A pair of 1-1 AFC North teams face off as Pittsburgh hosts Cincinnati on Sunday afternoon. Last year, these two split their meetings with the home team winning each. The Steelers won 36-10 in mid-November with the Bengals drawing even with a 27-17 victory on "Monday Night Football" to close out in Week 15. That win snapped Pittsburgh's 11-game winning streak in the series. Ben Roethlisberger was in fine form in the first meeting, throwing four touchdown passes, while Ryan Finley (who was traded to Houston this offseason but later released) was at the helm for Cincinnati's upset victory.
So far this season, the Bengals beat the Vikings in Week 1 27-24 in overtime while falling 20-17 last week in Chicago to the Bears. One of the biggest issues in the early going for Cincinnati is the lack of protection for second-year quarterback Joe Burrow, who has already been sacked an NFL-high 10 times. When given time, he's been able to distribute the ball to his weapons in Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. The run game has been successful too with Joe Mixon averaging four yards per carry. Defensively, five different players have registered sacks, while linebacker Logan Wilson has the only interception.
The Steelers opened things with an impressive road in Buffalo but followed that up with a dud of a performance at home against Las Vegas. So much was expected from first-round pick Najee Harris entering this season, but the running back from Alabama is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry. Roethlisberger has gotten off to a slow start as well with just two touchdown passes in two games. The offensive line has had its issues and is still trying to come together, but the biggest problem for Pittsburgh is that the defense is really banged up, and it's unclear who will suit up on Sunday.
Cincinnati (1-1) at Pittsburgh (1-1)
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept 26 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -3
Three Things to Watch
Cincinnati is playing a second straight on the road, but it's not a long trip. The Bengals will have a short turnaround for their "Thursday Night Football" matchup with Jacksonville the following week, but focus shouldn't be an issue. A blowout either way could lead to some starters getting rested though. Pittsburgh gets the chance to bounce back at home and has a bigger challenge awaiting for Week 4 — on the road against Green Bay. But again, coming off of a loss against a divisional opponent, focus won't be an issue. I am slightly worried about an uneasy Heinz Field crowd that could turn on the Steelers if the Bengals get off to a solid start.
2. Defensive absences
The Steelers' defense is banged up, and that's putting it lightly. Starting tackle Tyson Alualu is on IR and could be done for the season. Linebacker Devin Bush and cornerback Joe Haden both missed last week's game with a groin injury. T.J. Watt left the loss to the Raiders in the first half with a groin injury, and fellow linebacker Alex Highsmith did too. Also landing on the injury report at some point this week were cornerback Justin Layne (Achilles), tackle Carlos Davis (knee), and linebacker Marcus Allen (abdomen). The good news is that Bush, Haden, Layne and Allen were not given a final injury designation so they should be fine. Highsmith and Davis were ruled out on Friday and after Watt initially said the "door was open" for him to play, he too was ruled out on Saturday.
Pittsburgh's defense will get a boost with the return of Bush and Haden, but Watt's absence could be key since he already has three sacks in less than two full games played. The Steelers' pass rush will be critical on Sunday considering all the weapons Burrow has to throw to and the Bengals' early struggles with pass protection. The Bengals are much healthier on defense with cornerback Trae Waynes the only key guy on that side of the ball on the final injury report. He's doubtful to play because of a hamstring injury.
3. Who will open things up?
Pittsburgh has completed just two passes over 25 yards this season and both came last week against Las Vegas. Big Ben's arm has slowly gotten worse and worse, which means that teams are able to load the box against the run while simultaneously clogging up the 5-10 yard areas for the wide receivers. Considering how poor the run game has been for the Steelers, it's hard to complete a ton of long drives as a unit. Cincinnati can be susceptible to the deep pass with the Vikings completing three that covered 25-plus yards. The Bears were not successful in this respect, but Andy Dalton isn't known for his arm and Justin Fields was on the run a ton.
Complicating matters for Pittsburgh's offense is that Roethlisberger is dealing with a pec injury (he will start) and wide receiver Diontae Johnson has been ruled out because of a knee injury. The offensive line hasn't held up very well, so it would behoove the Bengals to try and put as much pressure on Roethlisberger as possible. This would be a great time for Harris to have his first breakout game as a pro.
I really want to pick the Bengals in this game, especially since Pittsburgh will be without Watt. Cincinnati may actually have the better offense in this matchup, especially if Burrow is not under pressure. Still, the game is in Heinz Field, and I have to think the Steelers will put together a better effort to prevent them from falling to 0-2 in front of the home faithful.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Bengals 20 (OT)
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.