The Cincinnati Bengals don’t count themselves out of the running for a playoff spot despite their 0-3 start, but if there is going to be any chance of such a turnaround, it almost certainly makes Monday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers a must-win.
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Pittsburgh, which also is winless, could say the same thing, but especially for a Cincinnati team that has struggled against the AFC North rival, a victory could go a long way. The Steelers have won the last eight meetings in the series, and the Bengals are 11-24 all-time on Monday Night Football.
Here are five key things to know going into the matchup, as the teams are set to clash at 8:15 p.m. Monday at Heinz Field:
1. No Big Ben
Ben Roethlisberger has dominated this rivalry since he joined the league in 2004, owning a 23-7 record against the Bengals; however, he underwent season-ending elbow surgery, and that means Mason Rudolph will be making his third career appearance Monday.
“It’s different because you go from one of the most experienced and intelligent quarterbacks out there to a guy that’s only had two starts, so you are dealing with a different situation,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said of preparing for a game without Big Ben. “We have a different game plan, and I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s definitely a different experience.”
Roethlisberger was a tough quarterback to bring to the ground and always seemed to be able to make plays out of nothing. Rudolph doesn’t have that knack yet. He’s completed 26 of 46 passes for 286 yards with two interceptions and a fumble in two close losses to the 49ers and Seahawks – the two common opponents shared with the Bengals.
2. Opening the playbook
Joe Mixon found a bit of a rhythm in the second half of a loss Sunday at Buffalo but still wasn’t satisfied with his stats. He had 60 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown reception.
Coach Zac Taylor didn’t necessarily think his lack of touches in the first half correlated to the slow start, though on five of the first six drives before the two-minute warning, the Bengals’ first play was a pass. However, those first plays didn’t put Mixon in a good position.
“We feel like we should have been in great shape, but we weren’t,” Taylor said. “Again, he gives us a spark, and Gio (HB Giovani Bernard) gives us a spark. We feel really good about the direction of our run game and what those backs provide for us. We feel like we have a lot of playmakers we need to get the ball to in order to get us going. … We just have to find the right way as a play-caller to get everybody involved and give us that spark to get us that first first down to really get us going.”
Perhaps Mixon’s second-half success will give Taylor more confidence to lean on the run first more often. The Steelers haven’t been as strong against the run as they have in the past, and linebackers Vince Williams (hamstring) and Anthony Chickillo (foot) are out and Jayrone Elliott is questionable with a hamstring.
3. Changes up front
Billy Price got his first start of the season at left guard last week but Taylor told reporters Saturday that Michael Jordan would be back from a knee injury and returning to the starting role. The Bengals clearly have a lot of faith in Jordan but what if it wasn’t just a coincidence the running game saw improvement with Price in there.
Andre Smith also is expected to remain the starting left tackle, as Cordy Glenn is still out with a concussion. Glenn resumed practice this week in limited fashion Thursday and Friday but then didn’t practice Saturday.
The defensive line created cause for concern early in the week when four different linemen showed up on the “did not participate” portion of the injury report Thursday. Defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow is out with a thigh injury, end Kerry Wynn remains out with a concussion and Carl Lawson is doubtful while still nursing a hamstring injury. Hubbard had a boot on his foot Monday but worked his way back to a full practice Saturday.
4. New playmakers to watch
Aside from Big Ben being out, a lot of the other players who have been so key to the Steelers’ success against the Bengals in recent years are no longer with the team, so Pittsburgh is relying on some new weapons.
James Conner is no Le’Veon Bell but the Bengals already know not to count him out after he rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns against them in the first meeting last year while Bell was holding out over contract negotiations. Now, Conner is the permanent replacement but still waiting for his first big game of the season. He fumbled late in a 24-20 loss against San Francisco and hasn’t yet proven himself in those crucial situations like Bell had.
JuJu Smith-Schuster also has stepped up as the new Antonio Brown and will be cause for concern as he lines up all over the field. But having to defend just one proven target is better than two.
5. Must-win game
Six teams have made the playoffs after 0-3 starts since 1980 and only one team since 1990 has made the playoffs after starting 0-4, so if the Bengals are going to turn things around, it better happen quickly. The same goes for the Steelers, but being the AFC North division opener for both, that helps keep things wide open for the winner.
The teams have played two common opponents in the Seahawks and 49ers, and Pittsburgh played them both close the week after the Bengals lost to them. Cincinnati’s loss at Seattle was by one point but then the Bengals got blown out at home by the 49ers. The Steelers played the Seahawks at home but were at San Francisco.
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