Steelers at Bengals: 5 things to know about Sunday’s AFC North matchup

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Bengals lost the starting quarterback that helped turn the franchise around for the rest of the season, but they aren’t giving up hopes of making the playoffs just because Joe Burrow is no longer throwing passes.

Bengals players and staff are rallying around Jake Browning with the belief he can still lead a talented squad to victory.

Browning, the former practice squad player and first-year No. 2 quarterback, will get his first NFL start Sunday against Pittsburgh (6-4). Browning replaced Burrow last week at Baltimore after he was sidelined with a torn ligament in his wrist. Browning looks to help Cincinnati (5-5) end a two-game skid and get back above .500.

Here are five things to know about the game:

1. Staying in the hunt

Ideally, the Bengals would have been in a better position at this point before losing their starting quarterback, but at 5-5, they aren’t out of playoff contention, and as offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said, the team has enough talent to get there even without Burrow.

“I very much believe in the players we have,” Callahan said. “I don’t think for one second that we’re not capable of doing that. We’ve got some good, tough teams we’re gonna play, but we’ve got good players everywhere. My expectations haven’t changed for the success I expect us to have.”

The odds aren’t necessarily in their favor of making the playoffs at this point, but five of 12 teams that started 5-5 since 2020 have made the playoffs. Cincinnati is still considered “on the bubble” for the playoffs, sitting in the No. 11 spot in the AFC. Seven teams make the postseason field.

However, the Bengals need a win Sunday against Pittsburgh. CIncinnati hasn’t won an AFC North game yet and still face the Steelers twice and Browns once more.

2. ‘Wait for the show’

Ja’Marr Chase said he told his teammates to make the most of reps with Browning during training camp when Burrow was out with a calf injury, in case the Bengals were going to need to turn to him. At the time, Chase wasn’t sure Burrow would start the season.

Those training camp reps proved helpful in providing a base of understanding between the receivers and Browning, as they began to build chemistry they now will be trying to rekindle. The end of the Ravens’ game last week was a sign it hasn’t been lost – when Browning connected with Chase on a 2-yard fade to the pylon. That should help Browning.

“We worked that this offseason a little bit, and actually, we had a little trouble with that route and it showed,” Chase said. “(On the touchdown we had) good timing, ran a good route, perfect throw. Just timing. It goes back to the offseason. I’m glad we attacked those days when we had the opportunity.”

Chase believes he can make plenty more of those plays with Browning, just like he was known to do with Burrow.

“We’ll show y’all this week,” Chase said. “Wait for the show.”

3. Defense ready to step up

Pittsburgh fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada on Tuesday, but linebacker Logan Wilson said the defense isn’t expecting any major changes.

The Steelers have struggled with their passing game behind Kenny Pickett so the running game has been its strong suit with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren combining to help them average 110.1 rushing yards per game. The Bengals rank 31st in rushing yards allowed per game (138.3).

“Obviously we know losing a guy like Joe is a big, big change, best quarterback in the league, so we know it’s gonna be tough,” safety Jordan Battle said. “We know we got to go out there and do whatever we can help the offense whether that’s creating good field position, whether that’s getting off the field early, so those things are going to be good for us and we accept the challenge as a defense.”

4. Tough test for Browning

Browning’s first start comes against a strong defensive front, led by T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, who are both capable pass rushers. Watt has 11.5 sacks this season, and the Bengals can’t just focus on doubling up on him because the Steelers have three or four other capable rushers.

The key for Browning will be making reads quickly and not holding onto the ball, The Steelers have strong defenders in the secondary capable of making things difficult on the receivers trying to get open. Joey Porter Jr. is expected to shadow Chase. Fellow cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace lead the team with nine passes defended.

“I think a lot of their stuff just starts with the front four,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “… We know Larry (Ogunjobi) and everybody knows TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith, and Cam Hayward’s been there for what feels like forever. And they’ve always played at a very high level, and I think they kind of set the tone really for the whole team, just creating so many negative plays, causing a lot of turnovers, rushing quarterbacks into their reads.”

5. Two other starters out

Browning won’t have all of his weapons available. Wide receiver Tee Higgins remains out with a hamstring injury that has sidelined him two games already, and the defense will be missing cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who is out with a bruised thigh.

Trenton Irwin has been starting in Higgins’ place, and rookie wide receiver Andrei Iosivas is back healthy from a knee injury. However, the Bengals have been counting on Taylor-Britt while DJ Turner and Chidobe Awuzie have been splitting reps on the other side. Awuzie has been slowly working back from his 2022 ACL tear and a recent back injury, which has given Turner a chance to get some starts as a rookie. Now Cincinnati will need both players to step up.

Cincinnati also was missing linebacker Germaine Pratt on Friday because of illness, and he is questionable, as is running back Chase Brown, who was designated for return from injured reserve this week.

Pittsburgh will be without two starters — safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) and defensive tackle Montravius Adams (ankle). Backup cornerback James Pierre (shoulder) is questionable.


Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7

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