With Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader playing his first game in nearly two months and Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt back in time to test the Bengals offense he wrecked in the opener, Sunday's game (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Pittsburgh promises to be one of those Trench Games.
"They're all trench games," said Bengals right tackle La'el Collins after Friday's practice. "But I know what you're saying about the trenches."
Collins gets it.
The Bengals need their first AFC North win of the season in mid-20 degree weather against the defense that rocked them for seven sacks back in September led by Watt's sack and pick and three sacks from the other edge Alex Highsmith. Both teams are coming off their best rushing days in six years and Cincinnati's 10th-ranked defense is looking to attack Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett's NFL-low passer rating.
"I look at the tape," said Collins, "and we're so much better than we were week one. We have the guys, we just have to go execute."
After working just two weeks together before the opener, the revamped Bengals offensive line that had four new Opening Day starters has been executing well enough to win five of the last seven games with quarterback Joe Burrow completing at least 71.4 percent of his passes in four straight games and running back Joe Mixon coming off a season-high 152 rushing yards.
After getting sacked 13 times in the first two games, Burrow has gone down just 17 times since while racking up top five numbers in virtually every major passing category.
"Everything," said center Ted Karras, "runs through (number) Nine."
Even before that bell-weather game two weeks ago against Carolina in which he scored a Bengals-record five touchdowns, Mixon invited his offensive line for a night at downtown Cincinnati's Hard Rock Casino to begin the bye week as the bonding continues.
"Success breeds even more camaraderie and when we continue to win games that will continue to grow," said Karras, who threw some dice.
Karras, rated the seventh center by Pro Football Focus, and right guard Alex Cappa, the 14th guard, are two Super Bowl veterans the Bengals signed in the offseason who offensive line coach Frank Pollack pointed to this week for their work firming up a pretty consistent middle. Rookie left guard Cordell Volson has improved enough that his linemates are calling him a future top five guard in the league.
"Those two veteran guys have done a great job bringing along the rookie. Mentoring him," Pollack said. "(Volson) has come a long way. He's coachable, smart."
Pollack has gone to the air to make an analogy for his players.
"When a plane is taking off, it's taxiing on the runway. That's September and October," Pollack said. "Then you put the pedal to the metal to climb and lift in November and reach that peak in December and January in the playoff run. That's how you want the season to progress and hit acceleration."
Highsmith, pitted against left tackle Jonah Williams, took off before they did with that Opening Day hat trick for sacks and is a big share of his 8.5 for the season. But look at what Watt means to the Steelers.
After Watt injured his pectoral muscle in overtime of that Opening Day win at Paycor Stadium in his duel with Collins, the Steelers had more sacks and takeaways over the two games he played than in the seven games he missed. The Steelers are 2-0 with Watt with nine sacks and seven takeaways. Without Watt they were 1-6 with eight sacks and five takeaways.
"Much respect," Collins said. "We've got to start fast."
Watt and Highsmith had the benefit of always rushing with the lead in the opener, secured on the second play of the season on safety Minkah Fitzpatrick's pick-six. Since then, Burrow has 18 touchdowns and five interceptions.
"You start to climb," Collins said. "Then you lift up the wheels and it takes off into the clouds."
UP IN THE AIR: Punters live in the air and the Bengals two are really up in the air as they wait to find out which one is punting Sunday. It could be Kevin Huber extending his club-record games played to 217 or it could be practice squadder Drue Chrisman's NFL debut.
Head coach Zac Taylor didn't tell the media after Friday's practice and he didn't tell Huber or Chrisman, either. They spent the week alternating and Chrisman has been punting three times a week for the past month, including pregame, as if he's going to be the guy. He's also made every road trip.
"I've been punting every other day. So if your number is called on Sunday, it's not a big change in the body," Chrisman said. "It's really like any other week. If somebody lands on his ankle wrong, all of a sudden you have to be ready to go on Sunday."
This Sunday won't be ideal. The Acrisure Stadium grass is notoriously not the best in late November and it figures to be in the mid-20s with the sun just about gone by the time they take the field. Ohio State's Chrisman has no problem with all of that. He says it might have been that cold in East Lansing when they played Michigan State in "that terrible state."
"Be a pro. Affect the weather, don't let the weather affect you," Chrisman said. "I played in the Big Ten. I know this weather very well."
Friday? Saturday? Game time?
"I'll be ready regardless," Chrisman said.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE: It could be Chrisman's first NFL game. It will be rookie long snapper Cal Adomitis' ninth. Not exactly the combined 400-plus games Huber and long snapper Clark Harris gave them the last time they played Pittsburgh.
But Adomitis brings something pretty valuable. He's just coming off four years of playing a bunch of games on that grass as the University of Pittsburgh's long snapper.
"I made some calls looking into it," Adomitis said.
His alma mater, Pittsburgh Catholic Central, is playing in the state finals next weekend, a slate of games played at Acrisure. After that weekend, the field is going to be re-sodded. Inside the hashes were re-sodded about a month ago.
"It can be pretty bad this time of year. I was telling Zach Carter,' said Adomitis of the rookie defensive tackle, "there are going to be some weird bounces with the wind and the grass. But we just have to weather it and we'll be good."
Adomitis has pretty much invoked the Tyler Boyd for rule for the natives. His immediate family is coming to the game, as well as some close family friends and high school friends he thinks already have season tickets" "If I'm paying, they have to wear orange and black."
Adomitis can't ever remember going to a Bengals game there, but he remembers watching plenty of Bengals-Steelers games on TV. The one he remembers the most is the first even though he was just seven. The 2005 Wild Card Game at Paycor Stadium saw the Bengals lose quarterback Carson Palmer and wide receiver Chris Henry both on the second play.
"It was so controversial," Adomitis said, "That's where I found out about the AFC North."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Starting cornerback Eli Apple (calf) surfaced on the injury report as a limited participant Friday but was not listed as questionable. Which is good, because No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie underwent ACL reconstruction Thursday and backup Tre Flowers (hamstring) was limited all week and listed as questionable …
Same with kick returner/backup running back Chris Evans (knee) …
The Bengals braced for the nip-in-the-air in outdoor practices during the first part of the week before heading into the IEC Indoor Facility for Friday's brisk hour-long practice. Taylor said with the weather work done Wednesday and Thursday and the brief workout left, he was putting the premium on speed and efficiency.
Taylor is a creature of habit because he doesn't want to throw his team for a loop. So ever since they opened the indoor last month, he's taken them over there every Friday, although he did say this Friday he wouldn't rule out working outdoors on a Friday if they were expecting something like a snow game …