There’s nothing like a nice deep drink from the desert spring after crawling through the sand for years. And man, when it finally happens, it happens big. Cincinnati’s 41-10 blowout of Pittsburgh felt like a dam bursting. Last season’s upset with Ryan Finley at quarterback was the first crack, which the easy W in week 3 widened. This past Sunday, the river flooded the valley.
I don’t know if these three straight wins and season sweep truly signifies a “changing of the guard,” because the Steelers have been so formidable for so many years and the NFL allows for rapid retrenchment. But with Ben Roethlisberger at last aging out of the league and the myriad other problems exposed by the Men in Stripes, it certainly feels like a down period is upon Pittsburgh, perhaps one they haven’t seen since the late-1980s, when the Boomer Bengals were regularly whipping them.
Perhaps the most relevant thing Sunday was that Cincinnati did whatever it wanted—or rather what they didn’t need to do. So often through the years, the Bengals emptied the bag against Pittsburgh in order to stay competitive, be it trick plays or junk defenses. This time, they barely did anything beyond ram it down the collective throat of the black and gold.
Joe Mixon had a career day: 165 yards and two touchdowns, plus leading a fantastic Temptations homage with the O-line after his second score. For the second straight week, the Bengals ran the wide zone scheme to perfection, with linemen getting to the second level over and over again to open huge cutback lanes for Mixon. The substitution of Hakeem Adeniji for rookie Jackson Carman at right guard may not make the draft look great, but it’s clear he’s more consistent and agile than Carman at the moment. The line is much more in synch with the second-year man in there, and Mixon is the beneficiary.
Mixon is generally considered something of a finesse back, perhaps due to his flamboyance and the slippery nature of his running. But he is a horse and makes defenses give up when the game script allows for fourth quarter runs. He may not be Derrick Henry, but at 225 pounds Mixon is every bit as powerful as Jonathan Taylor or Aaron Jones.
The multiplicity of Cincinnati’s offense was also on display. When Pittsburgh shaded over to Ja’Marr Chase to take away the deep pass, Joe Burrow shrugged its shoulders and said, “Fine, have some Tee Higgins.” The former all-state basketball player outleaped the backup corner he was matched up against, James Pierre, for an easy jump ball TD and accumulated 114 yards overall. Next week, it will be Tyler Boyd or C.J. Uzomah or wherever the matchup dictates. That makes the Bengals a highly dangerous opponent: They’ve established a power rushing identity but can easily flip and go empty and let Burrow dime the defense to death. That’s why the team has topped 30 points in five of the last six weeks.
Defensively, the edge rush combo of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard continues to do an excellent under-the-radar job. They have 17.5 sacks between them, and Hendrickson’s strip-sack that was recovered by Hubbard was emblematic of their play this season. One subtle key: Hendrickson has been regularly subbed out on run downs, in part to keep him fresh and in part because he’s poor against the run. And the tackling issues that plagued the unit in the two-game losing streak appear to have been sorted during the bye week.
Let’s say it again: 41-10 over Pittsburgh! And it wasn’t really that close.
The worry, as it was after the rout of Baltimore earlier this season, is how the team deals with success. In a season when the entire AFC is riding the seesaw, major ups have consistently been followed by big bummers. And, by the way, Cincinnati hasn’t had a three-game winning streak since 2015. The nine times they’ve won back-to-back games since, they’ve lost the third week.
The L.A. Chargers are next, a perfect example of the up and down nature of 2021. They fell to 6-5 after a 4-1 start, losing badly to a similarly ping-ponging Denver team last Sunday. Weirdly, almost every Bengals opponent this season has been coming off a loss; Green Bay and Baltimore are the exceptions. That, of course, makes L.A. dangerous, as does Justin Herbert. Much as Burrow is beloved in Ohio, nationally he takes the silver medal to Herbert and his wow moments. One wonders if the ultra-competitive Burrow is itching to show Herbert exactly why he was the first pick.
It isn’t just Herbert. Mixon is up to No. 5 in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings of running backs; the Chargers bring the fourth-ranked back, Austin Ekeler, to town along with a talented group of pass catchers. But their defense is vulnerable, in particular the run defense (ranked dead last by Football Outsiders), a deficiency which neatly lines up with Cincinnati’s presumed game plan. A ball control attack will have the added benefit of keeping the Bolts’ quick strike offense on the sidelines.
Big picture, Cincinnati’s postseason odds took a sharp upward trajectory after the win on Sunday, rising nearly 18 percent to a 53 percent chance to make the playoffs. The Ravens remain in the catbird seat for the division title, as they continue to pull games out of their collective rear ends. But should Pittsburgh find a way to beat their Baltimore rivals this weekend while Cincinnati wins, that will flip.
It’s all in front of the Bengals now. The schedule ahead is difficult, with the resurgent Niners and Chiefs and return dates with the Ravens and Browns ahead. But Cincinnati has to feel confident about its ability to win in various ways. They have to feel confident that Zac Taylor is finding his stride as a coach and playcaller. And they have to feel confident about the group mentality that’s emerged, the fabled “culture” they bang on about all the time.
If you can sweep the Steelers, anything is possible.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.