The Bengals welcome a familiar foe to Paycor Stadium when they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The game airs at 1:00 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:
1. Browning's first start
The top storylines of Sunday's divisional matchup revolve around quarterback Jake Browning's first career start. The former college free agent signee of Minnesota in 2019 has spent the past four seasons on the Vikings' and Bengals' practice squads, and now finally gets his opportunity to lead an offense in regular-season action.
Browning entered last Thursday night's contest at Baltimore following Joe Burrow's wrist injury and was unfazed by the raucous M&T Bank Stadium environment, as he completed eight of 14 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. As he takes the reigns of a talented Bengals offense, Browning's coaches and teammates have praised his confidence, work ethic and understated competitiveness.
"He gets the moment he's been waiting for his whole career," head coach Zac Taylor said. "I'm proud of him for going through that the right way and getting to where he is today, and now we've got the confidence that he can go win games for us."
Taylor has expressed his excitement for how the team will rally around Browning, and remains adamant that there will be no drop off in trust on Sunday. With the Bengals at 5-5 entering Week 12, Browning making the most of this opportunity would prove beneficial for his team's postseason chances as well as his career moving forward.
2. O-line vs. T.J. Watt
Browning's best chance for success will come with a clean pocket and time to move through his progressions. Looking to disrupt that will be five-time Pro Bowler T.J. Watt, who has the third most sacks in the NFL this season (11.5) and the second most QB hits (23).
The star edge rusher has lined up primarily from the left side of the defensive line, so Bengals right tackle Jonah Williams figures to see the bulk of those one-on-one matchups. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan this week also noted Watt's uncanny ability to get his hand on passes at the line of scrimmage, as last season he had an interception in both games against the Bengals.
For the Cincinnati offense to stay ahead of schedule and keep drives extended, Browning, Williams and company will need to be conscious of Watt on every snap.
3. Steelers lean on run game
Pittsburgh's offense comes in ranked 28th in total yards per game (280.1), but the Steelers have found a spark recently in the form of second-year running back Jaylen Warren.
Warren has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the past two games, after not eclipsing the century mark in any of his previous 24 career appearances. He has an NFL-leading 318 rushing yards since Week 9, and he currently is as efficient as any back in the league, as his 6.2 yards per carry lead all qualified players.
The Steelers as a team have churned out over 150 yards on the ground in each of their past three games. If the Bengals can stop that trend and take the ball out of Warren's hands, they would force Pittsburgh to rely on a passing game that averages just 170 yards, the second lowest figure leaguewide.
4. Capitalizing in the red zone
The Bengals' offense has had success in the red zone season, scoring a touchdown on 59.3 percent of its drives that reach the opponent's 20-yard line — the eighth best rate in the NFL. Cincinnati will have its hands full this week against a defense that is known for its bend-don't-break style of play.
The Steelers have allowed only 40 percent of opponent red zone possessions to end in touchdowns, the fourth-best clip in the league. Conversely, Pittsburgh's offense has reached the red zone just 19 times this season (fewest in NFL), and less than half of those trips (nine) have resulted in a TD.
In a matchup that features the Steelers' 28th-ranked scoring offense and a Bengals offense led by a quarterback making his first regular-season start, turning red zone opportunities into seven points instead of three will be paramount.
5. Turnovers at a premium
Cincinnati's defense has found ways to reverse possessions all season long, as the Bengals' 18 takeaways are tied for the sixth most in the NFL. On the other side, the Bengals offense has turned the ball over just eight times, tied with Pittsburgh for the fewest leaguewide.
Cincinnati's plus-10 turnover differential is second only to the Steelers' plus-11 mark. The Bengals have 12 interceptions entering Sunday, but while Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett has not reached 200 passing yards in his last four games, he does take care of the ball as well as any passer. Pickett hasn't thrown an INT since Week 4, and his 108 completions since his last pick constitute the longest active streak in the NFL.
Lou Anarumo's unit is set to take on a Steelers offense that not only rarely commits turnovers, but relies on its run game to keep possessions limited. If one of Cincinnati's defensive playmakers can get the ball back, it may serve as the turning point in this divisional showdown.