Sunday's 101st Bengals-Steelers game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), to be played out underneath the Paul Brown Stadium medical tent, has evolved into another Urgent Care Bowl.
Not only are the team's two best players (Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) shelved like they were for the first meeting, but now the Steelers' most disruptive front seven player (Stephon Tuitt) and the Bengals' most explosive offensive player (wide receiver John Ross) is out as well as several backups littered across both depth charts.
Even the Bengals.com Media Roundtable can't escape the inactive list. Long-time Steelers scribe Ed Bouchette, now musing for The Athletic, has been sidelined briefly by back surgery.
But Mark Kaboly, who has covered the Steelers for the last 17 seasons from ink (McKeesport Daily News and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) to cyberspace (as The Athletic's senior writer) has always been terrific in the sub package. Both he and The Ironman, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac, can't remember seeing a Steelers offense both so anemic and inexperienced. But they're also used to seeing defense rescue them in games such as the one on Sunday.
The Table's Cincinnati contingent this week is blessed with youth and vigor as The Cincinnati Enquirer's Tyler Dragon and ESPN.com's Ben Baby go into this one each with more Bengals games (10) than the combined starts of the quarterbacks (nine). Both see the most experienced of the kids, the Steelers' Mason Rudolph, carrying the day.
Let's go around The Table. As always, visitors and seniors first, then the alphabet.
If it unfolds like the last game in Pittsburgh, it's only because the defense takes the ball away. When the Steelers don't do that, and they've only done it in two games this year, the offense struggles. The Steelers offense is struggling even when the defense takes it away and gives them a short field. They've only scored one offensive touchdown in each of the last three games and with all the injuries, I don't expect a lot of points. The Bengals, what? Only two games with more than 17 points?
The Bengals give up a lot of long runs. The good news for them is the Steelers don't run the ball very well. They don't have a lot of long runs. I don't see Pittsburgh, with their injuries and the way they've been playing, being able to take advantage of any weaknesses the Bengals might have.
I'm not going to say the Steelers need help from their defense, but to me it's going to be about their kicker and their defense going forward because they're just struggling offensively and they're losing players. Kicker Chris Boswell, after his bad year last year when he led the league in missed kicks, has only missed one extra point and one field goal this year. It's not like they're getting back Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. Now running back James Conner is out with the shoulder and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster isn't going to play with a concussion and hurting his knee on the same play.
You're talking about your Pro Bowl running back, your Pro Bowl receiver, your Pro Bowl quarterback all gone. You've already lost your Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. Look at the scope of those losses. They are your best players and they're not there. The quarterback, Mason Rudolph, has started seven games. It's not like the old days when they were bringing Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich off the bench. They've started two quarterbacks this year who have never played an NFL game prior to this season.
The pass rush creates turnovers in a lot of avenues. Forcing you to throw it quickly. Even before they made the trade for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, I thought all the pieces were in place for this defense. They lost their most disruptive player in defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt but Fitzpatrick, with five interceptions, two for touchdowns, has been the missing piece. Cornerback Steve Nelson, who they got in free agency has been very good, and rookie linebacker Devin Bush will run down anybody, although he's a bit of a liability in coverage just because he's a young guy.
THE EDGE: The Bengals are coming off their best game of the season. Right now, Mason Rudolph is Neil O'Donnell. Won't take the chance and risk the interception, but by the same token he won't force the ball into a window and make a play. The Steelers kicker and defense win out. STEELERS, 13-10
The first team to three points wins the game? We're well aware of the Bengals' struggles on offense, but the Steelers have just as many issues, if not more, on offense. Injuries. Inexperience people at key positions. Now you're losing your Pro Bowl center. It's going to come down to if the Steelers defense can put them in positon to be able to score on short fields and potentially even score touchdowns, like they did in wins over the Colts and Rams.
Without wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner and quarterback Mason Rudolph being a little rattled right now, it's going to be hard for the Steelers to go 80 yards for a touchdown, so that offense is going to need help. The last time they played the Bengals they came out in the Wildcat quite a bit, but I don't think that's in the workings at all. I think that was just a one off at the time where Rudolph was just a week or so into his tenure replacing Ben Roethlisberger. They're getting running back Benny Snell back, so I think they'll get back to their more traditional stuff. I think what they'll be is as conservative as possible. If rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson doesn't play, you're looking at James Washington, Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones, a combined maybe 40 career catches from those guys. Jones was on the practice squad an hour before last Thursday's game and he caught two balls.
Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has been tremendous. Defensive tackle Cam Heyward has been pretty key up the middle. Last week they struggled keeping contain of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield because the push up the middle wasn't there, so the outside guys (Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt) were able to rush but Mayfield was able to slip out underneath and make some throws out of the pocket. They have to do a better job this week with some of the push up the middle to keep Bengals quarterback Ryan Finley on his spot so Watt can do what he does.
Fitzpatrick has been spectacular. The Browns took his turnovers out of play. He's fantastic. It's just not reading a young quarterback's eyes. He knows routes, he knows concepts. He's not afraid to get to the point two or three steps before the guy even throws it. The Browns stayed toward the outside instead of going at him over the middle and stayed away from him.
THE EDGE: It's going to be a very, very boring, a very low-scoring, one-mistake game. The Bengals could very easily win this game, but the Steelers defense and lack of quality performances by the Cincinnati offensive line this year swings the pendulum for Pittsburgh. STEELERS, 13-7
It's going to be an interesting game. When you go back and look what the Steelers have done since they last played the Bengals, you're kind of surprised at how well the Steelers played winning four straight before the loss to the Browns last week.
This game is about limiting the Steelers' pass rush. They have to be better on the edge to protect Ryan Finley. Ryan has to do a better job across the board in terms of being more accurate, finding the right reads and even little things like run protections. I think he's starting to struggle a little bit getting in his own head. You'd like to see him bounce back from, to be blunt, a pretty bad performance last week.
I think there are a lot of similarities between him and Rudolph. Rudolph hasn't looked great so far. He's another first-year quarterback trying to learn the ropes. They had similar college careers for the most part. It will be fascinating to see how the quarterbacks look.
Over the last few weeks the Bengals defense has done a good job taking away the sort of plays the Steelers hit them with the last time they played. Teams are attacking the Bengals a lot differently. In the beginning of the year San Francisco provided that blueprint. Hit them on the edge. You haven't seen that as much in recent weeks, but you're still seeing problems defending the run up the middle of the field. Rookie middle linebacker Germaine Pratt should be better there, but he'll tell you he needs to be better in pass defense and the linebackers and secondary have to be better taking away those short passes over the middle.
THE EDGE: I still think across the board the Bengals have too many issues. It should be closer given how well the Bengals' run game has improved a little bit. Maybe they'll get to control the clock a little bit more. Even with Conner hurt, the Steelers run game has looked good with Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels and given how bad the Bengals have been defending the run you just need to be competent and I think the Steelers should be able to do that. STEELERS, 17-14
The Bengals have to keep establishing the run. They've improved mightily in that area. From my vantage point that's because they've incorporated more man-on-man blocking, hat on a hat, as opposed to just zone blocking all the time. That's been a big improvement. And they have to win the turnover battle. Quarterback Ryan Finley has had three costly turnovers, the last one that pick in the two-minute drill last week in Oakland. You can't win turning it over like that.
Protecting the ball and the passer. In Pittsburgh Andy Dalton was sacked a career-high eight times. Finley was sacked five times last week and I asked Zac Taylor in the press conference if that's a product of Finley holding the ball and playing slowly or if the offensive line is playing badly. From my viewpoint it's a combination of both. Left tackle John Jerry got beat often by the Raiders' Maxx Crosby, but also Finley is playing slowly and that's par for the course for a young quarterback. The anticipation isn't really there.
Defensively, the Bengals only gave the Raiders three points in the second half and that's much better. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap got some pressure on the quarterback with two sacks combined from them. It all starts up front for the Bengals defense. The stars have to be stars and they haven't been for the majority of the season. That's why their defense has faltered so much. When those players play well up front, that impacts the entire defense. That will help a banged-up secondary and the linebackers. Rudolph will give you the chance to make interceptions if you pressure him.
THE EDGE: I think the Steelers, from top to bottom, have more talent than the Bengals and historically have had the upper hand against Cincinnati. The Steelers like to zone blitz and disguise and I think that's going to confuse Finley in just his third start while they take away running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Tyler Boyd. STEELERS, 24-13
THE BOTTOM LINE
Even before they set the inactive lists 90 minutes before the game and after the nuclear fallout has settled on both these rosters, it's pretty fair to say the Bengals have the most accomplished and dangerous skill players on the field in running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard and wide receiver Tyler Boyd and head coach Zac Taylor's challenge is to turn that advantage into their first three-touchdown game of the season with a rookie quarterback. Or, at the very least, their first game in the 20s in seven weeks.
The game hinges on the Bengals' ability to protect rookie quarterback Ryan Finley in his third NFL start from the insatiable Steelers defense, second in the league in generating turnovers, a nagging stat against a guy that has committed three turnovers in his first two starts.
They have to surround him better than they did Andy Dalton in Pittsburgh on Sept. 30, when Dalton was sacked a career-high eight sacks.
That's a big reason Cordy Glenn makes his first start of the season at left tackle, in the wake of Finley getting sacked five times last week. Taylor showed last week he's not stubborn when it comes to using Mixon and Bernard in the same backfield and he'll have to walk that line against the NFL's 12th best defense in matching up against large pass rushers that are fifth in racking up sacks per pass. Plus, Boyd's strength is in the middle of the field where that turnover machine named Minkah Fitzpatrick lurks with two pick-sixes and where rookie linebacker Devin Bush has an NFL-leading four fumble recoveries as well as two interceptions.
But the Bengals have to get Boyd the ball more than last Sunday's three targets, too.
The Bengals (averaging 309 yards per game) shouldn't be getting into a shootout with a Steelers offense averaging even fewer at 283 and has scored just one offensive touchdown in each of the last three games. The Bengals have matched that, but if the Pittsburgh defense doesn't score TDs (it has three), it provides short fields.
The Bengals should also have an edge with the NFL's No. 1 special teams, but the Steelers have a Bengals Killer in kicker Chris Boswell. He's never missed a kick in nine games against them and he's having a great year with just one field-goal miss. He does have just 22 touchbacks on kickoffs (tied for 23rd) and the Bengals are teeing up NFL kick return leader Brandon Wilson.
This one is shaping up like old-time Bengals-Steelers. Not the 1970s. But The War of 18-12 ten years ago, a game the Bengals won when Bernard Scott scored the game's only touchdown on a kick return.
Need we say more?