Its desperation time for the Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3) as the AFC North rivals will renew their rivalry on Monday night at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati didn’t quit despite a slow start in Buffalo, but ended up losing 21-17 at New Era Stadium on Sunday. The Bengals fell behind 14-0 in the first half and quarterback Andy Dalton didn’t complete his first pass until the second quarter. After getting dominated by the Bills in the first half, Cincinnati did settle in and work their way back into the game late in the second half. As for the defense the bottom line is, they were on the field too much against Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense, who was able to wear the Bengals down over four quarters. If the Bengals are going to turn things around, they have to be more consistent in all three phases of the game for 60 minutes.
Pittsburgh dropped a 24-20 contest out on West Coast to the San Francisco 49ers. The Steelers were dominated statistically, but found a way to hang around and give themselves a chance to win. Pittsburgh won the turnover battle against the 49ers by forcing five and that’s an encouraging sign for the defense moving forward. Inefficiency in the red zone on offense ended up costing the Steelers on Sunday as they should have put the game away after forcing four San Francisco turnovers in the first half. Mason Rudolph had an up and down performance on Sunday, completing 14-of-27 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 30 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Steelers -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Steelers run defense vs. Bengals running game
Something has to give as Pittsburgh has not gotten the job done all year long defensively against the run. The Steelers are allowing 139.3 rushing yards per game, although to be fair they have played three quality offenses in New England, Seattle, and San Francisco. Cincinnati has not been able to get anything going on the ground, averaging just 41.7 yards per game, which won’t cut it in the offensive-friendly climate that is the NFL in 2019. Pittsburgh's defensive line needs to take advantage of the Bengals' issues up front and seize control of the line of scrimmage from the opening kickoff. Cameron Heyward and the rest of the defensive line have to play fundamentally sound football and if they do that, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard will continue to gain much ground. In addition, the ability to stay patient with the running game is important as well for the Bengals as they need to get the game into the fourth quarter with a chance to win.
2. Will these be Mason Rudolph's coming out party?
Rudolph needs to be turned loose throwing the football in this game as you won’t know what you truly have by keeping the training wheels on him. The responsibility for turning Rudolph loose falls on offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, who needs to inject some life into this Pittsburgh offense early so they can gain some valuable confidence. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster needs to get about 10 targets, including several deep balls to keep Cincinnati’s pass rush honest. The Steelers also acquired tight end Nick Vannett from the Seattle Seahawks earlier this week as insurance for Vance McDonald, who is battling shoulder issues. Vannett is a solid pass catcher who was a part of the Seahawks' game plan in the first three games (4 rec, 38 yds.) and posted solid numbers in 2018 (29 rec., 269 yds., 3 TDs) in 2018 as well. So there is potential with Vannett and it will be interesting to see how Pittsburgh uses him on Monday night and moving forward.
3. Turnover battle
The Steelers did a nice job last week on the road last week creating five turnovers against San Francisco. This gives Pittsburgh a plus-three margin entering the Monday night game, which is tied for second in the NFL. On the other hand, Cincinnati is one of the worst at protecting the football (-4, tied for 28th), which has contributed to their 0-3 start. Ball security is going to be crucial in this contest as the Steelers have shown an ability to strip the ball (five fumble recoveries already). The Bengals also have enough of a pass rush that if they don't get the sack, they could still force an errant pass that leads to an interception, especially considering Rudolph's lack of experience as an NFL starter. Whichever team does a better job of holding onto the ball or the one that causes the other to lose it, could a key deciding factor.
It is going to be easy for a lot of people to mock this game and dismiss simply based on the fact both teams are 0-3. However, this is still an AFC North rivalry that is being played for the 100th time (Pittsburgh leads 64-35, including playoffs) with no love lost between either team. Both teams are going to play with urgency without question, but at the end of the day, it will be Pittsburgh that picks up with their first win of the season. The Steelers will make a couple of key plays late on defense to finally get into the win column.
Prediction: Steelers 23, Bengals 17
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ScottWhittum.