Bengals at Steelers: 5 things to know about Sunday’s game

The Cincinnati Bengals went into the bye on a positive note and now are hoping to keep that momentum going into the second half of the season.

That starts Sunday at Pittsburgh (3-6), where the Bengals (5-4) will be looking for their first AFC North win.

ExploreBengals tackle 'in a way better spot' in second matchup with Steelers' Watt

Cincinnati squandered away chances in the first matchup with the Steelers in the season opener when Joe Burrow threw four interceptions as part of five turnovers and Evan McPherson had a PAT blocked and missed a 29-yard field goal in a 23-20 overtime loss.

The Bengals have been much more efficient offensively in recent weeks and are coming off a 42-21 win over the Panthers in Week 9.

Here are five things to know about the matchup:

1. Avoiding turnovers

Burrow said he won’t be throwing four interceptions this time around. He was at a loss for words after his performance in the first game, having never turned the ball over so many times in one game. Last year, he threw three picks in a Week 2 loss at Chicago but even in his shortened rookie season, he never had multiple interceptions in a game.

The third-year quarterback had missed the first three weeks of training camp because of an appendectomy and his slow start to the season may have been impacted by less time to prepare.

“Just healthier, for one,” Burrow said. “I’m not coming off an appendix surgery. I’m just going to be smarter with the ball, I’m not going to throw four interceptions. That’s an outlier for me. So, that’s my plan going in.”

2. Stopping the run

The Steelers leaned more on the running game in their win over the Saints last week, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that trend continues. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has struggled with eight interceptions in five games, and many had expected Pittsburgh to utilize Najee Harris more this year than it has so far.

Harris had a season-high 99 yards on 20 carries against New Orleans, and Pickett added 51 yards rushing. Jay Warren had nine carries for 37 yards.

“I feel like (Warren) is a one-cut explosive guy, and he’s a low-to-the-ground, good center of gravity, so he’s a hard guy to tackle,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “… So I think they really have a good combination with we all know what Najee Harris is capable of. And then this young guy (Pickett) and Warren adding that extra element, I think it helps.”

Of course, the Bengals should be getting a boost in their run defense, which would help. They are expected to have DJ Reader back after a full week of practice for the first time since he went on injured reserve with a knee injury.

3. Challenges up front

Burrow’s turnovers weren’t the only issue in the opener. He also was sacked seven times by a dominant Pittsburgh pass rush. The Bengals offensive linemen believe they are better prepared this time around.

Rookie Cordell Volson got off to a rough start trying to block Cam Heyward in the first matchup and allowed two sacks, and right tackle La’el Collins was rocked by outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Alex Highsmith blew by Jonah Williams for two of his three sacks.

Bengals coaches praised Volson’s development over the past eight games since then, and Collins is no longer dealing with the back pain he was playing through at the beginning of the season. The line as a whole seems to have jelled into a more cohesive unit.

“The challenge with Pittsburgh is they’ve got two (good ends),” Taylor said. “… You’ve got Watt, Highsmith and the interior players starting with Larry (Ogunjobi) and Cam, that are two premiere players. When you just focus on one side or one person it allows for a lot of opportunities from those other guys. That’s the stress that Pittsburgh puts on you is that they have a great front. That’s got to be the focus helping your team schematically, your quarterback play is part of that, running the ball, being able to throw the ball and stressing the secondary, it all plays into it.”

4. Special teams attention

Taylor said Friday no decision had been made yet on whether Drue Chrisman will replace Kevin Huber as punter, but both were preparing as though they would be playing.

Huber said it’s no secret he’s been struggling and it hasn’t been a great year for him; however, he knows he can still punt because he sees it daily in practice. For whatever reason, what he does in practice hasn’t been translating into games.

“It’s really not trying to change anything (mechanically),” Huber said. “It’s trying to apply in a game what I’m doing in practice. It’s like two different punters right now. For whatever reason, I’m getting into a game, and it’s sometimes survival mode and I’m not trusting what I’m doing in practice. It’s just a little bit of a disconnect right now, mentally, and carrying it over to the game.”

Chrisman has been on the practice squad all season, an unusual way to use a spot unless there are expectations a change might be needed. Chrisman was elevated to the active roster on Saturday.

The Bengals also might be without their kick returner, and Evan McPherson will be trying to bounce back from two straight games with missed field goal attempts. Return specialist Chris Evans remains questionable with a PCL injury in his knee, and Brandon Wilson was not expected to be ready after returning to practice for the first time in 2022 since a late-2021 ACL tear.

5. Other injuries to watch

Safety Dax Hill (shoulder), wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (hip) and defensive tackle Josh Tupou (calf) are all out for Sunday’s game, and Evans and cornerback Tre Flowers (hamstring) are questionable. Hill was injured in the win over Carolina in Week 9, but the Bengals have been without Chase for two games and Tupou for even longer.

Pittsburgh had a long list of players on its injury reports this week but only has cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (hamstring) listed as out and no one else is even questionable.

Most notably, the Steelers are getting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick back from an appendectomy that sidelined him last week. Burrow joked he should take another week off, but Fitzpatrick was a full participant in practices Thursday and Friday.

The Steelers had opened the week with linebackers Marcus Allen (illness) and Devin Bush (knee) out of practice, along with offensive linemen Kevin Dotson (hip) and Trent Scott (back), Ogunjobi (knee) and Witherspoon. Everyone except Witherspoon was a full participant by Friday.

SUNDAY’S GAME

Bengals at Steelers, 4:25 p.m., Ch. 7, 12; 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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