There’s no better way for the Pittsburgh Steelers to experience a litmus test of their defense than to face the Cincinnati Bengals’ explosive offense out of the gate. The Bengals’ offense broke out to be among the league’s most potent a year ago, QB Joe Burrow coming off a torn ACL to a breakout second season. A tremendous top-three receiver combo in Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd, along with the perennially underrated RB Joe Mixon. Steelers’ cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon isn’t running away from the challenge. He and the Steelers’ defense have plenty to prove with the chance to make a major statement Sunday afternoon.
Speaking with reporters following today’s practice via The Trib’s Chris Adamski, Witherspoon said he’s excited to face the Bengals’ top unit.
“We’re coming from a camp where we competed well against our offense,” he said. “Think we did well this preseason against the offenses we saw. But let’s take that to Week One against a high-powered offense and see where we’re at.”
The Bengals finished seventh in points per game last regular season and scored 30+ points in seven games, all coming Week 6 or later. Cincinnati’s’ offense found its groove and big-play ability, Burrow and Chase picking up where they left off at LSU while Higgins was a jump ball machine and Boyd a crafty slot receiver underneath. In two games against the Steelers, the Bengals put up 65 points. Burrow threw a combined four touchdown passes and rushed for one more, picking Pittsburgh’s defense apart.
But the Steelers’ defense looks different compared to a year ago. They’re healthier, especially up front, returning NT Tyson Alualu while adding DL Larry Ogunjobi. Montravius Adams wasn’t part of the series last year, signed off the Saints’ practice squad late in the year, while LB Myles Jack has shown to be a quality addition. Pittsburgh’s secondary is stronger and deeper than a year ago, adding Levi Wallace while Tre Norwood is in his second-year and will be a versatile chess piece as a slot corner/safety. To Witherspoon’s point, Pittsburgh faced a quality top-three set of receivers in camp, going against Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and George Pickens on a daily basis. But they’ll have to prove their mettle against a different opponent and a good one at that.
Will the Steelers’ defense be improved? On paper, they are. But results are all that matter. Facing the Bengals, we’re going to find out right away.