Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is one of those at the head of what is shaping up to be the Bengals' best free agent class of all-time when you consider that Awuzie, slot cornerback Mike Hilton, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi and edge Trey Hendrickson are big reasons why they have a top 10 defense after the first week of the season for the first time in four years.
With the Steelers up on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Heinz Field, the Bengals are trying to replicate what they did back on December in a Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium. It was a decisive 27-17 victory with a third-string quarterback over a playoff team in a breakthrough moment for not only the locker room but, as it turned out, for some prospective free agents.
"I definitely thought about it. I remember watching it and a lot of the guys were like, damn, they're having fun. They're playing real hard, they're playing with energy," said Awuzie, who watched it with some of his Dallas teammates. "Obviously that wasn't a deciding factor, but that was the time that I got to see the Bengals on prime time on national TV and really learned about the current state of them and I really saw something special."
Hilton was on the other side of the field in Steeler black and gold and also filed the moment away.
"It played into it," said Hilton of decision to stay in the AFC North. "Just seeing how physical those guys were and knowing that they were a couple of pieces away from turning the corner, and that attracted me here and I'm still excited to be here.
"They sent a message to us that night. I feel like we're going to carry that into Pittsburgh and hopefully come out with the win."
Bengals running back Joe Mixon, who missed the final 10 games of last season with a foot injury, is seeking his first win against the Steelers.
But he hasn't been quiet against Pittsburgh.
The 5.5 yards per his 71 career carries against the Steelers is his best against any team he has more than 21 carries and he had a 105-yarder at Heinz in the 2018 finale that was Marvin Lewis' last game as head coach. Which means the last time Mixon went to Pittsburgh with Frank Pollack as the Bengals offensive line coach he had their second 100-yard game against the Steelers since Rudi Johnson went for 123 at Heinz in 2004.
"One thing about them is that they're very scrappy, physical. They love to play hard. That's one thing about Pittsburgh," Mixon said before Thursday's practice. "They always fought hard. They're very physical up front. You've just got to do whatever you can to take it off of that, take a load off of that. I think we've got a great game plan coming up."
Mixon led the NFL with 127 yards on Opening Day against the Vikings. He had 69 yards on 20 carries last week in Chicago and says they were close to popping some big ones.
"I guess just sticking to it, maybe. We were real close with a lot of runs last week from making them big ones," said Mixon of the difference between the two games. "But like I said, it's always a guy away from making the big one. I mean, it'll come. We've just got to keep on getting better, keep on straining the finish and the big plays will come.
"We had opportunities. We had chances. But like I said, it always pretty much one guy away, or even me going a little faster on certain runs. I usually have a good pace coming up but it's doing the little things like I said to improve the run game, which I have a great feel for, and we'll get better at. I just keep on chugging away, mastering the mundane."
Hometown product Sam Hubbard, on the cover of the Paul Brown Stadium program on that Monday night, knows all about Bengals-Steelers since grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs.
Yes, this game is different. Even when you play.
"I feel like they are for me, personally," Hubbard said before Thursday's practice. "We play in probably one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. But I grew up in Cincinnati. I know the history of this rivalry. I view it as a different type of game. I prepare for it differently. But I can only speak (for) myself."
Hubbard and Hendrickson have become fast friends on the opposite edges. Hubbard has been big on the eye black since his lacrosse days at Moeller High School and Hendrickson has always taken it to another level. So Hubbard has expanded his game to match.
"I did it toward the end of the year last year," Hubbard said. "It's part of his game day routine, his whole getup, so I kind of made it mine. I'm sticking with my design. I go the backward sevens, he does the sevens. It's just something fun … It's all for looks. Look good, feel good, play good."
Rookie right guard Jackson Carman inched closer to his first NFL start Sunday when Xavier Su'a-Filo (knee) didn't work for the second straight day. Wide receiver Tee Higgins (shoulder), who played every game as a rookie last year, is on pace to miss his first game when he didn't work again Thursday. Starting cornerback Trae Waynes returned to practice for the first time since he injured his hamstring a month ago. He went limited and is probably going to be inactive again on Sunday.
As expected, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (left pectoral) returned to the fray Thursday and went limited. Pass rusher T.J. Watt (groin) was limited again. Cornerback Joe Haden and linebacker Devin Bush, who missed last week with groin injuries, both went full Thursday.