UPDATED: Saturday 3:15 p.m. ET
A suddenly critical five-day stretch for Zac Taylor begins Sunday in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals, following a somewhat fluky escape on opening day and an offensive no-show for three-and-a-half quarters against the Bears, need to show that Joe Burrow isn’t shell-shocked behind the offensive line and can consistently move the offense up and down the field.
It won’t be easy, and Tee Higgins may or may not be injured to the point where he can’t play. Taylor and Brian Callahan need to show a game plan that accounts for T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward off the edge and Minkah Fitzpatrick in the secondary.
Having Joe Mixon available should help. He wasn’t on the field for either game against the Steelers in 2020. Mixon said this week he’s looking forward to the challenge of taking on the Terrible Towels that will be in full throat. He better be, and more to the point, the offensive line better be. If Mixon is running effectively, Burrow’s chances for success rise exponentially.
Burrow was just 21-of-40 for 213 yards and a touchdown last year in Pittsburgh. He was sacked four times, twice by T.J. Watt, who had four of Pittsburgh’s nine hits on Burrow. With Watt and Alex Highsmith both ruled out for this game with going injuries, those are two big defensive stars the Bengals don’t have to worry about.
Fact is, the Bengals have this game on the road and then four days to get ready for Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars on Thursday night before a national TV audience.
The defense can carry a team for only so long.
Here’s what to look for as the Bengals look for their first win in Pittsburgh since 2015:
When the Bengals have the ball:
Mixon doesn’t need to rush for 150 yards to be a big factor in this game. The offense needs to get him in space to do damage.
It would be nice if Zac Taylor is just using simple gamesmanship on the Steelers with regard to his left shoulder, which was injured last Sunday when Akiem Hicks fell on him in the fourth quarter. Taylor says Higgins could be a game day decision, based on his pain tolerance. If he doesn’t go, Auden Tate and Mike Thomas step in and take his place. Tate showed in the preseason that he is more than capable of competing for the 50-50 balls.
This figures to be the NFL debut for the rookie out of Clemson and Fairfield High. Carman, according to Taylor and Callahan, has made great strides since looking rough in the first two weeks of camp. He better as he is going up against a Steeler front that got to Burrow early and often last year at Heinz. Carman fills in at right guard for Xavier Su’a-Filo, who injured his left knee last week in Chicago. Carman gets his first chance to validate the Bengals skipping on Penei Sewell and choosing him in the second round. If things go well, he just might stick.
Watt has recorded 35.0 sacks in 33 career games at Heinz Field. He has collected at least half a sack in 21 of the last 23 home games. Only Derrick Thomas (39.5) Reggie White (36.0) have registered more sacks over their first 33 career home games in NFL history. Watt was limited all week with a groin issue and was officially questionable on Friday. He was ruled out Saturday, 24 hours before kickoff. This loss, in addition to the absence of Alex Highsmith (groin), figures to be a big break. Now the Bengals must take advantage. Melvin Ingram III leads the reserves.
When the Steelers have the ball:
The 39-year-old Steelers QB is not as nimble as he once was but is still strong and a load to take to the ground. Big Ben is 26-8 in 32 career games against the Bengals, including 2-0 in the postseason. The Bengals haven’t laid back-to-back losses on Roethlisberger since sweeping the season series in 2009. Last week, Roethlisberger was 27-of-40 for 295 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
JuJu Smith-Schuster obviously comes into this game with a point to prove to Vonn Bell and the rest of the Bengals secondary. Don’t think for a second that Big Ben isn’t thinking about getting JuJu his MoJo early. Bengals secondary best be ready. Chase Claypool is 6-4 and 235 pounds. He was targeted nine times against the Raiders and caught just three, but he totaled 70 yards. The loss of slot receiver Diontae Johnson (knee) could be big. He caught nine passes on 12 targets last week against Las Vegas for 105 yards, including 60 yards after catch. James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud figure to pick up some depth slack.
The veteran corner was officially doubtful but ruled out Saturday afternoon. Even if he were to have played, he would have been on a snap count, per Zac Taylor. The Bengals could use his services against the talented and big Steeler receiving corps. Waynes has missed time since training camp with a hamstring injury. The Bengals want to be cautious with him to make sure he’s ready 100 percent later in the season. Wouldn’t be surprising to see him make his Bengals debut against the Jaguars on Thursday, which Taylor said Friday is a possibility.
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) September 23, 2021
The Steelers love this first-round rookie running back out of Alabama. Watching him run in the first two weeks, you can see why. Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo certainly sees why. “Yeah, he runs angry,” Anarumo told me this week. “He runs hard. He is a big man. They got themselves a good back. Three weeks in a row now, you know how it is, it’s gonna be like that every week, but this guy is an impressive, impressive runner. They got him back there on third-down protections, so he must be doing a good job with that. They must trust him to do it. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. I mean 6-2, 230 pounds. You talk about having to get a number of guys around the ball, 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.” Could he be the next Derrick Henry? A big, powerful runner from Alabama. Well, not yet in terms of production. Harris was held to 38 yards on 10 carries last week but he is also a threat to catch the ball, with six catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.
No one on the defensive front has been any better or more dominant than the free agent tackle signed from Cleveland. He has wrecked things in the middle of offensive lines and has Bengals fans making comparisons with Geno Atkins. If Ogunjobi can continue his play in the middle of the defensive line, then the Bengals have a great chance to get to Big Ben and controlling Harris and not letting him get north and south.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 24, 2021
Evan McPherson is 5-for-5 on PATs and has drilled all three field goal attempts, including another from over 50 yards on grass last week in Chicago. McPherson could face one of the bigger challenges of his early career when kicking into the open (south) end of Heinz Field, a notorious spot for opposing kickers not familiar with the end that looks out onto the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela.
Kevin Huber is averaging a net 41.7 yards on nine punts, including four inside the 20 and only one touchback.
Veteran Chris Boswell is someone who knows that open end quite well and has done quite well, explaining his tenure running on seven seasons in Pittsburgh. Boswell’s most famous kick came against the Bengals in the rain at Paul Brown Stadium, a 35-yarder at the gun that gave the Steelers an 18-16 win in one of the most painful losses in Bengals history. Boswell has made 10 of 13 field goal attempts in his NFL career from 50 yards or further, including a 56-yard try against Las Vegas in Week 2. His 10 field goals made from 50+ yards are the most in franchise history.
The Steelers also feel they have a rookie who will make significant contributions in special teams. Pressley Harvin III is their seventh-rounder out of Georgia Tech, with a 41.9 yards net per punt average and five punts inside the 20 out of his nine on the season.
It’s getting desperate early for Zac Taylor to prove his team can show up on the road. After last week’s offensive no-show against the Bears, they are now 1-15-1 in 17 roadies under Taylor. This is a golden opportunity to quiet his critics leading into what is a critical public relations week for the team, concluding with the Ring of Honor game against Urban Meyer, Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars Thursday night. Here’s thinking Jackson Carman will handle his job at right guard and be a solid part of an offensive line that will allow Burrow time to make plays downfield. The defense will score in this one because Ben likes to sling it.
Bengals 24, Steelers 20.