When you compare the Cincinnati Bengals and their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is extremely easy to see two teams going in opposite directions. The Bengals are coming off of a Super Bowl season and have many young talents on the roster. At the same time, the Steelers just lost a Hall of Fame quarterback to retirement and are in a bit of a transitionary phase at that position, as well as several others on defense.
However, sleeping on any team coached by Mike Tomlin is a very dangerous proposition, and the Steelers still have talent at every position on the team. Cincinnati had their way with Pittsburgh in 2021, outscoring them 65-20 in their two meetings, but both teams have undergone changes over the offseason and will have the opportunity to learn from those two games. Understanding what the Steelers do well will be crucial if the Bengals hope to pull out a big Week One win and set themselves up for a successful 2022.
The biggest question mark on the Steelers roster going into training camp is undoubtedly the quarterback position, as the team has several options for the starting spot. Most of the first team reps right now are Mitch Trubisky, a free agent pickup from the Bills and the former #2 overall pick by the Bears. Stepping into another starting role seemed to be in the cards for Trubisky after a strong Buffalo reserve duty performance. Still, reports out of camp indicate that he is struggling with accuracy, something his days in Chicago would back up.
Taking the second team reps is rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett from Pittsburgh. Pickett had a fantastic senior season for the Panthers, which ultimately led him to be the first quarterback taken in the draft, but he is not without his own flaws as a quarterback. He lacks the prototypical arm strength of the top quarterbacks in the league today. While some might be able to get away with that (read: Joe Burrow), reporters at Steelers camp say that Pickett has struggled to read defenses and come off his first read, something which hasn’t been a problem for Burrow.
Lastly, we have Mason Rudolph, who has been in Pittsburgh the longest of the three and already has a relationship with the coaching staff. Despite that, he is taking third-team reps, and while he told reporters that he would expect to see first-team reps at some point, that time has yet to come, and most Steelers fans who have watched him play the past three seasons would likely ask for that time to be delayed even further.
So what can the Bengals expect in Week One? Right now, it sounds like Trubisky is the guy most likely to come out of the tunnel with the first team offense in the Jungle. That should bode well for Cincinnati, as Trubisky has never scored higher than the 28th ranked quarterback by PFF in any of his four seasons as a primary starter, with a passing grade that never topped 71.2 (all the way back in his rookie year). That is not to say that Trubisky cannot be a threat; after all, he led a mediocre Bears team to the playoffs twice, and he can be dangerous as a runner if the Bengals don’t keep a defender into a spy. However, Trubisky is a very beatable quarterback, and as long as Cincinnati avoids any major busts, they shouldn’t have many more problems with him than they did with Big Ben last season.
The star of this unit, and arguably the Steelers’ entire offense, is second-year back out of Alabama Najee Harris. Harris had a strong rookie season, rushing for 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns on 3.9 yards per carry, made even more impressive when you see the linemen he had blocking for him. However, despite his physical attributes, Harris is not unbeatable as a runner, as evidenced by his below-average yards per carry and his 71.5 PFF rushing grade (compared to Joe Mixon’s 82.1, for example). Harris is a guy you don’t want to get going, but the Bengals had some luck last year in stifling him early in games and forcing Pittsburgh to pass the ball to win. This year, I could see a similar strategy if they hope to pull off another sweep, starting in Week One.
Outside of Harris, I would expect Pittsburgh to spell their lead guy with a mixture of Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland. Snell is a bruising back who lives by the old “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust” mentality, and while his stats leave something to be desired (only 892 yards, six touchdowns, and 3.5 yards per carry in 3 seasons), there is a reason Pittsburgh has kept him around as their primary backup. Meanwhile, Anthony McFarland is a smaller back that offers a bit more as a receiver, but he is coming off of 2021, which saw him play only two games. I would not anticipate either of these players making a major impact on the Bengals’ strategy for shutting down the run, but they are worth mentioning.
Receivers & Tight Ends
The most well-rounded position on offense for the Steelers is definitely the receiver position, where they have a three-headed monster of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and rookie phenom George Pickens. Starting Johnson, is a player that has seen his production grow in each of his first three seasons, and that is a trend that we can expect to see continue in 2022.
Initially a role player, he is grown into the true top dog in Pittsburgh, and after topping 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in 2021, and with a new contract on the way, he’ll be hungry to continue to ascend as a player. While he initially struggled with drops, he cut that number immensely last season and is a true do-it-all threat as a receiver.
Next in line is Chase Claypool, who is a bit more streaky than Johnson in terms of production. He took a step back his sophomore season after a stellar rookie year and made no friends with some of his on-field antics. Still, he is a force to be reckoned with physically, standing at an imposing 6’4″, 238 pounds, and running a 4.42 40-yard dash. He is definitely not the type of player the Bengals can sleep on, or he will have a big day.
Lastly, Cincinnati will see the NFL debut of George Pickens, the Steelers’ 2022 second-round pick, who is drawing rave reviews in camp with his highlight reel catches. Pickens will be the hardest player of these three to account for due to the lack of tape on him; not only has he never played in the NFL, but he only played twenty games in college, so even his tape from that level is limited. He is another big body guy like Claypool at 6’3″, although not quite as built frame-wise, so being able to disrupt him at the line of scrimmage will be crucial to slow him down.
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2021 for the Steelers was Pat Freiermuth, who stepped into a true TE1 role in the offense as the season progressed and flourished. Despite only starting nine games, he recorded sixty catches and almost 500 yards receiving to go with seven touchdowns, which are great numbers for a rookie tight end, let alone one who was not expected to start in his first year. The Steelers’ passing attack has historically prioritized incorporating the tight ends. While that wavered slightly in the past couple of seasons, it would not be a surprise if they went back to that now that they have a player of Freiermuth’s caliber. He is a guy that Cincinnati will have to account for on every play.
The weakest part of the Steelers offense, even with the question marks at quarterback, is undoubtedly the offensive line, which Bengals fans are very familiar with. Starting at the tackle spots are Dan Moore Jr. and Chukwuma Okorafor, both of whom were major liabilities for Pittsburgh in 2021. This is an area that the Bengals will undoubtedly look to target, as they recorded seven sacks against this team in their two meetings last year. I fully anticipate Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, and Joseph Ossai to be shooting to match that number again.
The line’s interior is better for the Steelers, but there is still nothing to write home about. With Kevin Dotson, Mason Cole, and James Daniels making up the interior, Pittsburgh has a good mix of youth and veteran leadership on the interior. However, outside of Daniels, each player has some major holes in their game. Dotson is a plus pass blocker, grading very well in this area, but is a below-average run blocker. Meanwhile, Cole is a great run blocker in the middle but is a major liability in the passing game. Expect DJ Reader to be lined up over the nose the entire game and to have his way here. If the Bengals want to beat the Steelers, the defensive line must take advantage of their opponent’s major weakness.
Defensive Line & Edge Rushers
Whereas the offensive line is the weakest position for the Steelers, the defensive line and edge rushers are undoubtedly the strongest. That starts in the middle with big Cameron Heyward, who has been a force to be reckoned with ever since he entered the league in 2011. While most players entering their twelfth season would be slowing down, Heyward looks as dominant as ever, notching his second double-digit sack season and third First-Team All-Pro nod in 2021.
Whoever the Bengals have lined up at left guard will have their work cut out for them slowing him down. Opposite Heyward is a familiar face in Larry Ogunjobi, who will be playing for his third AFC North team in as many seasons. Ogunjobi was phenomenal for the Bengals in 2021, recording career highs in sacks (7), QB hits (16), and tackles for a loss (12). While he is coming off of a major injury, if he can play at the level he did for Cincinnati last season, it will be a long day at the office for the Bengals guards.
One cannot begin to talk about the Steelers without mentioning the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, TJ Watt. While the Bengals did an admirable job of shutting him down in the one game he played against them last year, the rest of the league was not so lucky, as he was extremely close to breaking the NFL record for sacks in a season.
Typically lining up on the right side of the line, it will be essential that La’el Collins is back and ready for a battle in Week one, or it can be a long day for Burrow and the offense. One way the Bengals can mitigate the threat is by running the ball as effectively as they did in Week Twelve last season; while Watt is an elite pass rusher, he is only okay in run defense. On the other side of the line is Alex Highsmith, who is no slouch in his own right. Stepping into a starting spot to replace the departed Bud Dupree in 2021, Highsmith recorded six sacks, 15 tackles for a loss, and 15 QB hits, great numbers for a second-year guy coming from a small school in his first year starting. He will likely be lined up on Jonah Williams, and while I like the Bengals side of that matchup, Highsmith can surprise some people if Jonah doesn’t come prepared.
The Steelers linebackers are not what they once were, something they hope to address with the addition of former Jaguar Myles Jack. Jack is coming off of his worst season in 2021, grading miserably as a run defender and not much better in coverage. However, he still shows flashes of the athletic prowess that made him a star in that “Sacksonville” defense all those years ago, so he is a player to gameplan around. Devin Bush, on the other hand, is someone who should strike fear in very few people. He was amongst the worst run defenders in all of football last year and is finding himself being given the cold shoulder in Pittsburgh. After a solid rookie season, he was hurt as a sophomore and fell off considerably in his third year. Bush’s future in Pittsburgh is very much in question, and he is a guy I believe that the Bengals will find success in if they attack his side of the field.
Another area of the Steelers team that is undergoing some transition right now is their secondary. Starting at safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds are still patrolling the defensive backfield for Pittsburgh, with differing results. While Fitzpatrick had what was graded as his worst season in 2021, he is still great in run defense and offers enough athletic upside that I would expect to see his coverage grade rebound from an abysmal season last year. There is a reason he has been a First-Team All-Pro two of his three seasons in Pittsburgh, and he is still someone that Burrow needs to account for on every snap. Meanwhile, Terrell Edmunds had pretty much the opposite 2021; while his run defense grade plummeted to among the league’s worst, his coverage grade stayed above average, an area in which he has improved greatly after a shaky start to his career. While he does not offer Fitzpatrick’s dynamic upside, Edmunds is still a guy that needs to be accounted for on every play.
Rounding out the defense is the cornerback position, where the Steelers are in a state of transition. Gone is Joe Haden, who has been a mainstay in their secondary for the past five seasons, and in comes former Buffalo Bill, Levi Wallace. Wallace has seen his PFF grade decline every year since his rookie campaign, but that does not mean he can be overlooked; he has recorded multiple interceptions for three seasons running and set a new career high in pass breakups in 2021. He is not the flashiest name out there, but he is still someone that needs to be respected. Opposite Wallace is Cameron Sutton, who is entering his sixth season in Pittsburgh and has had flashes of strong play in his career. However, he is coming off his first full season as a starter and was not graded very well, getting below-average marks from PFF for his performance in 2021. Like Wallace, Sutton is a guy that needs to be respected, but I would definitely favor the Bengals side of the matchup given the elite trio of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd.
The Steelers special teams graded about average in 2021, coming in as the 25th ranked unit but overall earning a solid grade of 74.6. In the kicking game, Chris Boswell continues to be a very strong contributor for them, knocking in 90% of his attempts and going 8/9 from beyond 50 yards. However, the other areas of their special teams leave something to be desired. Pressley Harvin was not able to establish himself as a reliable punter the way that Pittsburgh was hoping he would when they drafted him. Meanwhile, their returners leave something to be desired, especially with the departure of Ray-Ray McCloud. However, with the addition of speedster Calvin Austin III in the fourth draft round his year, I would not be surprised at all to see this area of the team rebound.
Evaluating the Steelers on paper and calling this a win for the Bengals may seem easy, but any team coached by Mike Tomlin will always be tough, especially early in the season. The Bengals’ offensive line could still take some time to gel, which could spell big days for guys like Watt, Heyward, and Highsmith. If the Bengals do not come out firing as they did in their Week Twelve matchup last year, I could definitely see the Steelers giving them fits with how well coached they are.
However, I think talent will win out, and the Bengals will find a way to get it done at home. The Bengals’ offensive line is in a transition phase, but the same could be said for many crucial positions on the Steelers roster, most notably the quarterback position. It could be a long day for their opponents if Cincinnati can limit turnovers and force the Steelers to play from behind. Taking out Harris will be crucial to locking up a big divisional win in Week One, and I think the Bengals will get it done.