As the Ohio quarterbacks young and old look to shake off last week's lumps in Sunday's AFC North summit at Heinz Field (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), it sure feels like a crossroads in the Bengals-Steelers rivalry.
Can Joe Burrow of Athens get the time to pull the trigger on his Bengals offense laced with all this potential against first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger as the 38-year-old Findlay native tries to make one last stand? Can Roethlisberger get the Steelers over the bridge at the confluence of the Three Rivers to the next gold-and-black generation?
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable senses some kind of shift in a majority that favors the Bengals against Pittsburgh. Even the venerable pair of Steelers media gurus that has spanned Chuck Noll to Najee Harris is split.
Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Ed Bouchette of The Athletic has been turned off by the losses on the Steelers signature offensive line. Gerry Dulac, The Post-Gazette's four-decade anchor on Pittsburgh's hash marks and fairways, sees yet another Steelers defense answering the call.
A pair of Cincinnati Kids who grew up watching Bengals-Steelers and now cover it believe Burrow is the answer as Roethlisberger gets fitted for the gold jacket.
CLNS Media's Mike Petraglia, who graduated from Indian Hill High School before embarking on a star-studded 27-year run in Boston radio, TV and print, has returned this season to chronicle his boyhood teams and gives this Sunday to the Bengals offense. The Cincinnati Enquirer's Gold Glove utilityman, Charlie Goldsmith, checked in between Reds batting practice and the first pitch to endorse the Bengals pass rush before taking the laptop to Heinz.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and the alphabet first. Keep in mind, the votes were cast before Steelers Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt (groin) was ruled out.
I thought this team was going to be decent if the Steelers offensive line came around, but it got worse. They lost their right tackle. The guy they were going to play at left tackle they moved back to right tackle. The left tackle is a fourth-round pick. The center is a third round pick. The left guard is a second year guy and the right guard was a Pro Bowler in Carolina, wasn't very good in San Diego and he hasn't done it here. They drafted the best back in college football and they can't run. Ben has no time to throw. He was hit ten times last week. One just brutal hit. He's not going to last the season if that keeps up.
The defense played really well in Buffalo in the opener and then last week they lost half of them and lost to the Raiders. Now three of them are back if T.J. Watt plays. They're a good defense if they're healthy. But they go into this one without outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, two-thirds of their defensive line is out and if Watt can't go the guy behind him has never played.
THE EDGE: The Steelers can't do anything on offense. I think the trend of Ben dominating the Ohio teams (50-11-1) is over. The Bengals beat them late last season and the Browns beat them in the playoffs. BENGALS, 21-17.
I think the Steelers offense gets a little bit more in gear. I think they'll try to run the ball a little bit more. I think they'll use the fullback more. They've got to do something to get the running game untracked to create a little more time for the quarterback.
I like the Bengals mix of being able to throw the ball over the top and the possession receiving of Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins and Burrow. I like Burrow. But I expect most of the Steelers guys on defense to be there. Cornerback Joe Haden is going to play. Linebacker Devin Bush is going to play. Watt intends to play unless something happens and if he intends to play, then he should be able to give it a full go. Highsmith isn't going to play, but they have Melvin Ingram, so that's not going to hurt them.
THE EDGE: It's going to be a close game. After how Derek Carr hit them on some plays last week, I think the Bengals are going to be able to make some plays of their own. But after letting Henry Ruggs get behind them for 61 yards and a touchdown last week, I don't think they'll allow Ja'Marr Chase to get behind them. I think they'll let him catch the ball in front of them but won't let him get over the top. STEELERS, 27-23
I think the Bengals and Steelers have more similarities than people give them credit. Using elite wide receivers as the foundations of the offense, and at the quarterback position and the offensive line the Bengals bring more to the table. And, I like the way the Bengals defense matches up with the Steelers.
As the Raiders showed, they were often getting to Roethlisberger just sending four guys pretty consistently. The four guys the Bengals have on the line are a big upgrade from last year and I think independently it's a good group that can bring pressure. I like right end Trey Hendrickson specifically in his matchup. This is what they signed him for. A big, athletic guy who can set the edge strong against Roethlisberger. And when he gets there, Hendrickson is such a strong guy he can bring him down.
THE EDGE: Pittsburgh is a significant milestone for any Bengals team to be able to go there and win and I think Burrow and his offense can get it done. Hendrickson gets a sack to end it. BENGALS, 21-17
Joe Mixon has to run the ball and the Bengals offensive line has to absolutely, positively protect Joe Burrow better than they did against the Bears. T.J. Watt cannot have the kind of game he had against Burrow last year when he dominated.
Defensively, they can't let Ben extend plays and throw the ball downfield like he has want to do and I think based on the way Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard have played in their first two games on the edge there are going to be opportunities for the Bengals to close in on Ben, keep him in the pocket and get him to the ground. I'm very curious to see if they can run Najee Harris because in the first two games the Bengals front has been the strength of their defense, no question.
THE EDGE: Joe Burrow finds a little bit of rhythm in the first half and they're going to be able to get Joe Mixon the ball in space in the passing game. These two defenses are very good and this time I don't think the Bengals are going to turn the ball over four times like they did in Chicago last week and Burrow isn't going to have horrific back-to-back games. BENGALS, 24-20.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The thing about a game between the orange-and-black and the black-and-gold is it always seems to be black-and-white.
For years the Bengals have fallen victim to the Steelers great offensive lines and been buried in a slew of 100-yard rush games. But this year, while Pittsburgh re-tools up front, the investments the Bengals have poured into their defensive line are paying off in allowing 3.4 yards per carry.
And, in the past three years in the NFL, no one has gotten to the quarterback more and created as much havoc when they get there than the Steelers. As the Bengals try to figure out how to protect Burrow (nine sacks and 16 hits in the first two games), they are offering new matchups in protection they hope re-set the rivalry.
As intriguing as 10-year right tackle Riley Reiff's battle with Watt would have been, it doesn't beat what is shaping up to be rookie right guard Jackson Carman's first NFL start against the Steelers' brilliant defensive tackle Cam Heyward. Carman won't go if Xavier Su'a-Filo (knee) can, but Su'a-Filo is listed as doubtful after not practicing this week.
If there is anything that has defined the Steelers' domination of the Bengals during the previous decade, it wasn't Ben, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. It was the Bengals' inability to find an answer for the Steelers defensive tackles, Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt is on injured reserve and due to come off next week. Heyward is very healthy and brings in 9.5 sacks in 19 games against the Bengals.
But also remember this. The last time Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack came into Heinz with running back Joe Mixon in the wide zone, Mixon clicked off a 105-yard game in just 13 carries.
The Steelers also have a force at running back in first-round pick Najee Harris, a 230-pound load who looks to be a worthy heir to the 100-yard backs that have bedeviled the Bengals in the rivalry.
But when has a Bengals defensive line gone into a Steelers game with enough momentum like this to get an edge on the Steelers offensive line? Maybe back in the day with Geno, Dunlap and Mike Johnson, but it was more like a push against the Pittsburgh Pro Bowlers.
But now the Steelers are re-building and the Bengals have been massive up front. Edge Trey Hendrickson and nose tackle D.J. Reader have never played the Steelers so there are no ghosts for them. Unblockable three technique Larry Ogunjobi has a sack of Ben, but that was when he was with the Browns.
The Bengals secondary also brings a different degree to the rivalry. Slot cornerback Mike Hilton just came over and has that Steeler toughness and savvy that he's transfused to his mates in what has been a productive spring and summer in the defensive backfield. And strong safety Vonn Bell is coming off his BellWeather hit on Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in the Monday Night win back in December that seemed to re-arrange the series DNA.
It sure feels like a crossroads game.