There is nothing quite like winning the game before the bye week and then getting to watch the rest of the NFL play on Sunday in comfort, without the usual gameday gnawing fear of defeat, injury, and humiliation for our Bengals. Wait, why are we fans again?
Actually, after Cincinnati’s romp over Tennessee a week and a half ago, I’m dying for Joe Burrow and Co. to return to the pitch. And since this is Steelers Week, I’m even more anxious to see what the Bengals’ prize rookie quarterback will do against our traditional rival and longtime bete noire from Western Pennsylvania. If Burrow can reverse the decades-long trend of painful and gut-wrenching losses to the boys in black and gold, he will earn the undying gratitude of all Bengals fans, regardless of anything else he accomplishes on the field.
It’s never easy, of course. Remember last season, when the Steelers swept Cincinnati with the dreaded Mason Rudolph/Devlin “Duck” Hodges combo at qurterback? But this season’s vintage of Iron City is particularly harsh. Pittsburgh comes in undefeated at 8-0, somehow winning in Dallas last Sunday despite the annual massive letdown performance that is a Mike Tomlin speciality. The question hanging over the game from Pittsburgh’s POV is: Whither Ben Roethlisberger? He was banged up in Big D, though he finished the game, and earlier this week he was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list, further clouding his availability.
Indeed, both teams are battling virus outbreaks. The Bengals have five players on the positive list, including already-injured corner Trae Waynes, O-lineman Fred Johnson, slot corner Mackensie Alexander, linebacker Jordan Evans, and our old buddy defensive tackle Margus Hunt. Pittsburgh also has a number of positive cases, which means Sunday’s game, already bumped to 4:25 p.m. by the NFL, may still be moved to early next week or, in the nightmare scenario, canceled outright. This season was always going to be a tricky one, and for the most part the NFL has powered through the pandemic—but for the first time the Bengals are bumping up against the 2020 “Troubles.” It probably won’t be the last.
Assuming it goes on as (or close to) scheduled, the Steelers will be a formidable opponent, especially their defense. The closest analogue thus far was the Baltimore game, and we know what happened there: The Ravens blitzed Burrow into submission, the lone blot on his otherwise sterling resume. Blitzburgh has been the league’s top pass rush for a couple of seasons, basically since adding T.J. Watt to the roster. They’re right at the top in sacks once more, and only Washington has a higher Adjusted Sack Rate. Overall, the Steelers also rank second in defensive DVOA (Tampa, mainly due to a much tougher schedule, is a smidge better), and only the Bucs have forced more turnovers (16 to 15).
Cincinnati’s makeshift O-line turned in a remarkable performance against the Titans, but this is an entirely different animal. Even solid Bengals lines have caved in under Pittsburgh’s relentless pressure. Burrow will have to reach deep into his bag of magical dark arts to survive this one.
The other main difference between the two teams comes in run defense. Cincinnati is in a familiar spot, dead last in Adjusted Line Yards and near the bottom in most other categories. Fortunately, the Steelers have been pretty meh thus far running the ball, ranking just 22nd in that category by DVOA. Meanwhile they’re second in defensive ALY (again, trailing only Tampa). If there is a weakness in Pittsburgh, it’s when that tough front seven is somehow pierced. The Steelers are 29th in a stat we at Football Outsiders call Open Field Yards, which measures how many yards are piled up when the back gets into the secondary. (The Bengals are 30th, to provide context.) Of course, the hard part is breaking into the secondary in the first place.
Look for Cincinnati to run it over the left side, whether or not Jonah Williams returns from his bad neck, since the Steelers have a small sample size Achilles heel stopping runs in that direction. While we have Pittsburgh ranking tops in stopping runs charted as up the middle or off right tackle, they are 30th in runs charted as going left (the defensive right). Watt and planet-eating defensive lineman Cam Heyward generally line up on the defensive left, which might explain some of that funky stat.
Zac Taylor talked earlier this week about the self-scouting and scheme adjustment ritual performed by the coaches during the bye week. Last season during the bye week, the staff tore up the zone blocking playbook they installed upon taking over and replaced it with a “pin and pull” system that worked far more effectively. One imagines that this year’s offensive overhaul might concentrate on the red zone, where the Bengals rank 26th in touchdown percentage, albeit with a bullet: Over the last three games the team is 12th in that number. Given the team’s futility in one-score games over the past two seasons, those four-point plays are ultra-critical, and continuing the upward trajectory will be crucial to the team’s success in the second half.
After Sunday, the schedule provides a break, with the NFC East tragic trio of New York, Washington, and Dallas along with the suddenly frisky Dolphins (where Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa get to go head to head once again), before the rematch with the Steelers in (gulp) primetime. Dates with the Texans and Ravens complete the schedule. All of these encounters provide challenges, but if the Bengals have actually turned the corner and are prepared to mount a challenge in 2021, then a strong finish would be a good indicator. Going 4-4 in the season’s back half should be the minimum acceptable achievement.
By that logic, Sunday will provide an early first glimpse of 2021, provided the game gets played, of course. Endless monkeying with the schedule due to COVID is surely something none of us want to endure next season.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.