Off one of its best practices Thursday since coordinator Lou Anarumo arrived with head coach Zac Taylor four seasons ago, the Bengals defense flexed its muscles heading into Sunday's game in Pittsburgh (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) preparing for Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett and his rejuvenated run game with hopefully the return of captain D.J. Reader.
Both teams are coming off their best rushing days in six years in what promises to be a classic AFC North slugfest in the trenches and the Bengals appear to be getting back one of their heavyweights.
Reader, their Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle who has missed the last six games with a torn MCL, reiterated before Thursday's practice he still hopes to play. They have yet to activate him, so he's not on the injury report.
But he is on Anarumo's mind.
"I just think any time we get a guy of his caliber back, it's going to help everything," said Anarumo after Thursday's practice. "Not just the rush, but the run defense as well."
Could Reader be coming back at a better time? When he got hurt, the Bengals were 12th in NFL rushing. Now they're 18th and the Steelers are coming off a 217-yard rush effort fueled by running back Najee Harris' season-high 99 yards.
Reader has taken note. In the opener at Paycor Stadium the Steelers running backs ran it just 13 times in a 75-yard rush day. In last Sunday's 20-10 win over the Andy Dalton Saints, Pittsburgh backs lugged it 31 times.
"They're trying to get their good young backs going and taking some pressure off the young quarterback," Reader said. "They look a little different. (The run game) looks better on film. They're committed and they're finding different schemes that work better for their offense. Not so much pin and pull. Not as much power. A lot more stretch and tight zone (runs). They're trying to do what (Pickett) does best and match it with the play-action."
If Reader returns, that's going to allow Anarumo to spread out the snaps among his tackles. Josh Tupou (calf), Reader's backup, has missed the last three games himself and won't play Sunday. Young three techniques Zach Carter, a rookie, and Jay Tufele, a second-year waiver claim, have done well holding up.
But it's meant starting three technique B.J. Hill has played at least 51 snaps in seven of the nine games. Last year, with Reader and veteran three Larry Ogunjobi both healthy, Hill played 50 snaps just once in a career year.
And he's played well this year with two sacks (one off last year's pace) with three passes defensed, five QB hits and a forced fumble.
(Ogunjobi is set to start Sunday. But for the Steelers.)
"You don't really want those guys getting their numbers too high. Any of them. If he's in the fifties, that's too much and there's very few that can do that. There's a guy out in L.A. that can do it," Anarumo said of the Rams' Aaron Donald. "You really like to keep those guys 35, 40(snaps) because then they're just fresher in the fourth quarter. They're the ones that are getting doubled and chipped and banged on every play.
"Getting DJ back and all of the extra reps that B.J. and Zach Carter and Jay have got, I think that's going to help because it's like basketball now. You're scaled down your rotation a little bit because you've got another guy back and hopefully Zach goes in there now and it's not like, 'Oh my God, it's my first few games.' He's kind of settled in a little bit, so hopefully he can help kind of get back to where we were last year."
Ogunjobi is playing well for the Steelers and everyone in the Bengals locker room knows how much he meant to them last year. But look at this defense even with Reader missing so much time. They're top ten overall, 11th on third down and 13th in scoring.
"The energy today at practice, the way they were talking, the way they were flying around, the way they were communicating, I was proud to be their coach." Anarumo said. "I am every day, but they were problem solving out there today.
"I think practice correlates to the games and so I hope it will this weekend. But I'm super happy with the way we go about our business here and that leads to playing well."
MORE DEFENSE: Safety Jessie Bates III has seen it all in this rivalry in which he has six passes defensed. He was a rookie when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger beat their zero blitz with ten seconds left, he was there when fellow safety Vonn Bell turned the tide with his 2020 Monday Night hit on JuJu Smith-Schuster and he was there when the Bengals swept last year.
Now he faces for the first time the Steelers' New Era combination of Pickett and wide receiver George Pickens.
"He'll throw it up to him. They're trying to be like Joe (Burrow) and (Ja'Marr) Chase," Bates said.
According to Elias, Bates and the Bengals are 1-6 against rookie quarterbacks since he came into the league in 2018, but the one win is the most recent, making Burrow 1-0 against rookies after beating Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence last season. In this century, starting with a 2002 win over David Carr, the Bengals are 18-20 against rookies.
In the opener, Mitchell Trubisky, who beat them as a Bears rookie in 2017, got another win. Pickett has shown flashers. But the Steelers' longest TD play this season is eight yards.
"I just think Kenny Pickett has done a really good job of scrambling, using his feet to extend drives and then also giving his players to make a play on the ball, where Mitchell was taking some sacks and that's why they made the change," Bates said. "I know (Steelers head) Coach (Mike) Tomlin is going to have them more than prepared offense, defense, special teams to come in to play so hopefully we can go in there how we did last year and whoop up on them a little bit."
Blitz the kid? Make him sit back there and decide? Anarumo says there's no myths about rookie QBs.
"I think for a young guy, he's shown poise," Anarumo said of Pickett. "They really haven't scaled down the offense that much. I think they're doing what they kind of did or have been doing. He's an athletic guy. You can see that. I think he's run for four or five third downs and converted. He had 51 yards rushing last week, 23 of one scramble play. He's making plays both with his arm and his legs. It's such a different game from college to the NFL for guys that are in there playing as rookies … But he showed great awareness and great, great poise."
According to Next Gen Stats, the Bengals have the second lowest passer rating in the league (48.1) when pressuring the passer. Only the Eagles are better. And Pickett struggles against pressure with a 63.5 passer rating when pressured with no TDs.
RENEGADE REDUX: If "Renegade," by Styx is blaring in the Bengals team room, it must be Steeler Week and a trip to Pittsburgh in the offing. If running back Joe Mixon is talking about warming up, it must be November.
"All you hear is the Renegade song they play in the fourth quarter," Bates said of the music piped in before the team meetings this week. "All you hear is that blaring in our team meeting. So we know what week it is."
Someone told Mixon earlier this week that he averages 84 yards per November and December games, when he has 11 of his 14 career 100-yard games. Two of them have come against the Steelers, including last year's career-high 165 yards.
"I don't really care about playing in cold conditions. I feel like that's on the defense," Mixon said. "At that point, it's all about will and want to. If they don't want to tackle, it's on them. Make them pay. Do whatever you can to make them pay. We want to be a balanced offense. I feel like in this type of time, like right now, November, December, January, this would be a great time to establish that."
He averages 81 yards per against the Steelers, 112 in the last three against them. He had 82 in the opener on 27 carries.
"I feel like as much as people talk about the numbers that I had (in the opener), the Steelers did a great job containing the run," Mixon said. "We know who they have and what they're capable of. At the end of the day as long as we play our style of football and execute. I feel like everything will work out."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: It looks like Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who personally beat the Bengals back in September with a pick-six and blocked the winning extra point while logging 14 tackles, is going to play. He went full Thursday five days after undergoing an appendectomy …
For the Bengals, safety Dax Hill (shoulder) was out again while running back Chris Evans (knee) and cornerback Tre Flowers (hamstring) were again limited ….
The Bengals practiced outside in freezing temperatures ...