The undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers return home to host the Cincinnati Bengals for the first of two meetings this season. Last year, Pittsburgh swept both games with a 27-3 win at home followed by a 16-10 victory on the road. They have won 10 in a row in this series with the last loss coming back in 2015. Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges were the signal-callers for the Steelers last year in those victories.
The Steelers (8-0) needed a comeback and what some may label a few questionable calls in their favor to knock off the awful Cowboys 24-19 on the road. Ben Roethlisberger threw for more than 300 yards despite leaving the game briefly with a knee injury, and the defense got the stops when it needed to. The run game was a massive disappointment, managing just 46 yards on 18 carries. James Conner averaged just 2.4 yards per carry as Pittsburgh clearly didn't put forth its best effort against lowly Dallas.
The Bengals are 2-5-1 and are coming off their bye week. Two weeks ago, they beat the Titans at home 31-20 as Joe Burrow went his first NFL game without a sack behind an offensive line that looked entirely different from the group that started back in Week 1. There was hope that Joe Mixon, who has missed the past two games with a toe injury, would be able to return after the bye, but that seems unlikely after missing practice this week. Cincinnati will need all hands on deck to pick up a victory on Sunday.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 15 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -7.5
Three Things to Watch
I think we will see a much more focused effort from Pittsburgh after last week's lackluster performance against Dallas. For one, the Steelers are back home and there is no look-ahead situation either with a road trip to Jacksonville up next. Additionally, Pittsburgh's schedule gets tougher in a few weeks, starting with Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, followed by a trip to Buffalo in Week 14. Meanwhile, did Cincinnati lose any momentum from its win over Tennessee two weeks ago? Some teams would not have wanted a bye after that game, but it did give the team a chance to get healthier and potentially install some new plays for Joe Burrow. Next week, the Bengals are on the road against Washington followed by home against the Giants, so momentum could be had for this young team.
2. Keeping Burrow upright
As mentioned earlier, the Bengals' offensive line finally kept their rookie quarterback's jersey clean in the win over the Titans two weeks ago. I pointed out in that preview how awful Tennessee's pass rush was, and it showed in that game. On Sunday, we'll really see how far Cincinnati's front line has come against the NFL's No. 1 pass rush. Pittsburgh has a league-best 32 sacks, along with 41 QB hurries and 96 pressures. It's somewhat fitting that the Steelers only got Dallas' Garrett Gilbert (fourth QB for the Cowboys this season) just twice considering their overall lackluster performance. T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Stephon Tuitt have combined for 19 sacks with eight others chipping in at least one, so Burrow will be in for a different kind of experience in the pocket on Sunday.
3. Who gets their run game going?
Piggybacking on to the previous item, if the Bengals can run the ball effectively that will help keep the Steelers honest when it comes to the pass rush. The problem there is that it does not appear that Joe Mixon will be able to return from his toe injury meaning the workload will fall to Giovani Bernard once again. Bernard has totaled 99 rushing yards in the two games Mixon has missed (although he's added 75 receiving and scored three total touchdowns in that same span), and it's not going to be any easier for him going up against a Pittsburgh run defense that's ninth in the league at 103 yards per game allowed. Meanwhile, running the ball figures to be more of a focus for the Steelers after such a pitiful showing last week in Dallas. James Conner has not cracked the 100-yard mark in his last three games. Cincinnati is 29th against the run (144.3 ypg), so if there's a time for Conner and Benny Snell Jr. to get their groove back on the ground, this would appear to be the game, especially with Roethlisberger nicked up. He's officially on the reserve/COVID-19 list as of Friday, so he hasn't been able to practice but the expectation is that he will be cleared in time to start on Sunday. If not, Mason Rudolph would take his place and lead what would likely be a run-heavy offensive game plan.
I wish this game was in Cincinnati because I'd have picked the Bengals. The Steelers are a bit vulnerable right now, but I just can't pick against them at home. The back door will be open for Joe Burrow late and the question will be if he can get through it or will Pittsburgh get another double-digit win.
Prediction: Steelers 24, Bengals 16
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.