The Cincinnati Bengals know better than to look past the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. At 3-6, their AFC North rival might look harmless on paper.
Yet HC Mike Tomlin has had the Bengals’ number when he faces them as an underdog. In fact, he’s 7-2 straight up against Cincy in those spots.
To avenge the season-opener, Zac Taylor’s team will have to overcome such a staggering trend while solving two problems they have yet to prove they’re capable of solving.
1. Bengals’ passing game has to work without Chase
Without the top-tier wide receiver in the lineup, the Bengals’ aerial attack has broken down. It’s been just a couple of games but they have been unable to get it going. And no, it’s not just volume we’re talking about as that would be explained by Cincinnati’s commitment to the run versus the Carolina Panthers.
In those couple of games without Ja’Marr though, the team has had the 20th offense in passing DVOA (Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric).
While riding Joe Mixon to a five-touchdown performance worked perfectly versus the Panthers, that probably won’t work as well this weekend.
The Steelers’ front seven has been strong against the run and could be their biggest strength as a team. They rank as the seventh-best run defense per DVOA allowing only 4.1 yards per carry. Last weekend, the Steelers held the Saints to 1.9 yards per rush attempt.
Can Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins step up in Chase’s absence? More importantly, can the coaching staff figure out how to effectively replace him after a “committee” approach failed miserably against the Cleveland Browns in Week 8?
Relying on the run is a questionable approach to Sunday’s game. The Bengals will likely be forced to go back to their pass-happy approach on this one.
2. Surviving T.J. Watt
As we’ve discussed countless times, the Bengals’ issues in pass protection have to do with more than just talent. Taylor’s offense has struggled every time they’ve faced top pass rushers like Watt in Week 1 and Micah Parsons in Week 2.
A second round versus Watt feels like a test they must approve. The thing is he isn’t alone. The Steelers have one of the best defensive tackle duos in the league with familiar face Larry Ogunjobi and longtime enemy Cam Heyward.
This won’t be just about the La’el Collins getting revenge on Watt individually. It will be about game planning and play calling for Burrow to get rid of the ball quickly and the offense being patient enough to sustain long drives.
It’s a big game. The Bengals have very little room for error and need to beat their own ghosts.
And for the Steelers? Home underdogs with a chance to further complicate their hated rival’s playoff chances? This is their Super Bowl.
The Bengals better be ready.
Featured image via Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK
Could not load the poll.