By Jeremy Hritz
The Steelers are 1–1 heading into this week’s AFC North battle against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team Ben Roethlisberger owns a 24-8 record against, including a record of 11-5 at home. In order to add to that win total, Roethlisberger will need to be more efficient, attack the middle of the field, and benefit from a productive running game.
Can those three things happen successfully? We will all be watching closely to find out.
The biggest storylines this weekend focus on a) the Steelers offense, b) the impact of the injuries on the defensive side of the ball, and c) how the Steelers offensive line can hold up against a renewed Bengals pass rush. Let’s take a look at each of those components in terms of how they will play out on Sunday.
In the first two games of the season, the offense has been terribly underwhelming, and the improvements that were supposed to be made in the running game have yet to surface. If anything, the running game has appeared weaker than it was last season, even though Najee Harris has flashed his talents on a few plays when he has had enough space to create. The offensive line has been ineffective in opening running lanes, resulting in runs being stopped in the backfield before they have even had a chance to develop.
The failures of the rushing attack have put more pressure on Roethlisberger and his receivers, and though at times, they have connected on drive-extending plays, they have been quickly forgotten about once Ben takes gets pummeled by an opposing defender. In the several seasons prior, starting with Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator, the emphasis on offense was put on protecting Roethlisberger and prioritizing the quick throw, but despite still getting rid of the ball quickly in 2021, the trend is moving away from what Haley instilled.
The receivers are helping somewhat, but still on what could be game-changing receptions, players like Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron are not coming through. Sure, they may be difficult catches, but these opportunities are the difference between losing 26-17 and winning 27-26. If the Steelers are going to compete and be a contender in the AFC North, their players are going to have to start making plays in high-pressure situations. If they continue not to, it will result in a lot of close losses for this Steelers team.
Hopefully, in this third contest of the season, the Steelers can generate some consistency, get the running game going, and ensure their receivers hold on to the ball on critical downs/situations. Sounds simple, right?
Defensively, the Steelers are still struggling to overcome several injuries, though there is some optimism later here in the week as the injury report clears up. Alex Highsmith still has not yet practiced, while TJ Watt has been limited. The good news is that both Joe Haden and Devin Bush both practiced fully and look like they will be available for this Sunday’s game. Most concerning are the injuries to Highsmith and Watt, as that really thins out the OLB room, putting pressure on Melvin Ingram and the undrafted Jamir Jones.
We saw last week what a defense decimated by injuries looks like against a quality passing attack, and while the Bengals are not playing at the level of the Raiders, they have an equally talented group of skill players led by Joe Burrow. The Bengals have given up 10 sacks, so the Steelers must take advantage of the pressure opportunities that will be in front of them.
Finally, the Bengals front seven has been impressive so far, racking up 6 sacks, and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This has been a strength for the Bengals in 2 games, which raises concerns for the Steelers, as their difficulties in protection are well documented. If the Bengals can get home Sunday afternoon and pressure Ben, and if the running game cannot produce, it’s going to be a long day. Hence the reason the running game is the key to victory against the Bengals.
I feel as uneasy about this game as I did against the Raiders last week, and I am searching for reasons to be optimistic that the Steelers will have a burst of growth on Sunday; however, from what I have observed from last week’s games and with the injuries, I do not feel terribly confident.
I do not see this as a game where everything clicks and all the warts suddenly disappear en route to a thorough beat down of the Bengals, as I can see the Bengals offense making plays in the passing game as a result of the absences at OLB for the Steelers. This will keep the game close, and if the Steelers outside backers are held in check, it will lead to a disappointing Steelers loss. In the end, the team finds its first interception of the season and earns just enough yardage in the late 4th quarter to set up a Chris Boswell game winning field goal.
It won’t be easy, pretty, or encouraging, but the Steelers will move to 2-1 by the score of 23-20.
Player of the Game: Devin Bush, 10 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 interception