The Cincinnati Bengals return to action after a bye last week and face a tough ask as they take on divisional rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals will hope that the week off helps them recover from early season knocks but also doesn’t interrupt the progress they were clearly making after appointing Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator. Having come close to toppling Green Bay in Lambeau followed by wins against the Browns and Bills, the Bengals are rejuvenated.
This week should prove much more of a test against a Steelers team that ended the Chiefs unbeaten run in a raucous Arrowhead Stadium. The Steelers holy trinity of Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown finally clicked while their young defense stymied rookie running back Kareem Hunt and pressured Alex Smith all afternoon.
Despite being less than halfway through the season the matchup appears to be an important signpost to the direction that the AFC North will go. After a terrible start to 2017, the Bengals have enjoyed a mini revival and victory would put them back in the running while a loss would give the Steelers a 5-2 record and an iron grip on an automatic playoff spot.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has been shaky to begin the year but it looked like business as usual last week with favourite target Antonio Brown receiving for 155 yards. The Bengals must build on the early promise that their pass rush has shown. Rookie Carl Lawson and the more experienced Carlos Dunlap need to ensure Big Ben doesn’t have time to pick apart an inexperienced secondary, likely to be without Adam Jones.
Vontaze Burfict’s return to action after an early season suspension was welcome and he will be key in stopping Le’Veon Bell repeating his dominant display from last week. The Bengals will be keen to see Burfict temper his aggression and step up as the de facto leader of this new look defense, if he can do so he can be considered one of the best linebackers in the league.
The Steelers’ defense has been one of the stronger units in the NFL in 2017 and have finally found a young spine reminiscent of their Superbowl days. Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt (potential gameday doubt) have been leaders in the front 7 while TJ Watt should trouble a less than impressive Bengals offensive line. One aspect to keep an eye on is Vince Williams blitzing from the A gap, he caused issues to the Chiefs’ replacement center last week and Russell Bodine has been underwhelming at that spot for the Bengals.
Cornerback Artie Burns was up and down against Tyreek Hill and will face a challenging afternoon against AJ Green. Burns has started well but must be aware of the big plays that Dalton and Green have begun to hook up on. At safety Mike Mitchell was seemingly lucky to escape a ban for a late hit on Alex Smith and he will likely be the tone setter for an aggressive Steelers defense.
The bye week will have given the Bengals a chance to adjust the offensive gameplan and allow Bill Lazor to put more of his stamp on it. Expect a few wrinkles to unsettle a Steelers defense that has seemingly hit its groove. Despite this, the big play ability of Brown and Bell could prove too much for a Bengals team that is still searching for it’s identity. A close divisional battle that the Steelers should end up taking.