The Cincinnati Bengals attempt to climb into rare territory during an AFC North showdown with the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals (6-4) have a shot at a sweep of the season series from the in-division rival for the first time since 2009.
Thanks to a home win in December 2020, and a 24-10 victory over the Steelers (5-4-1) earlier this season, Cincinnati is positioned to win a third in a row against Pittsburgh.
That hasn’t happened since the late 1980s, when the Bengals won six straight over the Steelers from 1988-90. Cincinnati is currently second in the AFC North and No. 5 in the AFC.
“I really don’t care about the next three weeks, it’s just this week,” said Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor. “It’s Pittsburgh. I know our city is going to be (pumped) up for this one.”
The Steelers are all sorts of motivated.
Pittsburgh saw a five-game unbeaten streak end on Sunday night in a 41-37 loss at the Los Angeles Chargers. The Bengals controlled the line of scrimmage in the first meeting, much the same way Los Angeles did in Week 11.
The Steelers played both of those games without standout linebacker T.J. Watt (hip/knee), and limped into last week without cornerback Joe Haden (foot), safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (Reserve/COVID-19) and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk (groin).
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he expects all four to be available Sunday in Cincinnati, but only Watt and Loudermilk were limited participants on Wednesday. Haden did not participate, and Fitzpatrick remained on the COVID list. In addition, tight end Eric Ebron (knee), and a pair of offensive linemen — J.C. Hassenauer (pectoral) and Tral Turner (knee) — were also out.
“This is a big week for us,” said Tomlin. “We’re not going to play it cool and pretend like it’s not or downplay it. This is significant AFC North football for us.”
The AFC North remains bunched with every game offering a potentially huge opportunity to swing the standings. Baltimore (7-3) leads, but the Bengals, Steelers, and Cleveland (6-5) all remain in the hunt.
“You got to go on the road and win games in this division,” Tomlin said. “The sugar on top is obviously earlier in the season, they were able to come into our place and win.”
If the Steelers want to reverse the outcome, they’ll have to do more to help Ben Roethlisberger. The 39-year-old quarterback threw for 318 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati in the first matchup, but was also harassed into four sacks and two interceptions as he threw it 57 times. Running back Najee Harris (685 rushing yards, five TDs) will also need to be more of a factor.
So will the defense. The Bengals are balanced with second-year quarterback Joe Burrow getting all of his weapons — from rookie receiver Ja’Marr Chase (42 for 867 yards, eight TDs) to experienced running back Joe Mixon (759 rushing yards, nine TDs) — involved. This time, however, he’ll have to contend with Watt (12.5 sacks).
“(In the first meeting) the defense played great, we ran the ball and were efficient,” Burrow said. “But they didn’t have T.J. Watt. … It’ll be a different game.”
Cincinnati snapped a two-game slide with a definitive win at Las Vegas (32-13) last week. Burrow threw the ball just 18 times, for 172 yards and three touchdowns, as the Bengals leaned on Mixon and their defense to blow the game open in the second half.
“We can do a lot of different things and win games in different ways,” Burrow said.
The Bengals will enter in good shape, with only WR Auden Tate (thigh) listed a non-participant during Wednesday’s practice
Roethlisberger shook off a one-week stay on the Reserve/COVID 19 list and was sharp last week against the Chargers (273 yards, three TDs) while hitting eight different receivers. A similar approach will be needed again, he said.
“A lot of people got involved,” said Roethlisberger. “We had a lot of different guys catch touchdowns. We did a little bit of a no-huddle type thing. It’s something to build on.”