One of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries will be renewed on Sunday afternoon with the Cincinnati Bengals (2-3) visiting Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2). “Dislike” may not be a strong enough word when describing the level of animosity that these teams have for one another. Anyone who watched the 2015 AFC Wild Card Game knows exactly how ugly it can get between these AFC North foes. And with so much on the line for both teams on Sunday, emotions are likely to heat up once again.
After an embarrassing 30-9 loss to the Jaguars at home in Week 5, Pittsburgh’s confidence was restored with a bounce-back 19-13 win against the previously undefeated Chiefs on the road last week. The Steelers will now look to extend a four-game winning streak against the Bengals on Sunday. If successful, they will maintain sole possession of first place in the hotly-contested AFC North.
Following a shaky 0-3 start to the season, Cincinnati has managed to bounce back nicely as well, winning each of its last two contests. Now fresh off a bye week, the well-rested Bengals hope to use that momentum to even their record at 3-3 and stay afloat in the AFC North. A fifth consecutive loss to the Steelers would serve as a big blow to the Bengals’ pride and leave a steep deficit to overcome in the division race.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 22 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Pittsburgh -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Le’Veon Bell
Despite a haunted past against the Bengals that includes two serious knee injuries, you are likely to see plenty of Bell (above, right) on Sunday. In Pittsburgh’s three wins this season, Bell has averaged 31 carries and 147.3 rushing yards. In the Steelers two losses, he has averaged just 15 carries and 54 yards on the ground per contest, providing a direct correlation between the Steelers’ record and the number of times Bell has the football in his hands. Which is why you can probably expect to see the football in his hands early and often against Cincinnati.
The matchup, itself, could dictate a significant workload for the All-Pro running back as well. The Bengals come into this game 14th in the NFL against the run (103.2 ypg). However, Cincinnati’s No. 2-ranked pass defense has been even stingier. Bell should provide the Steeler offense with its best weapon once again.
2. Bengals’ run game vs. Steelers’ run defense
Like the Steelers, the Bengals’ path of least resistance on offense could come via the ground. Pittsburgh ranks just 23rd in the NFL against the run (118.5 ypg), and the Steelers have been very generous to opposing run games at times this season. The problem is that the Bengals have been among the worst teams with regard to running the football. They have just one rushing touchdown in five games, while averaging 84 rushing yards per contest. The Steelers also are coming off their best effort of the season against the run, limiting star rookie running back and the Chiefs to just 28 rushing yards. Regardless, look for the Bengals to lean heavily on promising rookie running back Joe Mixon in this matchup.
3. Marquee matchups in the passing game
Big matchups between top receivers and great secondaries are not uncommon in the NFL. But it’s rare indeed to see the league’s top two pass defenses square off against two of the premier pass catchers. That is exactly what you will get in this game.
Antonio Brown, the league leader in receptions (48) and receiving yards (700), will be paired against a host of different defensive backs from an elite Cincinnati secondary on Sunday, most notably Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick. Brown has had his share of big games against the Bengals over the years, but he has been held in check in more recent matchups. He combined for just seven catches for 97 yards and zero touchdowns in two games against the Bengals last season.
A.J. Green has reaped the benefits of a much-improved passing attack under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. He also has a rich history of success against the Steelers. That said, he struggled in his lone performance against Pittsburgh last season (two receptions for 38 yards). He could have his work cut out for him again on Sunday. Green will primarily be paired against either Joe Haden or Artie Burns at different times during the game. Haden, formerly of the Browns, has a storied past against Green, along with a solid track record. Burns is a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback in just his second year.
The battle in the trenches should be exciting as well. A suspect Bengals’ offensive line has shown signs of improvement lately. However, the guys up front will be challenged to keep a clean pocket for Andy Dalton against a potent pass rush that has accumulated the second-most sacks (20) in the NFL though six games. Meanwhile, it will be a tall order for the Pittsburgh offensive line to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright against a Bengals’ pass rush that has racked up 18 sacks in just five games.
The extra week to prepare and rest up is a big plus for Cincinnati in this matchup, while home-field advantage serves as a nice bonus for Pittsburgh. Defensively, these teams are about as evenly matched as you can get. But the Steelers should have the edge on offense if they place an emphasis on getting the football into the hands of Le’Veon Bell as much as possible. That should make the difference as Pittsburgh earns another close, hard-fought, win in this storied rivalry on Sunday.
Prediction: Steelers 20, Bengals 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.