The Bengals’ Stars Align for Steelers Week

After cleaning up in Las Vegas, Cincinnati aims for a rare season sweep of its hated black and gold rivals.

Ahhh, there’s nothing like a cleansing trip to the desert to cure a team of the vapors. After a long month of waiting and a seemingly endless bye week, the Bengals at last got back in the win column Sunday in Las Vegas. For all of you who traveled to Sin City for the game, congrats, and I hope you did as well at the tables as the Bengals did on the atrocious Allegiant Stadium field—they would’ve been better off playing on the thin green felt of the local craps game at the Bellagio.

Hopefully Joe Mixon got comped with a free room and breakfast after carrying the offensive load in the 32-13 win (a deceptive scoreline that flattered the Bengals, but deserved nonetheless). Not only did Mixon have the wherewithal to change cleats to better handle the ripped-up sod in Vegas, he (and Zac Taylor) kept pounding away at the Raiders defense until it caved in. Meow Mix had 30 carries for 123 yards, many of the sledgehammer variety, including one angry run in which he blasted teammate Ja’Marr Chase as well as a half-dozen potential tacklers before finally being hog-wrestled to the ground. He also scored twice, including the put-away TD on a beautiful cutback zone run in the fourth quarter, when the Cincinnati game plan of hammering until the walls fell at last paid off.

Meanwhile, the defense, so shoddy in consecutive losses before the break, returned to form against the rudderless Raiders. The tone was set on the opening drive, when a Joe Burrow fumble set up the former Oaklanders (and Los Angelenos, for that matter) inside the 10-yard line. Three nothing plays later, the Raiders settled for a field goal, and Cincinnati’s maligned defenders had made a statement: “We’re back, baby!”

Other than a zippy drive when the Bengals forgot to cover the opposing tight ends, Cincinnati throttled the Raiders in all areas of the field. Jessie Bates, who was appropriately self-critical of his play before the game, was everywhere, especially in breaking up the Vegas screen game. The pass coverage overall was sticky and airtight. D.J. Reader continued his phenomenal season, gumming up the middle of the field. And ends Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard had excellent games, especially Hub, who would have capped a superb all-around effort with a touchdown return of a fumble had he not run out of gas around the 20-yard line late in the game. It was the only time his motor stalled all day.

About the only negative last Sunday was the fact that both the Browns and Ravens somehow squeaked out narrow wins over scrub teams while playing poorly; nevertheless, the overall results pushed the Bengals squarely back into the playoff picture after tumbling from first to 10th in the AFC over two weeks. At the moment Cincinnati is sixth overall and second in the AFC North. Their playoff odds rose 11 points to 35.3%, according to Football Outsiders, which puts them just ahead of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Baltimore’s incredible knack for pulling games out of its collective rear end has them as close to a postseason lock as any team for the moment.

As for those aforementioned lads from Pittsburgh, yes, it’s Steelers Week once more, which when combined with Thanksgiving Week makes us all pray the Bengals aren’t turned into turkeys this coming Sunday afternoon. The two teams are locked together in the efficiency rankings—by Football Outsiders DVOA, Cincinnati is 21st overall, Pittsburgh 22nd. Contrary to public opinion about the respective units, the Bengals offense ranks behind Pittsburgh’s dink-and-dunk attack, while Cincinnati’s defense is considerably ahead of the black-and-gold, ranking 15th to the Steelers’ 25th. Overall, both squads are mediocre when it comes to down-to-down competence.

The Pittsburgh defense, alas, seems to be getting healthy in time for this game. T.J. Watt, who didn’t play back in September when the Bengals ended Pittsburgh’s 75-game sack streak, is expected back from injury. Watt, obviously, is a game-wrecker; hopefully he won’t be quite as spry as usual coming off the knee and ankle ouchies that kept him out of last weekend’s loss to the Chargers. The top players in the Steelers secondary, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden, also look to be back, so the blown coverages that allowed Justin Herbert to rack up the passing yards in Sunday night’s wild 41-37 win aren’t likely to be as prevalent. And somehow the Goliath in the middle, Cam Heyward, wasn’t suspended for bludgeoning Herbert in the labonza, meaning he’ll be out there testing the Bengals interior line as well.

Cincinnati clubbed Pittsburgh in the first game mainly by taking away any pass beyond five yards and tackling extremely well. These qualities were both on display in the Las Vegas game, after taking a hiatus for a few weeks. Presuming the Jets/Browns double whammy was the exception to the rule, the Bengals should have success in taking away explosion plays from the limited Steelers offense. Najee Harris is a load to bring down, but he’s averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, and stopping the run has been Cincinnati’s strength all season (except for the Browns game).

The Bengals haven’t swept the season series from the Steelers since 2009—remember the Bernard Scott kick return TD game? They haven’t won three straight over their arch-rivals since winning six in a row way back in the 1988-90 glory days. Prior to last season’s Monday Night Stunner, Cincinnati had lost seven straight at Paul Brown Stadium to the hated team from Western PA, and since 1991 Pittsburgh remains an otherworldly 26-6 in games played in the Queen City. In other words, regardless of personnel and momentum, there is utterly no reason to feel confident of victory on Sunday.

Except for the idea that, if this version of the Stripes is truly different, if Joey B. is truly the Promised One, if Zac can actually be the emerging coach he seems to be, then the worm has turned in the rivalry and the Bengals should be able to win as home favorites over an opponent it’s objectively better than. Bad juju (and JuJu, though Smith-Schuster is out for the season) has always accompanied this particular fixture in the schedule, but I’m hoping there’s an exorcist wearing No. 9 in the Bengals huddle.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and may your leftovers remain tasty until Sunday!

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.

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