After the way they started the season, it’s hard to believe that Cincinnati is facing an important battle for the AFC North crown in Week 7. With a win in Pittsburgh this Sunday, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh would all sit at three losses (the Steelers, at 4-3 without having hit their bye yet, would still hold the lead).
The Bengals have a shot to assert themselves as a contender in the AFC with a strong performance this afternoon, in a 4:25pm EST time slot, on the road against their biggest division competitor. It’s not a must-win game by any stretch, but there’s a lot on the table for Cincinnati to take.
Chuck Pagano’s seat is as hot as it’s ever been
Cincinnati: Tyler Boyd (Out), Ryan Hewitt (Out), Adam Jones (Doubtful), John Ross (Questionable), Derron Smith (Questionable)
Not a lot here that should be particularly impactful on Sunday’s game, but a few interesting notes regardless. Mostly the possibility that John Ross could return to the field for the first time since Ken Zampese coordinated the Bengals’ offense. Whether he actually plays remains to be seen, let alone how he plays or how much he plays, but it’s interesting to wonder what lies on the other side of that door.
The others names aren’t nearly so. Adam Jones, the highest-profile name on this list, is no longer significantly ahead of the other corners on this roster. That doesn’t mean he’s bad now, just that his absence shouldn’t be strongly felt, as with the other three names here.
Pittsburgh: Stephon Tuitt (Out), Marcus Gilbert (Doubtful)
Two players, both starters, with questionable availability for the Steelers. Tuitt has been strong this season across the defensive line from Cameron Heyward. Gilbert has been among the league’s best right tackles for multiple seasons. Their backups — Tyson Alualu and Chris Hubbard — are good enough veterans. The units shouldn’t suffer terribly in theory, but there’s at least weaker points available if the Bengals can exploit them.
Bad news: Pittsburgh heads into Week 7 with the league’s third-best total defense, and the first-ranked passing defense. They’ve played Cleveland, Minnesota, Chicago, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Kansas City this season, only allowing Chicago to score more than 20 points.
There’s a chicken-and-egg question here, to be fair. Of those six teams: Kansas City’s passing attack is largely set up off of run action (which Pittsburgh shut down), Minnesota was fielding Case Keenum at quarterback, and Cleveland is the only one of the other teams to average over 200 passing yards per game. Cincinnati has arguably the best aerial attack that Pittsburgh has faced this season, and the best wide receiver they’ll have faced in A.J. Green (due respect to Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs, 2017 Green’s been a different beast).
Unfortunately, the Bengals’ uninspiring running game in 2017 significantly dampers their chances. Pittsburgh’s losses to Chicago and Jacksonville had a lot to do with being gouged by Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen, and Leonard Fournette, and as little as possible to do with anything resembling a professional passing game. Cincinnati has yet to win a game in that fashion, and it’s hard to imagine they suddenly will with Joe Mixon’s meager production and the team’s well-documented line deficiencies.
Where Pittsburgh has the league’s third and first in total and passing defense, respectively, Cincinnati ranks second in both categories. The same question regarding Pittsburgh’s opponents could be used in reference to Cincinnati’s, but it would still be surprising to see this turn out to be a high-scoring game.
The biggest question about this phase of the game is how well the Bengals can contain Le’Veon Bell, who’s gained 470 yards from scrimmage on 99 touches in the past three games. After holding out through much of the offseason and starting the season with average production, Bell has come on as the workhorse for the Steelers’ offense to carry them through despite Ben Roethlisberger’s usual level of play not manifesting.
Another thing Chicago and Jacksonville have in common: top-tier talent in the front seven that can shut down opposing rushing attacks. Cincinnati has the ability to play to that level, even if their rushing defense has only ranked 19th in the league. Winning the turnover battle to the degree Jacksonville did would be nice, but that outing hardly seems replicable by any team.
Bengals 20, Steelers 23
The Bengals are a good enough team to split with Pittsburgh, and having a bye week to prepare should be a significant advantage, but those things don’t always come through consistently. Regardless of victor, this should be a close, defensively-dominated game — the final scores probably won’t be more than 10 apart or over 50 combined.
Of course, a few plays either way for Antonio Brown could singlehandedly throw that, and Martavis Bryant may grind his personal axe in this game after he had to deny asking for a trade due to his offensive role.
Perhaps the Bengals have Ross established as a threat in this offense by their next match, but it would be dangerous to bet on a lot from him in this one. If he were already there, this prediction would likely swing the other way — the margin simply isn’t that big.
– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.