Still searching for their first win, the Cincinnati Bengals catch the Pittsburgh Steelers at an ideal time to try to turn the tables on a lopsided rivalry.
The Steelers already shelved Ben Roethlisberger with a season-ending elbow injury ahead of the first matchup with the Bengals, but now they also will be without their best receiver, running back and their starting center when they come to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
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It’s as good a time as any for the Bengals (0-10) to end a nine-game losing streak in the series with Pittsburgh (5-5). Here are five storylines to watch:
1. Missing key players
Pittsburgh had some extra time to rest up and prepare after last playing a Thursday night game in Week 11; however, the Steelers got back to work with eight players either not participating or limited in practice Wednesday, which is the first day of the week teams are required to submit an injury report.
By Friday, that list was whittled down to four, but the absences were notable. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is out with a concussion and knee injury, running back James Conner is sidelined with a shoulder injury and center Maurkice Pouncey was suspended for his part in a brawl that involved Browns defensive end Myles Garrett hitting Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph. Cornerback Artie Burns (knee) is doubtful.
The Bengals’ defense especially will be looking to take advantage of Rudolph’s biggest assets being unavailable. Pittsburgh’s offense hasn’t been unstoppable by any means this year, but the Steelers scored 27 on the Bengals in the previous matchup, which was Rudolph’s third career appearance.
Conner has 309 yards and four touchdowns, and Smith-Schuster leads the team with 524 yards receiving and three scores.
2. Avoiding loss No. 11
The Bengals matched the franchise’s longest losing streak and worst start to a season last week when they fell to Oakland, but a loss Sunday would establish new lows.
Cincinnati has lost 12 straight dating back to last season and also has lost nine straight in the series with Pittsburgh, which owns a 65-35 record all-time against the Bengals.
When asked this week what the first win would feel like, coach Zac Taylor said it would be somewhat relieving.
“You feel for the staff and the players that put in all the work,” Taylor said. “‘Paid off’ isn’t the word I want to use. Just all the things you fight for, you get that moment of post-game (celebration). We haven’t gotten that feel yet. Yeah, I talk about that often and very much look forward to what that will feel like post-game here at home, especially.”
3. Turnovers make a difference
Turnovers will be key in this matchup, as the Steelers rank second in the league with a plus-9 turnover margin, and the Bengals are 30th with a minus-11 margin.
Cincinnati’s defense has accounted for just nine turnovers, but three of those have come in the last two games.
“They are battling, they are playing hard, starting to get turnovers now and we are starting to take advantage of the turnovers,” defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. “You look back versus Jacksonville and the Rams, we had four or five balls right in our hands. So, we’ve had opportunities and now we are kind of taking advantage of it and that has to continue if you want to be where you want to be on defense.”
While the defense has seen some improvement, the offense hasn’t been much better controlling possession. Nine of the offense’s 20 turnovers have occurred in the last three games. Rookie quarterback Ryan Finley threw one interception and fumbled once in each of the last two games.
4. Getting the ball to T.B.
Tyler Boyd expressed some frustration this week because of the lack of targets he got in the loss at Oakland when Finley looked to pass to him just three times, and Finley acknowledged he needs to give him more opportunities.
The team’s top receiver finished with one reception for zero yards but was most disappointed he didn’t get a chance to try to make a play on the crucial fourth-and-4 play late in the game when Finley overthrew rookie Damion Willis.
Boyd has 58 catches for 598 yards and one touchdown this season and will be looking for a big game against his hometown team Sunday. He caught three passes for 33 yards in the last meeting.
5. Run, run, pass
The Bengals’ running game has made strides in recent weeks, which they hope to continue against a Pittsburgh defense that allows 105.2 rushing yards per game (ranked 15th in the league). However, for the ground attack to continue to be successful, the Bengals also need to be able to do more in the passing game, which has dwindled with Finley.
Taylor is hoping the insertion of left tackle Cordy Glenn into the lineup for the first time this season will make a difference especially in the pass protection, as the Bengals had been relying on a third- and fourth-string tackle to this point. Glenn suffered a concussion in the preseason and took an extensive time returning to game condition with the added delay of an internal disciplinary issue that seemed to put him in the dog house for a few weeks.
Glenn is expected to start Sunday. The Bengals rank in a tie for 29th with 36 sacks allowed. The Steelers’ defense ranks fourth with 34 sacks this season.
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