The Cincinnati Bengals haven’t swept the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2009, and it’s been more than 30 years since the last time they won three straight games in the series.
The Bengals can accomplish both feats with a win Sunday when they host the Steelers (5-4-1) in an important AFC North matchup.
After stunning the Steelers on Monday Night Football last December, the Bengals (6-4) collected an equally surprising 24-10 win in the first matchup of the season in Week 3. They can make it three in a row for the first time since 1990 and keep improving their playoff chances in the process.
Here are five storylines to watch Sunday:
1. More pressure on offensive line
Bengals coach Zac Taylor said he thought Hakeem Adeniji looked “really good” in his second start at right guard last week, and if he can keep progressing, the offensive line is looking in much better shape. The right guard spot has been the one unsettled position, and Adeniji is the fourth player to start there.
Another big test comes Sunday with outside linebacker T.J. Watt expected back from hip and knee injuries after missing the Week 3 matchup because of a groin issue. He joins a pass rush that also features Cam Heyward and Alex Highsmith and will be tough to shut down a second game in a row. The Bengals didn’t allow a sack last time, and that ended Pittsburgh’s streak of 10 straight games with a defensive sack.
“It’s hard to predict what they’ll do differently depending on their personnel, but I just know T.J. Watt is always a defensive player of the year candidate,” Taylor said. “When he’s in the game it changes a lot of things. They’ve always been strong up front as long as I’ve been here. People always talked about him and Bud Dupree. They’re tremendous players. Cam Heyward, 97, he wrecks games. It’s not often you say that about defensive tackles, but they can move him around in so many different positions. He’s got such knowledge of the defense and knowledge of his matchups. He’s always a guy you have to pay attention to and be dialed in on, because he will wreck a game in a heartbeat. We’ve got a lot of respect for all their guys on defense. They’ve had a solid defense for a long time.”
2. Can the Bengals keep run game going?
The Bengals tried to establish the run last week at Las Vegas and struggled with a lot of negative carries early, but they stayed with it and eventually Joe Mixon “broke the dam” as many said after the game. The running game will be important again this week, especially with how good Pittsburgh’s pass rush can be, so Cincinnati will be looking to get the ground attack going to free up some opportunities down field.
Mixon has 759 yards and nine touchdowns through 10 games. He had 90 yards on 18 carries in the Week 3 game at Pittsburgh.
“Any team wants to establish the run,” Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow said. “With all the pass rushers, if you just drop back and pass, you’ll get sacked and get behind the chains. Establishing the run, that’s the basis of every offense in the league.”
3. Limiting explosive plays
The Bengals were better tackling last week than they had been in the two previous games when they struggled to stop a lot of underneath passes against the Jets and couldn’t contain Nick Chubb when the Browns came to town.
This week, they have to be ready for whatever the Steelers do with Najee Harris. He only ran for 40 yards against the Bengals in the first matchup but had 102 yards receiving, and those are the types of players they have struggled with in general this season when the middle of the defense has been exposed.
Harris could find the rushing lanes easier to open this time around with Diontae Johnson available and capable of making explosive plays as a deep threat. He missed the first matchup because of injury.
“He’s a dynamic receiver,” Taylor said. “He’s explosive. He’s got great speed. He’s a really good runner after the catch. We’ve played really good receivers this year, Davonte Adams, all those guys. They’ve always got a good collection of weapons they can utilize. He’s coming on strong. I know he missed some time before, but he’s a tremendous player and we have to be fully aware of him.”
4. Winning the turnover battle
In each of the last two meetings, turnovers were a big factor and that could be the case again. The Bengals defense got two interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger in Week 3 at Pittsburgh, and they got three takeaways in last year’s game in Cincinnati.
Logan Wilson had both picks in Week 3, one in the first quarter and one in the third quarter. In last year’s game in Cincinnati, Roethlisberger was intercepted and lost a fumble on a sack, and JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbled at the end of a catch when Vonn Bell hit him hard to pop the ball loose. All three turnovers came in the first half.
Burrow has struggled with turnovers this season, though the defense has done well to limit the damage. That might not always be the case, and he’s got to clean up those mistakes. Pittsburgh brings a healthier defense this matchup, with cornerback Joe Haden among those still questionable but expected to play in addition to the notable return of Watt.
5. Message received
After the first game, Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd commented about how the Steelers quit in that game and how much that showed Cincinnati’s dominance that day. That didn’t seem too well received by the opponent, and safety Jessie Bates said the Bengals are expecting the Steelers to come in wanting to whip them and the feeling is mutual.
Taylor was pleased with the approach in practices this week and how the players were handling themselves, but it’s still a game that everyone cares about and understands the importance for the city. The Steelers had won 11 straight in the series before Cincinnati ended that streak at home last year.
“It matters,” Taylor said. “It matters to everybody. It matters to everybody in this building, in this city, in this state. You certainly feel that. That doesn’t mean we change our approach and how we do it. We know when we walk on the field it’s going to be a battle. It’s such a great opportunity to be a part of games like this. … As you grow up you dream, I would watch games with the Bengals logo on the helmet and Steelers logo and you could never imagine being in this position. Being a part of this game that affects people everywhere. Everyone lives and die with this game. It’s a cool thing to be a part of. We don’t lose sight of that, so we put everything we got into these games because we know how much it matters. Not just to us but to the community also.”
Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7