The Bengals open their 2022 season on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paycor Stadium. After six weeks worth of training camp and preseason preparation, Cincinnati enters the regular season looking to defend its status as AFC champions, beginning with Sunday's opener. The Bengals have had an eventful offseason, bringing in new personnel that includes a six-player draft class and several marquee free agents, with the goal of building on a historic 2021 campaign. But while the roster additions — on top of a young-but-experienced nucleus — have garnered expectations for even more production than last year, head coach Zac Taylor says his team is looking no further than this matchup against an AFC North Division rival.
"That's not something we're really getting into," Taylor said, when asked about the Bengals' potential this season. "We knew the work that we needed to put in during training camp to prepare ourselves for the first week. I'm not looking beyond that, because we know how big Pittsburgh is Week 1 at home — and how big a divisional game is, period. It's important to open up with great energy in front of your fans and start the season 1-0. All that we need to be focused on right now is being the best team we can be to beat Pittsburgh." Offensively, the Bengals boast one of the most talented passing attacks in the NFL, led by third-year QB Joe Burrow. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Burrow in '21 set single-season team records for passing yardage (4611), passing TDs (34) and passer rating (108.3). Named the league's Comeback Player of the Year after returning from a knee injury suffered during his rookie campaign, Burrow recently had to work his way back to full health following an appendectomy early in training camp. As he gets set for his third pro season, the 25-year-old native of Athens, Ohio expects the Cincinnati offense to pick up where it left off. "I'm excited about everybody that we have on the team," said Burrow. "We have a lot of experience at the top, but I think we have a lot of depth this year that maybe we haven't had in the past."
Surrounding Burrow is a dynamic receiving corps that features veteran slot WR Tyler Boyd, third-year pro Tee Higgins and second-year Pro Bowler Ja'Marr Chase. In 2021, those three players combined for 3374 receiving yards, the most among any trio of pass catchers in the NFL. Chase turned in one of the greatest rookie seasons in league history, finishing with the most receiving yards (1455) by a first-year player in the Super Bowl era (started in 1966). Higgins had a 1000-yard season of his own, netting 1091 and six receiving TDs in just 14 games played, while Boyd had 828 yards and five scores. Up front, one of the main storylines this offseason has been the revamped offensive line. While fourth-year LOT Jonah Williams maintains his responsibility of protecting Burrow's blind side, the other four members of the starting unit are set to play in their first regular-season game in Bengal stripes. To bolster its experience and winning pedigree, Cincinnati signed three free agents in RG Alex Cappa (Tampa Bay), ROT La'el Collins (Dallas) and C Ted Karras (New England). Though their time playing together has been limited by injuries throughout training camp, that trio enters the 2022 campaign with a combined 236 career games played (regular season and postseason), including 174 starts. On the flip side, rookie LG Cordell Volson will be making his NFL debut on Sunday, after earning the starting role in preseason. Volson, the team's fourth-round draft pick, comes from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, where he won four national championships and played in a program-record 65 games. "I really love this group," Williams told the media. "I like how well we work together. We come out with a certain brand of toughness and unity. Our goal as an offensive line is to go make the defense feel bad."
Defensively, the Bengals enter the season with stability, as the team's 11 starters from Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 remain unchanged. The defensive line emerged as an elite unit last season, when Cincinnati ranked fifth in the NFL against the run (102.5 yards allowed per game). On the edge, sixth-year DE Trey Hendrickson is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign that saw him record 14 sacks, the second-most in a season in team history. The Bengals' secondary features five veterans that each made significant plays during the postseason run to the Super Bowl, and is led by fifth-year S Jessie Bates III. Bates, who was named the team's designated franchise player during the offseason, re-signed on Aug. 23 and reverted from the Exempt/Commissioner Permission list to the active roster on Monday.
Sunday will be the 105th matchup between the Bengals and Steelers. Cincinnati has won its last three against Pittsburgh, which went 9-7-1 in 2021. And while each game during the regular season brings its own importance, head coach Zac Taylor acknowledged the heightened intensity of divisional matchups.
"I think every game in this division has that feeling to it," said Taylor. "Your easiest path to the playoffs is to be dominant in your division. It starts Week 1 against a divisional team at home. We've got to take advantage of those opportunities. You feel it from our fans, certainly. There's a relationship there that you feel when you're walking through the community." The series: The Steelers lead 67-38 overall and 32-21 in Cincinnati. The series includes two postseason games, both Steelers wins in Wild Card round contests at Paycor Stadium, after the 2005 and '15 seasons. The Bengals have played more games against the Steelers (105) than any other foe. Cleveland is second in that category at 97, and Tennessee (formerly Houston Oilers) is third at 77.