AFC North rivals play on Sunday as the defending conference champion Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cincinnati swept the two meetings last season, beating Pittsburgh 24-10 on the road in Week 3 and 41-10 at home in Week 12. The Bengals beat the Steelers in different ways with one matchup featuring three touchdown passes from Joe Burrow while the other game had Joe Mixon go for 165 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Cincinnati has now won three in a row over its division rivals after losing 11 in a row.
The Bengals went 10-7 in the regular season to claim the AFC North title before rattling off three straight playoff victories, two of them on the road, to advance to Super Bowl LVI. The run ended with a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in SoFi Stadium, but it doesn't erase the massive step forward this team took. Burrow came back from a torn ACL suffered in his rookie season to throw for 4,611 yards, 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions followed by a strong postseason performance. One of the reasons for his success was because of the best trio of wide receivers in the league in Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Add in a solid ground game powered by Mixon and you can see why Cincy's offense is so potent. But the defense remains underrated and kicker Even McPherson emerged as a weapon as a rookie, connecting on 14 field goals in the postseason alone, three of them from 50-plus yards.
Pittsburgh went 9-7-1, good enough for a wild-card berth, but the Steelers weren't competitive in a 42-21 road loss to Kansas City in the Wild Card Round. Of course, the big story with this team is the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben was solid (22 TDs, 10 INTs) in 2021, but he clearly had some issues with throwing deep and the offense often underwhelmed as a result. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson had a good season, but that was about it. Najee Harris finished with a lot of yards (1,667 from scrimmage, fourth in the NFL) but he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry and often faced stacked boxes because teams were not afraid of the passing attack. Of course, the defense also was a mixed bag, tops in the league in sacks (55), with NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt leading the charge, but also finishing dead last against the run (146.1 ypg).
Pittsburgh (0-0) at Cincinnati (0-0)
Three Things to Watch
This being Week 1, scheduling doesn't really come into play just yet and this is a big divisional rivalry so focus shouldn't be an issue for these teams either. The Bengals do begin a stretch of four of five games on the road next week in Dallas while the Steelers host the Patriots for their home opener. The one thing I will point out is that Joe Burrow didn't play during the preseason while the Steelers gave plenty of reps to their new starting quarterback.
2. Offseason changes
The fact that Ben Roethlisberger won't be under center for Pittsburgh for the first time in 2004 is a story in and of itself, but new starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is far from the only change on offense the Steelers made this offseason. Trubisky will get the first crack but waiting in the wings is first-round pick and Steel City hero Kenny Pickett. Both are fully aware of Big Ben's shadow but both also offer the potential to transform this offense because of their running ability. The team also shuffled its offensive line, creating plenty of questions up front, and also drafted wide receiver George Pickens (Georgia) in the second round to help offset the departures of JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington.
For Cincinnati, the offseason focus was upgrading the offensive line after Burrow was sacked a league-high 51 times in the regular season and 19 more in the playoffs. The Bengals completely rebuilt Burrow's protection team by signing right guard Alex Cappa (Tampa Bay) and center Ted Karras (New England) in free agency and picking up right tackle La'el Collins after Dallas released him due to salary-cap concerns. If the remade line comes together, this offense should only improve its numbers after finishing last season ranked 17th in scoring and 18th in yards per game. Cincinnati also made a change at tight end, signing former Falcon Hayden Hurst to replace C.J. Uzomah, who joined the Jets.
3. Defense first
Quite often in football, early on in the season, we see the defenses ahead of the offense. This could be the case on Sunday with Burrow not getting any snaps in the preseason, partly due to him undergoing an unexpected appendectomy in late July. But he's plenty familiar with this offense and his weapons, so it shouldn't take long for them to rediscover that chemistry. On the other side, as poorly as Pittsburgh fared against the run, the Steelers were ninth in passing defense and of course have Watt anchoring a ferocious pass rush. It's critical that the defense does what it can to limit Burrow and company because Trubisky is still learning his new playbook and has had little time to gel with his supporting cast. Head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada may opt for a conservative game plan while Trubisky gets his feet under him. Cincinnati's D will try and rachet up the pressure to try and force an early mistake or two, something Trubisky has been prone to during his career.
The Bengals are one of the biggest favorites of Week 1 and rightfully so considering where both teams are right now. Considering Burrow's lack of work in the preseason, it might take some time for Cincy's offense to start rolling, but that's better than Pittsburgh's situation. I think the home team gets the win, but it won't be the prettiest football.
Prediction: Bengals 20, Steelers 13
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
*Price as of publication.