Bengals-Steelers could look a lot different from opening matchup

The film from the Cincinnati Bengals’ season-opeing matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers this season doesn’t seem to be as relevant as past tape against divisional opponents might have been when heading into a second meeting.

When the two AFC North rivals meet Sunday at Pittsburgh’s Acrisure Stadium, both teams could look a lot different from that first meeting in the season opener.

Pittsburgh (3-6) has a new quarterback running its offense and is healthier up front on defense than it has been in recent weeks, but might not have safety Minkah Fitzpatrick because of an appendectomy that sidelined him for the Steelers’ 20-10 win over New Orleans on Sunday. The Bengals’ offense hasn’t had a game so sloppy since that 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers when Joe Burrow committed five turnovers and was sacked seven times.

“There’s things that they’ve been doing for years that they obviously believe in and take great pride in doing,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said when asked about the differences. “It starts with their front. They have a great front, and so those four guys are healthy now and they’ve developed that depth behind those guys. But they play those guys, as much as you’re going to see any front four take snaps in a game. They play probably the highest percentage as a front four of any defense in the league. And there’s a reason why. Because they’re really good. And so it starts with them. And so having all four of those guys healthy, and the depth they have behind them, they just feed off of that. You can see that defense last week, again, when they get T.J. (Watt) back, it steps up a notch. And those guys did a great job last week.”

Watt has been a thorn in Cincinnati’s side. He recorded one sack and three tackles for loss in the opener before he was injured in the second half and missed the next seven games. He returned Sunday against New Orleans.

The Steelers also have defensive tackle Cam Heyward, who has three sacks, and linebacker Alex Highsmith, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, up front. The Bengals’ offensive line has cleaned up its pass protection considerably since allowing so much pressure to get to Burrow in the opener but will have its hands full Sunday.

Pittsburgh pulled quarterback Mitch Trubisky after a 1-3 start and have turned the keys over to 2022 first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett, who is 2-3 and has thrown for 1,161 yards with two touchdowns and eight interceptions. Pickett didn’t have any interceptions in wins against the Bucs and Saints.

Taylor said the offense doesn’t look drastically different from the quarterback standpoint, but

The Steelers are leaning more on running back Najee Harris. He rushed for 99 yards on 20 carries against the Saints. The Bengals limited him to 23 yards on 10 carries in the opener and could be getting back DJ Reader, who was a big part of that run defense.

“(Pickett) has made some good decisions,” Taylor said. “He can be really accurate with the ball. He made some good plays with his feet the other day, gives his guys a chance to go make a play. He’s a rookie that has a lot of talent. I think he’s doing a good job managing the offense. He’s got a lot of playmakers around him as well they do a good job utilizing. It’s one of those times your defense has its work cut for them because they have a lot of really good playmakers and they try to spread the ball out and get the ball to all those guys.”

Harris has 460 yards rushing but just one touchdown this season. Diontae Johnson leads the receivers with 435 yards on 47 catches, and tight end Pat Frejermuth has 403 yards on 36 catches and wide receiver George Pickens adds 370 yards on 29 receptions.

Cincinnati, which is still missing Ja’Marr Chase, will be looking for a fast start to what the team hopes will be a playoff push in the second half of the season. The Bengals still are seeking their first AFC North win, though, coming off their most dominant performance of the season in Week 9 with a 42-21 victory over the Panthers.

“The only big game we’ve got is at Pittsburgh,” Taylor said. “The weather starts to turn a little bit. Guys embrace that as an AFC North team. We understand that part of being a great team is embracing the elements and playing well in these conditions. … I think our guys start to get ready for these big games in not so great weather and we have to embrace that and be great in those conditions.”

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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