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Five Things To Watch: Bengals at Steelers

DE Trey Hendrickson celebrates during the Vikings-Bengals game in Week 15 of the 2023 season on December 16 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
DE Trey Hendrickson celebrates during the Vikings-Bengals game in Week 15 of the 2023 season on December 16 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Bengals seek their fourth straight win when they travel to Acrisure Stadium for a Saturday matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game airs at 4:30 p.m. on NBC. Here are five things to watch:

1. O-Line Meets Watt Once Again

Cincinnati's offensive game plan this week starts with keeping T.J. Watt off the stat sheet. The five-time Pro Bowler leads the NFL in sacks this season with 16, and two of those came less than a month ago at Paycor Stadium. Both of Watt's sacks that day came on third down to disrupt Jake Browning's first career start.

The Bengals this season are 4-2 when limiting opponents to two or fewer sacks. Keeping the pocket clean, which may require extra attention toward Watt, will be paramount as Browning looks to build off a sensational passing performance in the fourth quarter of Week 15 against Minnesota.

2. Hendrickson's Streak

The Bengals boast their own elite pass rusher in Trey Hendrickson, who has posted at least one full sack in five straight games — his longest such streak since 2021. The recent surge has helped Hendrickson reach 15 on the year, a new career high and the second most in a season in Bengals history (Coy Bacon, 22 in 1976).

It's notably rare for edge rushers of this caliber to meet at this point in a season. Hendrickson and Watt are set to be just the third duo since 1982 to play one another with 15 sacks apiece earlier than Week 16.

Mason Rudolph is expected to make his first start at quarterback for the Steelers since Week 10 of the 2021 season. Hendrickson making life difficult for Rudolph and potentially adding to his sack tally would go a long way toward shutting down the Pittsburgh offense.

3. Browning Gets Second Shot at Steelers

Browning's first start in Week 12 saw him complete 73.1 percent of his passes (19 of 26) for 227 yards with a touchdown and an interception against the Steelers. While Browning has since said that his performance was below his standard, head coach Zac Taylor is confident that the experience of facing a tough Pittsburgh defense will benefit his starting QB.

"They've got a great defense, and there's a lot of challenges that come with playing these guys," said Taylor. "It's good for Jake to have been through that one time and gotten more games under his belt."

Browning has emerged as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the league coming off his Week 12 start. Over the past three weeks, he leads the NFL in completion percentage (76.7) and passing yards (953), is tied for first in total completions (79), ranks second in yards per attempt (9.3) and third in passer rating (112.6). All those numbers have helped spark a three-game win streak for the Bengals, and another strong outing would help the Bengals make it four in a row.

4. Holiday Higgins

Tee Higgins is coming off a memorable fourth quarter against Minnesota that included a highlight-reel touchdown catch with under a minute remaining to send the game to overtime. With fellow standout receiver Ja'Marr Chase ruled out this week (shoulder), Cincinnati will rely on Higgins to build on last Saturday's showing and be the featured pass catcher for Browning.

Higgins found himself in a similar role going into Acrisure Stadium last season, when Chase was out of the lineup for a Week 11 Bengals-Steelers tilt. He delivered a season-high 148 receiving yards (second most in his career) on nine catches to help lead Cincinnati to a 37-30 win. In five career games against Pittsburgh, Higgins averages 16.1 yards per catch and has hauled in three grabs of over 30 yards.

In addition to his impressive numbers against the AFC North rival, the Bengals are hoping Higgins will continue his noteworthy play in the month of December. Since entering the NFL in 2020, Higgins ranks tied for second leaguewide in receiving touchdowns (nine) and is seventh in receiving yards (1,069) during the calendar's final month.

5. Reader-less Bengals face Run-Heavy Offense

Cincinnati will be without its top run-stuffer in defensive tackle DJ Reader for the remainder of the season due to a knee injury suffered last week vs. Minnesota. Life without Reader begins against a Steelers offense that has run the ball on 45 percent of its plays, the eighth highest rate in the league.

Pittsburgh had a streak of five straight games with over 100 team rushing yards — including 153 at Paycor Stadium in Week 12 — before being held under the century mark in each of its last two contests. The Steelers have relied on the running back tandem of Najee Harris, who had a season-best 99 yards last month against Cincinnati, and Jaylen Warren, whose 477 rushing yards since Week 9 are sixth most in the NFL.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has indicated that he will use a by-committee approach to replace Reader, so D-tackles like Josh Tupou, Zach Carter and Jay Tufele figure to see an increased role on Saturday. The Bengals' ability to impede Pittsburgh's rushing attack will be critical in a rivalry known for its physicality.

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