Bengals at Steelers: 5 storylines to watch in today’s AFC North matchup

The Cincinnati Bengals beat one first-place team two weeks ago, amid injuries and illness. Now they seek to do it again and hand the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers their first loss – this time after two positive COVID-19 tests led to seven players being withheld from practices this week.

Cincinnati comes off a bye, which followed a win over AFC South-leading Tennessee on Nov. 1, ready to take on the last team in the league standing without a loss. The Bengals (2-5-1) play Pittsburgh (8-0) at 4:25 p.m. today at Heinz Field.

The Steelers, who also had five players go on the Reserve/COVID-19 list this week, own a 10-game winning streak in the series against the Bengals, but Cincinnati will try to beat the odds to earn their first win against the rival since 2015.

Here are five storylines to watch going into Sunday’s game:

1. COVID-19 takes a toll

The Bengals announced two players had tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 6 and then put offensive tackle Fred Johnson and cornerback Trae Waynes (injured) on the Reserve/COVID list later that day. Over the next few days, cornerback Mackensie Alexander, defensive lineman Margus Hunt, linebacker Jordan Evans and practice squad cornerbacks Winston Rose and Brian Allen joined the list. Alexander and Evans were “close contact” designations and were cleared from the list Wednesday.

On the other side, Pittsburgh also was impacted by a COVID-19 positive Tuesday when tight end Vance McDonald went on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. On Wednesday, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker Vince Williams, offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins and running back Jaylen Samuels went on the list as “close contact” considerations.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said he expected Roethlisberger to be cleared Saturday, but regardless of who is cleared, both teams have been impacted in terms of their preparation while in intense NFL protocols that required more virtual meetings and changed practice structures. The Bengals entire defensive back room was held from practice Wednesday.

“Just more adversity for us to handle,” quarterback Joe Burrow said. “I think we are gonna handle it well. We have Zoom meetings and they are staggering us into the building for practice. It’s just more adversity for us.”

2. Injuries

Cincinnati will be without at least five players not on the COVID list, and running back Joe Mixon (foot) is doubtful after not practicing all week.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is out for what coach Zac Taylor said is a personal matter, as Atkins was absent from practice all week. Right tackle Bobby Hart (knee) and cornerback Darius Phillips (groin) remain out after suffering injuries in the last two games. Cornerback LeShaun Sims (concussion) was added to the injury report Friday after suffering a concussion in practice Thursday, and wide receiver John Ross is unavailable now because of a foot injury.

Left tackle Jonah Williams is questionable as he tries to return from a stinger, but Taylor said he was pleased with Williams' progress and seemed hopeful he would be available, especially with the right tackle position up in the air with Hart out and Johnson on the COVID list.

Cincinnati will be shorthanded in the secondary with Phillips and Sims – the top two players at the left cornerback spot – out and two practice squad guys unavailable to be called up, but Taylor said the Bengals will have enough to play. Tony Brown is the backup at right cornerback, behind William Jackson.

3. Watch for the blitz

Burrow comes into this matchup better prepared for the blitz than he was when he faced a similar Baltimore Ravens defense in Week 5 and was sacked seven times.

Pittsburgh has a front seven that poses a lot of challenges, and that’s a big part of why the Steelers rank fourth in points allowed (20.1 ppg) and net defense (allowing 317.4 yards per game). Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have combined for 13 sacks in eight games, and defensive ends Stephon Tuitt (six sacks) and Cameron Heyward (two sacks) add to the pass rush.

Burrow said he learned from the Baltimore game tat he needs to get the ball out of his hands quicker and doesn’t need a big play on every snap. That applies this week, too.

“They are very different schematically,” Burrow said of how Pittsburgh’s blitz compares to Baltimore’s. “They both bring a lot of pressure, that’s the one similarity. I’m sure they are gonna watch that game and think they can heat me up and expect me to make some mistakes when I get pressured. But that’s something I just can’t do and I’m looking forward to this game.”

Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who grew up in Pittsburgh and turns 26 on Sunday, said Pittsburgh’s secondary is not as strong as the Ravens' so he hopes to take advantage of some weaknesses there.

“They use safeties to cover sometimes in the nickel, so I’ll have a few mismatches out there in terms of them keep trying to send nickel pressure and different stunts like that,” Boyd said. “We just gotta take advantage every time we pick up the blitzes.”

4. Challenge on defense

Roethlisberger doesn’t move as well as he once did, now at age 38 and coming off knee injuries, but he’s still running the Steelers offense smoothly. He gets the ball out quicker than any other quarterback in the league, according to NFL Next Gen Stats listing him at a 2.21-second release time, and also has James Conner to hand off to, as Conner has rushed for 520 yards this season.

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said the key is just to do whatever possible to impact the throw, such as trying to bat the ball down at the line of scrimmage and at least getting pressure on Roethlisberger even if it doesn’t result in a sack. Pittsburgh, led up front by center Maurkice Pouncey and tackles Alejandro Villanueva and Chukwama Okorafor, has allowed just 10 sacks this season.

Pittsburgh’s weapons in the receiving corps are different from the past, though JuJu Smith-Schuster is still there, but the offense is still a top group of players, Hubbard said. The Steelers rank fifth in scoring offense.

“They’ve got a great tradition,” Hubbard said. “They work well togther. They’ve got some veteran guys. They do a lot of really good things. They’re led by (Maurkice) Pouncey at the center position and it doesn’t really seem to matter who they plug in, they’re going to do what they do and they do it well. They’re not going to change for us, it’s up to us to play our game and stop them.”

5. Starting off strong

The Bengals want to get the second half of the season off to a good start and show they are a better team than their record indicates. Four of their losses were by five points or less, they also tied Philadelphia and collected a notable win over Tennessee, which was 5-1 at the time.

Burrow and the offense continued to get better throughout the first half of the season, but the defense especially needs to show more consistency to give the Bengals more chances at wins.

“We definitely have to finish better defensively and when we do get off the field, even if we get put back in those situations, where it’s a turnover or a sudden-change situation, … we have to hold the team to three points or no points and get a turnover,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “Those things are going to come about in the second half of the season even more, especially toward the back half of this season, because those are the things that are going to come down to wins and losses in these games. Pretty much we already went through all that in the first half of the season. They’re going to pop up again in the second half and we have to finish so much better.”

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