest difference for me is just having people on both sides of you. At tackle, you're used to being on an island. You have a lot of space. At guard, you have to be more conscientious being in the right position to help other people instead of just being on your own at one position."
So far, so good for offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
"He's fast. His balance has improved. His demeanor running the protections," Pollack said. "He's playing with length. His body is more under control. He's not lunging. He was on the ground too much early in training camp. He's got way better body control because the game has slowed down. His footwork is cleaner, which allows all that to happen."
Tate is looking for his first catch since last November, He caught 14 balls for 150 yards and no touchdowns before missing the last five games with an injured shoulder. He's got one touchdown catch and it came in that career-high 40-catch season in 2019.
With Su'a-Filo down, rookie offensive lineman D'Ante Smith makes his NFL debut after being inactive the first two weeks. Also inactive, as they have been all year, is cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Nick McCloud, tackle Fred Johnson and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin.
BOYD POISED: Boyd, one of Pittsburgh's greatest scholastic and collegiate players, would love to have a big one in his hometown. He's still looking for his first Heinz touchdown in his sixth season in the league. Even if T.J. Watt isn't playing, he knows what to expect. Same steady, disciplined Steelers.
"They always have a solid secondary and defense overall. They're great up front. But the one thing about them is that no matter where guys get plugged in there, they're sound," Boyd said. "They stick to their plan. They're always in the top three in the turnover battle throughout the years. They're very well-coached."
Turnovers dominated the week's discussion because Taylor has watched Pittsburgh games disappear with them. He was 0-3 against them until the Monday night game last season, when they were plus-three in turnovers.
"We can't allow them to have any takeaways," said Boyd, when asked what is the one thing the Bengals can't do Sunday. "We can't allow them to get strip fumbles, we can't allow them to get any picks. Without them getting any turnovers, we'll be perfectly fine. It's not a defense where we feel like we won't be able to do anything."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Bengals running back Joe Mixon comes in as the NFL's second-leading rusher among backs that have played two games … Burrow is looking for his first road victory …The Bengals are on pace for 51 sacks, tying the club record set in 2012.