Cincinnati Bengals: 5 storylines to watch Sunday vs. Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals' Mackensie Alexander (21) and William Jackson (22) celebrate after Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over on downs during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Cincinnati Bengals' Mackensie Alexander (21) and William Jackson (22) celebrate after Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over on downs during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Credit: Michael Conroy

Credit: Michael Conroy

Both teams trying to rebound from losses as Bengals seek first victory in Pittsburgh in six years

The Cincinnati Bengals stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football last year at Paul Brown Stadium to end an 11-game losing streak in the series against their AFC North rival.

Now, they travel to play the Steelers for their 2021 division opener Sunday at Heinz Field, seeking the organization’s first win in Pittsburgh since 2015.

Cincinnati (1-1) is coming off a 20-17 loss at Chicago, while Pittsburgh (1-1) fell 26-17 last week at home against the Raiders. Here are five storylines to watch in the rivalry game.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is hit as he throws during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
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Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is hit as he throws during the second half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Credit: Bryan Woolston

Credit: Bryan Woolston

1. Affecting Big Ben

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger opened the week on the injured report with a left pectoral issue, but he was back to full participation on Friday and is deemed ready to go Sunday.

That will come as no surprise to the Bengals, who are well aware of the future Hall of Famer’s durability over the years. Despite his age of 39, Roethlisberger remains one of the league’s most difficult quarterbacks to bring down because of his strength and ability to extend plays, but the Bengals will be looking for ways to impact him in other ways if the sacks aren’t coming to them against a rebuilt offensive line.

“Really, if you get your hands on him you have to go after his throwing arm,” Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “You have three guys hanging off him, he’s still staying up. He’s still going to get the ball out and avoid a sack. You get around it and go after his throwing arm to try and pin it. I got my hands on him my rookie year and I fell right off. I was like, ‘Wow.’ You don’t realize how big and strong he is until you try to go bring him down, so you have to try to pin that throwing arm.”

The Bengals defensive line has done well getting pressure on the quarterback so far with six sacks, but Roethlisberger is a different kind of challenge even with just one returning starter on the offensive line.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow drops back to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow drops back to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Credit: Nam Y. Huh

Credit: Nam Y. Huh

2. Keeping Burrow upright

The Steelers’ defense led the league with 56 sacks last year and will be licking their chops to get to Joe Burrow after he was sacked nine times over the first two games. The Bengals did luck out with the Steelers’ T.J. Watt, who has a groin injury and was downgraded to out on Saturday.

Cincinnati gave up 48 sacks last year and don’t seem to be any better in pass protection early in 2021.

“As an O-line, it’s our job to keep Joe clean and to not ever let him get hit,” left tackle Jonah Williams said. “So, we’re obviously not happy any time he gets hit and he’s been hit way too many times in these first two games. The way to beat that isn’t so much thinking about the outside (noise) or anything like that, but if all five guys or six or seven (or) whoever’s involved in pass protection are doing their job and with proper technique then Joe’s not going to be hit.”

The Bengals will likely be featuring a new starter at right guard with Xavier Su’a-Filo (knee) doubtful, and that’s a tall task for rookie Jackson Carman to get his first offensive snaps against the Steelers. Carman played left guard up until joining the Bengals as their second-round draft pick this spring, and he struggled in training camp but has shown progress since the final preseason game.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase scores during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. The Bears won 20-17. (AP Photo/David Banks)
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Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase scores during the second half of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Chicago. The Bears won 20-17. (AP Photo/David Banks)

Credit: David Banks

Credit: David Banks

3. Opening up the offense

The Steelers have been known for their defense and rank ninth in the league while allowing just 21.0 points per game so far, so the Bengals are going to need to be creative in their play calling to find ways to beat them.

That starts with establishing the running game, but the key to consistency there — against a defense that allows just 84.5 rushing yards per game — could be in how well the Bengals utilize the deep ball, even with Tee Higgins (shoulder) doubtful. Ja’Marr Chase and Burrow have connected on a long touchdown pass in each of the first two games and expressed a desire to open up the deep ball more often. Their 42-yard touchdown play last week came after the Bears had taken a 20-3 lead in the fourth quarter, and the Bengals’ rally fell short.

Pittsburgh’s secondary features Pro Bowl free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the Steelers rank 29th in pass defense while allowing 313.5 passing yards per game, so they aren’t unbeatable. Pittsburgh has allowed just two touchdowns on seven red zone chances. Its touchdown percentage ranks second in the league.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) gets past defender Las Vegas Raiders defensive back Dallin Leavitt (32) en route to a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) gets past defender Las Vegas Raiders defensive back Dallin Leavitt (32) en route to a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Credit: Keith Srakocic

Credit: Keith Srakocic

4. Stopping the run

As much as Big Ben gets talked about in this rivalry (he’s 24-8 against the Bengals), the Steelers often have beaten the Bengals with their running game.

Cincinnati has been much better against the run so far this year, allowing just 95.0 yards rushing per game, and Pittsburgh first-round draft pick Najee Harris has struggled to get going early, but he’s poised for a breakout sooner or later. In former Steelers running back James Connor’s first start against the Bengals in 2018, he rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns and caught two touchdown passes as well.

“He runs angry,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “He runs hard. He is a big man. They got themselves a good back. Three weeks in a row now (facing a good running back). You know how it is, it’s going to be like that every week, but this guy is an impressive, impressive runner. … I mean 6-1, 200 and some odd pounds. You talk about having to get a number of guys around the ball, this guy… and he’s got a mean stiff arm so we’ll have our hands full with him. He’s a really good player for a young guy.”

Cincinnati Bengals' Vonn Bell (24) and Jordan Evans (50) look to recover a fumble by Pittsburgh Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
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Cincinnati Bengals' Vonn Bell (24) and Jordan Evans (50) look to recover a fumble by Pittsburgh Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) during the first half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Credit: Bryan Woolston

Credit: Bryan Woolston

5. Winning the turnover battle

The Bengals were so successful against the Steelers in the Monday Night Football matchup last year in large part because of turnovers, usually an area where Pittsburgh wins.

Vonn Bell hit JuJu Smith-Schuster hard to force a fumble near midfield in the first quarter and the offense took advantage with a touchdown on the ensuing drive for a 10-0 lead. Roethlisberger then threw an interception, and the Bengals scored again. The Steelers finished with three turnovers, and the Bengals had none.

Creating turnovers is a big focus for the defense this season after not having many takeaways in 2020. For the offense, it’s important to play a clean game, especially after Burrow threw three interceptions last week.

“We can’t allow them to have any takeaways,” wide receiver Tyler Boyd said. “If we protect the football and execute our assignments, we force them to do things they don’t want to do, like blitzing and catching them on deep balls. We have to execute those plays. We can’t allow them to get strip fumbles. We can’t allow them to get any picks. Without them getting any turnovers, we’ll be perfectly fine. It’s not a defense where we feel like we won’t be able to do anything.”

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