By Jeremy Hritz
Game Day is finally here, and the wait for Pittsburgh Steelers football is over! In a few short hours, Pittsburgh will line up across from the Bengals in an AFC North matchup that will test its improvement and growth from the conclusion of the 2021 season through the offseason. The organization made several moves to improve the team, and now, the true test will occur, and the only results that will matter will be the final score which will reveal itself around 4:00 pm eastern time.
The Bengals are coming off of a Super Bowl season, and are eager to prove they are a favorite to return to the big game as the AFC representative. With offensive firepower in the form of Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon, JaMarr Chase, and Tyler Boyd, they have the quick strike arsenal able to overwhelm the strongest of defenses, and this will make this game a viable challenges for the Steelers defenders. Last season, the Bengals trounced the Steelers in both contests, largely due to the many injuries the team suffered on the defensive side of the ball, but they will have to have a stouter outing in order to avoid a repeat performance.
It all begins on defense with stopping the run, something the team could not do at all in 2021, as it will force the Bengals to become one-dimensional through their passing attack. This will create opportunities for the Steelers edge rushers, TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith, to get after Burrow to force turnovers, and plentiful chances for the offense to gel and score. If the pass rush cannot get home, the corners will have difficulty managing Chase, who is an elite-level wide receiver who can change the tide of the game in a single play. Watt and Highsmith getting home is a requirement to have a chance to win this game.
Offensively, the Steelers OL must play significantly better than they did this preseason, or this game could be uglier than it was in both contests against the Bengals in 2021. Their focus will be to get the running game going and make Najee Harris the central character of the game plan. This is going to require a push from the OL to create space for Harris, and first-year runner Jaylen Warren, who will also be given a few carries to spell Harris. The running game doesn’t need to be explosive, just methodic, and enough to control the clock and create 3rd and short situations. If this can be accomplished, then conservative pass plays to the likes of tight end Pat Freiermuth and Diontae Johnson, and even Harris out of the backfield, will be enough to convert and keep the drive going.
Attempting the deep pass could put Mitch Trubisky in danger of sacks, fumbles, or rushed decisions that could result in interceptions, which again points to the importance of generating the running game. If Harris is having an effective day, look for a few deep play action shots to rookie George Pickens, or Johnson.
The Steelers Will Win If…
They take advantage of the Bengals questionable and rebuilt offensive line. This unit allowed 51 sacks last season, and even though they retooled it, it is not strong. Question is, who has the worst OL of the two teams? Watt and Highsmith could have big days.
The Steelers Will Lose If…
The offense looks as bad as it did in 2021 due to the inability to run the ball and pass protect. If it’s more of the same anemic rushing attack, it could be a long day for Trubisky and company.
Ultimately, this game comes down to the trenches and to which offensive line can perform better. It’s hard to go against the defending AFC Champion, though I would not be surprised to see the Steelers pull the upset. At the end of the day, the Steelers keep it close and provide optimism to Steelers Nation for the 2022 season, but it’s not enough.
Bengals win, 23-21.