The Bengals haven't lost to the Steelers since Vonn Bell blew up JuJu Smith-Schuster and they hope to keep flexing their muscles as an AFC power in Sunday's opener (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) at what promises to be one of the biggest crowds ever in the history of Paycor Stadium.
Those Big Ben Steelers of automatic offense have faded into transition and Pittsburgh's new era is faced with the Bengals returning depth chart that swept them last season by a combined 45 points on their way to the Super Bowl.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable, which has probably seen about 100 openers combined spanning Lemar (Parrish) to Ja'Marr (Chase), is prepping for the first ever opener between the rivals that have played 105 times. Openers are always unpredictable, but The Table notes the particular volatility of this one with the Steelers' question marks at quarterback and the offensive line along with the Bengals' decision to shelve their starters in the preseason.
But the Cincinnati contingent of The Athletic's Paul Dehner, Jr., and Local 12 digital sports columnist Richard Skinner (nine years old when he saw Parrish pop a 62-yard punt return for a TD during a rout of Cleveland in the '74 opener) agrees that the Cincinnati defense should be too stout for quarterback Mitch Trubisky's first Steelers start in an emerging new scheme behind a revamped offensive line.
Their Pittsburgh counterparts are split. The Athletic's Mark Kaboly can't see the Steelers scoring enough to keep up with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his weapons. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette draws on the Steelers's 23-16 surprise in Buffalo last Opening Day and calls for the upset with Pittsburgh's defensive front getting the upper hand on the Bengals' own reconfigured offensive line.
Let's go around The Table. As always visitors and the alphabet first:
The Bengals have beaten them three straight times and I'm certainly not going to tell you that the Steelers looked past the Bengals last year, but I don't think they realized how good the Bengals were.
They got it both ways. One with the run, so they're going to focus on that. Their primary focus is stopping the run. Not that they'll ignore Burrow and Chase and those guys. But they're not going to give up 198 yards come hell or high water. They don't want to do that because their whole focus this offseason has been stopping the run. If they can do that, they're not going to allow themselves to be victimized by play-action, getting behind the chains, getting caught in third-and short. Those kinds of things.
I saw what the Steelers did in Buffalo last year and they just have a strange way of going into places and playing well where they're not favored. Especially because it's the Bengals, especially because they didn't beat them last year, they've lost three in a row against them, two times there, I think with all the changes, no Ben, new quarterback, I have a sneaking suspicion they're going to go in there and win. Not because I think they're the better team. I'm a big fan of the Bengals. When you can run the ball and throw the ball and get after the quarterback, you have three elements that are essential for a winning team. But I think the Steelers go into this one with a little bit of a purpose.
THE EDGE: When the Steelers win games like this, it's typically because of their defense. But I think their offense is a little more diverse now than it has been and I think they'll be able to score a little more than people think. STEELERS, 23-20
In my (20) years here covering it, it's been pretty much pro- Steelers fans at the Cincinnati game. I don't expect to see that. There's a good portion of this team that has never beaten the Bengals before. There is a lot of turnover on this team, especially offensively. All they know is losses (against the Bengals).
The Bengals being rusty might be a factor early, especially with that offensive line. That's what we're seeing in Pittsburgh. Those guys haven't played a ton together and a majority of them are new and all we hear about is cohesion and they don't have it yet. That has to be some sort of issue with the Bengals' new offensive line and the Steelers wanting to bring pressure and disrupt Burrow.
I don't think that's going to be a storyline throughout the game. I have more issue with the Steelers offense actually putting up any points because they have three new offensive linemen, a new quarterback and a little bit of a different scheme with coordinator Matt Canada going with his motion type of offense. I don't think it's going to be a well-played game. It's not going to be artistically pleasing both sides offensively. It's really easy for the Steelers to say you're going to go in there and run the ball. But when the offensive line gets zero push, I think they're going to go in there and try the short passing game to loosen it up for the run. I would be shocked if they came out running.
THE EDGE: I think it's going to be closer than most people think. The Steelers went up to Buffalo and nobody thought they could beat them in a very similar situation. But the Bengals have too much talent at wide receiver. The Steelers can make it difficult for the Bengals offense, but I just think one or two plays are going to get away from them and that will end up being the deciding factor. BENGALS, 24-20.
Can you flip the switch against a team that went live in practice in Pittsburgh Wednesday? That's been the Steelers' approach and Tomlin's pretty open about getting back to this root of defense and running game to overcome the new challenge of Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. What's that going to look like?
The only question for the Bengals is how quickly is the offensive line going to jell. You can't dial up a team with more setup to try and take advantage of that than Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is going to get after you with their stars going against rookie left guard Cordell Volson and right tackle La'el Collins, who have been questions to this point.
Don't the Bengals run the ball Sunday? Last year against Pittsburgh second game (Bengals running back Joe Mixon had) 28 for 165 and two touchdowns and it wasn't close. Allow Trubisky to make mistakes, allow their offensive line to struggle as I think people think the Steelers will against these guys and be Conservative Joe, as Burrow calls it. Denver Joe. Tennessee Joe. Whichever Joe we're talking about. The first Raiders game. You play that game and allow your defense to win the game. Which I think they should think about a lot. It doesn't mean you can't still be explosive and do all the things they do. But I think that's the path to winning. Not setting up Pittsburgh to take advantage of mistakes.
THE EDGE: I think the Bengals defense forces a couple of mistakes. Turnover here. Sack-fumble. Interception. Something like that and Burrow won't make mistakes. I think he'll continue to be the Burrow of the second half of last year and won't make a bunch of mistakes. *BENGALS, 17-13 *
It's a great initial test for the Bengals offensive line. You're going to find out right away if it is as good you are hoping it is. I think it comes down to that. How does that line handle them because that's the Steelers strength. This is what you signed those guys for. Matchups like this. Not to cop out, it is hard to know what's going to happen because we haven't seen these guys take a snap together. Could be great. Some of their track records are great. We don't know enough about Volson. I just think it's so fascinating to watch that matchup.
I get the narrative that the Bengals had a similar preseason to the Rams and the concern with the Bills blowing out the Rams. I think Rams head coach Sean McVay was 5-0 in openers, so it obviously worked for him before and it worked for Bengals head coach Zac Taylor last year with a similar M.O. beating Minnesota. There's a little bit of a difference because Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin ran a physical camp and he probably wanted one to get an advantage over the Bengals and it almost cost him a couple of players. Maybe I should be worried about that, but I don't.
THE EDGE: I think the Bengals roster is really good. It's healthy, you're bringing back every starter on defense but one and that one (tackle Larry Ogunjobi) is playing for the other team. But B.J. Hill is a really good player. I think that defense has a chance to be great. They believe they've upgraded the offensive line and Burrow still beat Pittsburgh twice last year. BENGALS, 23-17
THE BOTTOM LINE
No fair endorsing Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's decision to protect his starters in the preseason and then ripping him if they come out rusty. Let's face it. Whether you play these guys or not in August, the opener is always an ugly unknown. Might as well go into it healthy and for that you must tip your hat to Taylor.
But you also have to tip it to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, a man who has never had a losing season in 15 of them. Fitting, really, in this game in this place he ties the longest-tenured African-American head coach with the same franchise in a major sport with former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' 16 seasons.
In the last decade, Tomlin has managed to come out of this building with seven fourth-quarter comebacks. One came in the playoffs and one came at the hands of some rookie named Duck Hodges, so the prospect of opening a season on the road with a veteran in Trubisky who has a .580 winning percentage in 50 starts isn't exactly overwhelming to his program.
And, of course, he's also got three elite defensive players in lineman Cam Heyward, pass rusher T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, waking turnovers all who can change a game swiftly. Particularly against an offensive line with four brand new starters who have yet to play a game together.
Heyward's 10.5 career sacks against the Bengals vs. the rookie Volson's debut is particularly riveting, as is the return of defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and his seven Bengals sacks from last season.
But what should decide this one in the Bengals' favor are things you've barely heard uttered in the national sporting press.
The Bengals lost only Ogunjobi from a defense that allowed just 20 points per game in the playoffs and the matchup of Bengals Pro Bowl rusher Trey Hendrickson's 14 sacks against Steelers left tackle Dan Moore's 48 pressures allowed is as healthy as any edge the Steelers have on the other side of the ball.
All we've heard about is how Tomlin is getting back to the running game and defenses to smooth the transition and how Najee Harris is going to get 100 touches on Sunday. But we've heard virtually nothing about that Bengals No. 5 run defense. Pittsburgh and Harris may get a ton of touches, but it could be through the air because the Steelers may spring full-speed that motion passing game to probe for openings by confusion.
And what have you heard of Bengals running back Joe Mixon? Since he hasn't had a touch in the preseason and the Bengals wide receivers are coming off a year they led all the NFL's contingents, pretty much zilch. But Mixon never blinks against Tomlin. He averages 5.5 yards per carry against the Steelers, 81 yards per game, is coming off a career-best 165-yarder against them and he'll have something to say about that Pittsburgh pass-rush teeing it up.
Mixon's devastation is a big reason the Steelers went out and got run-game destroyer Myles Jack at linebacker. Jack, no doubt, is going to improve that last-in-the-NFL-five-yards-per rush the Steelers allowed last season, but they still have to deal with Burrow.
If the Steelers are looking for Burrow to turn this ugly muck of a game they plan to hatch Sunday at Paycor with a turnover, good luck. In his last eight games, Burrow has thrown just two interceptions while flinging 16 touchdown passes. And none to tight end Hayden Hurst, his new target this year and another guy who slipped under the training-camp radar. Hurst, a former first-rounder, has the talent to blow up Tomlin's carefully crafted zone defenses.
Burrow can roll around in the mud with Tomlin. He was 4-0 last year in games he threw 190 yards or less. Two of them were against the Steelers. The Bengals proved last year they could win muck games and air shows. It's the only way to remain AFC North champs.