In the week that Joe Burrow said he'd play in a field at dawn if they told him to, we ask whatever happened to the cold, see-your-breath AFC North games. Don't look for it Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), where the 6-4 Steelers and the 5-4-1 Steelers are predicted to play in balmy 43-degree weather on Thanksgiving weekend that is still a bit chilly for some of the newest Bengals.
On the riverfront where they played the second coldest game in NFL history when the Bengals beat the Chargers in the 1981 AFC title game in minus-57-wind chill, there hasn't been a sub-freezing game at The Paul since Dec. 8, 2013 and a 42-28 win over the Colts in 25 degrees.
There's a bit of interest in that since some of their major weapons are used to rather worn climates. Such as SEC rookies Ja'Marr Chase, a wide receiver from LSU raised in Greater New Orleans, and Evan McPherson, a kicker from Florida raised in Alabama. And there's Burrow, who went as far north as Vanderbilt's Nashville, Tenn., in September during his Heisman Trophy season of 2019 for LSU.
The coldest it got for him in his NFL rookie season last year was a pair of 48-degree games at PBS and he got a spilt with the Titans and Browns. No problem. He had a passer rating of 109.7, including his 406-yard day against Cleveland.
So it looks like Sunday is going to be his coldest NFL game, but probably not as cold as Ohio's high school Division III championship game in 2014, where he led Athens to a near upset of Toledo Central Catholic.
Burrow didn't wear a glove on his throwing hand that night in Columbus, something he's toyed with if it gets nippy enough in late November as well as December and January. Friday morning's practice in 35 degrees didn't seem to phase him. The only glove he had was on his left hand. It sounds like the last time he threw with a glove on his right hand was his sophomore year at Athens.
It also is close to the coldest game ever for McPherson in high school or college. The hottest kicker in the game off his four-for-four day in Las Vegas last Sunday that included three of at least 50 yards estimates anywhere between 45 and 50 degrees is his coldest game. But he's more interested in what the wind will be rather than the temperature and says it could be a strong 10 to 15 miles per hour.
"I'm just getting ready for obviously the cold weather games. I know they're coming," said McPherson this week. "It's obviously getting colder here in Cincinnati so I get to practice kicking in the cold a lot because obviously we kick outdoors every single day. And so I get a lot of practice at it.
"I've heard kickers say it before, embracing the weather rather than really shying away from it or worrying about it. So, that's what I'm really going to try and do, is try and embrace it, whether it's a snow game or a rain game that's freezing. I'm just going to go out there and embrace it and have fun with it rather than really worrying about the weather."
If the NFL had moved next week's game at PBS against the Chargers into Sunday's prime time, that would have been a nice trial weather balloon for both Burrow and the L.A.'s Pac-10 quarterback Justin Herbert.
As Burrow said so well this week when asked about the NFL not putting him and Herbert in prime time: "I don't care about any of that. I'll play it at 6 a.m. in the middle of a field somewhere. I don't care."
HIGH WATTAGE GAME: The Bengals have been preparing to face Steelers game breaker T.J. Watt, the rampaging outside linebacker who missed last week's game with a hip/knee injury. So it wasn't news to them that he went full in Friday's practice after he was limited earlier in the week. Watt missed the Steelers' loss to the Bengals two months ago (groin), as did Pittsburgh's other edge rusher, Alex Highsmith in a game the Bengals snapped the Steelers' record streak of 75 straight games with a sack.
The Bengals didn't let the Steelers hit Burrow even once in the 24-10 win and Wat figures to try and weigh in on that against tackles Jonah Williams and Riley Reiff. His eight game totals would get anybody else to the Pro Bowl: 12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, 20 quarterback hits.
The only change on the Bengals offensive line is at right guard. Back in September, Jackson Carman made his first NFL start in Pittsburgh at right guard. On Sunday, Hakeem Adeniji gets his third straight start there after grading out as the Bengals' second best blocker last week against the Raiders behind only left guard Quinton Spain in the Pro Football Focus rankings.
Adeniji already has a start against the Steelers. It came last year in his rookie year at left tackle and he held up pretty well in his second NFL start. According to PFF, he allowed no sacks and gave up just hit of Burrow in 43 sets.
Running back Joe Mixon's wide zones were popping in Vegas and it was reflected in the PFF blocking grades with the top five run blockers wide receiver Tyler Boyd, Williams, Reiff, wide receiver Tee Higgins and tight end C.J. Uzomah.
When it comes to allowing pressures, PFF has the Bengals line allowing the sixth fewest (83) and ranked as the12th most efficient pass blocking. Half the league has allowed more quarterback hits than Cincinnati.
The problem with Watt is, when he sacks you, there's a good chance he'll strip the ball, too. In eight games against the Bengals he's got 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
It may not be so much personnel against Watt and company, but formations. The usual heavy three wide receiver Bengals only went that way 62 percent of the time against the Steelers in September. They've used three tight ends four percent of the time, but against the Steelers they used it ten percent, using it only more against Detroit and Baltimore. Isaiah Prince, the extra tackle, played about 10 percent of the snaps, one of his highest workloads of the season.
Burrow loves working out of the empty set, but it offers one of the weakest forms of pass protection. Which is maybe one of the reasons why their number of empty sets has dwindled compared to last season.
"We've made a commitment to being more under center in our run game and play action, to marry those things up better," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said earlier this week. "I think you see a little bit more of that than you did a year ago. That's scheme. That's also Burrow being more comfortable working more and more under center, which is an important part of an offensive game if you're going to be a run and play-action team. That's part of who we have to be.
"That's not to say we won't go out and throw the ball in empty. We're not afraid of it. We've just found good things that have helped us under center and in the run game and in the play-action game that have lent us to some explosive plays. So the need to be in empty all the time has probably diminished for us a little bit."
CHASING EXPLOSIVES: The Bengals are still tied with the Rams for the most pass plays of at least 40 yards with ten even though they haven't had one in the last two games and deep threat Ja'Marr Chase hasn't had one since the 82-yarder in Baltimore Oct. 24. Thanks to his Thanksgiving Day grab, DeSean Jackson is now the NFL leader with seven grabs of 40, one ahead of Chase and the 49ers' Deebo Samuel.
Chase, who stung the Steelers with a 34-yard touchdown catch in the last minute of the first half back in September, hasn't had one longer than 21 yards the last three weeks and he was pretty clear why this week.
"They've been moving to two-high lately," Chase said of the safeties. "I've been seeing that a lot lately, playing a little cloud towards me, trying to get me to have a lot of under routes now."
"We've definitely seen some more zone, whether it be because of our personnel or because that's the scheme of the defense," Callahan said. "Some of these guys around the league are very much in the philosophy of that type of defense. We've seen quite a bit of Cover 4 and soft coverage."
The Steelers don't do anything soft because they like to heat up the quarterback. But they've only blitzed 22 percent of the time. They play a combo of coverages and know how to keep it underneath by allowing just four passes of at least 40. But it's also hard not to see the Steelers committing to the box as they face Bengals running back Joe Mixon after allowing an average of 143 yards per game on the ground the last two months.
"That's part of the equation," Callahan said of running teams out of soft zones. "If you don't threaten anybody up front with the run game, then you're going to see a whole lot of … open coverages and you're going to have a hard time because they're going to make it difficult on you. The run game's part of it. You try to get people out of those defenses and make them commit another defender to the box and go down that route. It all works hand in hand."
And that's the point. The Steelers are going to go zone, but it won't be soft.
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Watt has a streak of four straight games with a sack, but the Bengals' Trey Hendrickson has the NFL's longest with six straight with a full sack. If he gets Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger Sunday, he'll break the team record held by linebacker Reggie Williams and end Eddie Edwards …
Mixon needs 59 yards to pass Cedric Benson (4,176 yards) into fifth place on the Bengals all-time rushing list. Benson did it on 1,109 carries while Mixon has just 992 ..,.
Mixon has multiple TDs in three straight games, tying the club record of running backs Pete Johnson (1981) and Rudi Johnson (2005), both done in years the Bengals won their division …
He's also got at least one TD in seven straight games, the longest streak ever by a Bengals running back. On Sunday he can tie wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the third longest streak in club history behind only wide receivers A.J. Green (nine) and Carl Pickens (10) …
It looks like wide receiver Auden Tate (thigh) is going to miss his fourth straight game. He didn't practice all week and is the only Bengal listed as doubtful …