Now that the Bengals-Steelers rivalry has turned the Ohio State Fair into Ohio State Air quarterbacked by Athens' Joe Burrow and Findlay's Ben Roethlisberger, Burrow's first assignment is to put points on a stingy Heinz Field scoreboard Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) in Pittsburgh against the undefeated Steelers.
The Bengals.com Media Roundtable projects a tight game won by the Steelers and some have the Bengals scoring 20 points, a number they've hit once in their last 13 Heinz games. But The Table has taken note that Burrow and his guys have engineered 30 points in half the games this season and at least 27 in their last three.
Gerry Dulac, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's viceroy of versatility, is usually at Augusta on Masters Sunday chronicling the back nine heroics. No green jacket for him this year because he's at Heinz, where he sees the Steelers' strait-jacket defense holding the Bengals to a low number.
Alex Marvez, the former Bengals beat reporter who purrs his knowledge these days on Sirius NFL Radio (Channel 88), loves where Burrow is taking the Bengals. But he'll hold off on picking them in the rivalry until he sees how they look heading into next month's Bengals-Steelers Part II at Paul Brown Stadium.
Locally, Paul Dehner, Jr., of The Athletic, who rose above his Dad Duties ever so briefly to sit at The Table this week, thinks the Bengals have enough offensive juice to challenge a team that, as of late, had to pull out games in the final moments. Richard Skinner, Local 12's digital sports columnist taking his first father-in-law turn at The Table, thinks the Steelers' pass rush is more than relative. But he also thinks the Bengals have looked good enough protecting since the Baltimore game last month to give Burrow enough time to cause some problems.
Let's go around The Table. As usual, visitors and the alphabet first.
I'm always a believer when a team keeps winning they're closer to losing. The Steelers have been behind in the last two games by 10 points in the second half and yet they've been able to come back. Teams have hurt them with the run the last two weeks. I don't see that happening here, but the thing I do see is the Bengals have three quality wide receivers and while the Steelers secondary is pretty good, they leave the middle of the field open and the Bengals have been able to score points. I think a big factor is, are the Steelers playing with the lead, which they have been the vast majority of the time until these last two games.
I don't want to say that's negated their running game because I don't think the Steelers have much of a running game. But the good news is that puts the ball in Ben's hands and then he has control of the offense. I think the Steelers are going to have to come after Joe Burrow. I thought they were too cautious last week with a guy that never started an NFL game trying to confuse him with coverage. Not that the guy killed them, but that didn't work. They only sacked him twice. I think they'll come after Joe Burrow, especially with the issues on the offensive line.
There could have been a letdown last week in Dallas. The Steelers were coming off three straight wins over the Browns, Tennessee and the Ravens. First time in the NFL since 2004 a team had had played three straight teams with one loss or fewer.
I know the Bengals offense has been fairly productive and they've been scoring points. But when they come here to Heinz Field since Mike Tomlin's been the coach they've only scored 20 points once in 13 games. It becomes that type of game. If the Bengals are going to beat them they're going to do it with Burrow completing passes to his wide receivers in the middle of the field. The Steelers have been very good about not letting it go over the top, but they've given up a lot of 20-yard passes.
THE EDGE: I think the Steelers bounce back after that ugly performance against the Cowboys. I think they'll start quick and when they play with the lead with that defense, that plays into their hands and I think that's how it unfolds. STEELERS, 31-16
The Tennessee game is a lot of to build off for the Bengals. No collapses. The offensive line under very dire circumstances held up even though the Tennessee defense obviously has its issues. None the less it was still a stronger performance than we've seen. That was big because they learned to finish. They're the anti-Chargers with their rookie quarterback and Joe is great. He's special. He's elevating everyone around him and the offense is humming. I like the direction of this team. I'm very curious to see what happens when these two teams meet in Week 15.
The very interesting question now is how sharp is Ben Roethlisberger without a week of practice and with the Bengals having extra time to prepare and what's up their sleeve. There's a depth issue. On paper it doesn't look good for the Bengals.
But that being said, the fact the Bengals are coming off a bye, the fact Joe Burrow is playing so darn well is why I think this game is going to be close. With extra time to prepare, Roethlisberger not having a full week of practice and the Bengals just playing better. We see a team getting better each week. And that's so encouraging. Cincinnati has the weapons to score. Joe is going to have to get rid of the ball quickly given what Pittsburgh is doing on the other side of the ball, but he can put up points. I don't think there's any doubt about that.
Let's not forget they've seen the Steelers defense by way of the Baltimore Ravens. That's a nice thing to have in your back pocket. I just don't know if they're able to keep up with the Steelers by the time the game is over. I think Ben plays. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been traditionally reticent playing a guy if he doesn't practice all week, but Ben is still around the facility because he can rehab and he hasn't tested positive for Covid. He was just exposed. On top of that there's only one seed that gets the bye in the playoffs and you see how good Kansas City is and how every game is important.
THE EDGE: I can't cross the Rubicon to pick a Bengals upset, but I would be surprised if this game isn't close until the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh ultimately prevailing. STEELERS, 31-23
I don't know how it starts anywhere but the Steelers' strength against the Bengals' perceived weakness. That pass rush vs. the offensive line. Just a bad matchup, right? Look at where this offense has been successful this year. Against teams that don't have those elite, hunting pass rushes. They're not equipped yet to handle those, but you can hope to fight it with scheme, cadence and whatever way they draw it up besides one-on-one, helping, whatever it is.
If they can find some way to make this a game not about the Steelers defensive line but about their secondary, then it turns in the Bengals favor and it's a matchup you like. But as long as it's defined by Bud Dupree, T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward up front, they're not going to win.
When's the last time they didn't play the Steelers when Ben was sick, hurting, limping off the field? His arm dangling? It's like the leaves falling off the trees. He seems to give himself a degree of difficulty to beat this team. All the Steelers do is churn out mid-round stars, especially at receiver and with the Bengals so banged up at cornerback … you've got William Jackson III and you have to hope the other guys can patch it together and you get a play from free safety Jessie Bates III. You hope defensive end Sam Hubbard coming back gives you a lift, but I'm just not sure what to make of them at this point defensively.
But the Bengals have matchups they like that they can get to at receiver, Burrow has got a little something to him, obviously, and the Steelers almost lost to Dallas and the Titans came all the way back on them. You tell me the Bengals aren't on the same level as the Titans, who they just whipped, and the Cowboys, who are a mess? You look at the type of games these two teams have played lately and you'd have to say it's going to be close.
THE EDGE: How about a score with Ben and without Ben? With Ben: STEELERS, 23-17. Without Ben: STEELERS, 18-17. The Bengals have played everyone close but Baltimore and we'll see how much they learned from that game.
A lot of it depends on whether Ben Roethlisberger plays and if he does, how balky is that knee going to be and can the Bengals adjust to Ben getting the ball out of his hand so quickly? Can the Bengals protect Joe? This is a pressure defense and they didn't do a very good job and Joe didn't do a very good job of playing that kind of defense in Baltimore. Those are the elements for me.
I know Roethlisberger is a veteran, but I thought Joe Burrow gave a great answer if he didn't have a week of practice. He didn't think he could get all his throws in and it would affect him. Ben's been around long enough that it wouldn't affect him as much as a rookie, but it's got to affect him some. The thing that has been interesting is the Steelers haven't rushed for 100 yards in three straight games. Is that opponents? Is that them? Are there more guys in the box because Ben is getting it out so quickly? If you can get them one dimensional and make Ben hold it longer than he normally does, I think you've got a fighting chance defensively.
With or without Ben, it's a measuring stick for this offense. How far has it come from that Baltimore game? How much better can they protect when teams send different pressures and Joe sees free runners? He didn't do a great job against free runners in that Baltimore game. It's a great litmus test. How far is this offense from competing against the Pittsburghs and the Baltimores?
THE EDGE: Either way, it's close. With Ben or without Ben. Same score. I think a lot of it comes down to what adjustments the Bengals have made to protect. I'm going to stick on the side of what I've seen and they've done a better job. I think they play them tough. STEELERS, 23-20
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals have heard for years about how they haven't beaten the Steelers since the 2105 Wild Card Game. But that's not those guys any more. It's a totally different team.
The Bengals line up just two defensive starters (cornerback Jackson III and Bates III) since the last time they played against Roethlisberger in the 2018 finale and it looks like they'll have at least five players on offense making their first Bengals start against the Steelers. Right now, only two offensive starters in that 2018 finale (running back Giovani Bernard and right guard Alex Redmond) are starting this one.
And with Geno Atkins ruled out on Sunday, they'll have just five players who played in that '15 Wild Card.
So as much as folks want to go on history in this series, there is a new chapter unfolding in it Sunday.
As tempting as it is to make this a referendum on the progress of this offense against a defense that has traditionally dominated the Bengals, one has to be reminded that Joe Burrow goes into a game against the NFL's leading sackers and hitters without running back Joe Mixon and right tackle Bobby Hart and maybe not left tackle Jonah Williams (questionable) and Hart's backup Fred Johnson (on the Covid list).
But forget the edge rushers, and with a combined 13 sacks and 56 quarterback pressures Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt are immense. The series in the last decade has been defined by the interior dominance of Tuitt and Heyward.
Since Heyward arrived with the 31st pick in 2011, the first year of the Green-Dalton Era, the Bengals have not scored more than 21 points against Pittsburgh. The Steelers took Tuitt in the second round of the 2014 draft and he has yet to lose in nine games against the Bengals with 1.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits. His interception in the 2015 PBS regular-season game is one of the biggest moments in the rivalry when it led to quarterback Andy Dalton's season-ending throwing thumb injury.
But the Bengals clearly have a much better and different offense with Burrow throwing and head coach Zac Taylor running a new scheme. In the last four games against the Steelers, the Bengals haven't had their starting quarterback twice.
And this one is hot and he's got three big-time receivers that can work in the middle of the field against a Steelers defense that has allowed 29 passes of at least 20 yards. The Steelers give nothing deep (they've allowed three 40-yarders), but they struggle at times to match up if the front seven doesn't get there and according to profootballfocus.com, Burrow is one of the more accurate intermediate passers in the league.
The Bengals have a tough matchup in their own secondary. They've got just four healthy cornerbacks after two of their regulars, LeShaun Sims (concussion in practice) and Darius Phillips (on injured reserve until late in the season with a groin problem) went down this week. It looks like three-year cornerback Tony Brown, who has one snap from scrimmage for the Bengals, gets his fourth NFL start and the first guy off the bench is first-year player Jalen Davis, a practice squadder with 60 NFL snaps with two other teams.
Pittsburgh's trio of receivers with at least 31 catches is clearly a challenge and in Roethlisberger they face a Hall-of-Famer having a great year with 18 touchdown passes and four interceptions. And with barely an average of two seconds in the pocket he's reportedly getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback in the last five years.
Although he was on the Covid list this week, hurt his knee last week and didn't practice, that doesn't mean a thing in Bengaldom. Roethlisberger is always the vampire that crawled out of the crypt at the end of the '15 play-off game.
Ben's passing has had help against the Bengals. In his 32 starts against them, the Steelers have rushed for at least 100 yards 23 times in games Pittsburgh has a 20-3 record.
But this isn't a game of history and this a different type of Bengals-Steelers game. Pittsburgh hasn't rushed for 100 yards in three straight games and Big Ben is going to be in a game against an opposing Ohio QB that can manufacture points.