For the Pittsburgh Steelers to beat the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, they will likely need their rookie quarterback, Kenny Pickett, to have the first big game of his young career.
Despite the success Pittsburgh had running the football last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, when looking at the last few matchups between the Steelers and Bengals it is unlikely for that type of rushing performance to continue.
In their past three matchups against Cincinnati, the Steelers have topped out at 75 rushing yards and have averaged 3.2 yards per carry over those three games. Pittsburgh has gone 1-2 in those meetings, and only won their last meeting, Week One of this season, due to dominating the turnover battle and a bit of luck.
Part of the reason for Pittsburgh’s struggles rushing the football is the fact the Bengals like to deploy a 4-3 defense with two big Defensive tackles clogging up the middle. Last year, Cincinnati had three big defensive tackles with D.J. Reader, B.J. Hill, and current Steeler Larry Ogunjobi. This week, Reader returns to the Bengals lineup after being on injured reserve for a while, meaning that he and Hill will be taking away rushing lanes like they did in Week One.
With the Steelers lack of success against those two in their recent matchups, and their running backs strengths running in between the tackles and not outside, it is difficult to expect anything different this time around.
So, if the running game does not get going it will be on the passing game to carry the Steelers offense. While it has not been great thus far, this week there is an opening for it to finally take off. The Bengals are missing their top corner, Chidobe Awuzie, who is on IR and might also miss another cornerback in Tre Flowers who is questionable for tomorrow’s game. In addition, rookie defensive back Dax Hill is out for the game, leaving the Bengals top outside corners as Eli Apple and rookie Cam Taylor-Britt.
Taylor-Britt has struggled in his limited action this season, allowing a 155.8 passer rating and one touchdown in the three games he’s played in this season. For reference, a perfect passer rating is 158.3 so Pickett should look to target whoever he is guarding early and often.
With Cincinnati being banged up in the secondary, it will be crucial for Pickett to take advantage of it. While he has had other opportunities against banged up secondaries in the past and has not lit them up (see the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins games) there is a reason to think that this game might be a bit different. That reason is offensive coordinator Matt Canada is coming off his best called game of his NFL career. While he has been rightfully criticized throughout his two years as offensive coordinator, he really put together a good game plan against the Saints. If you want to read about that, Alex Kozora put together a film room breaking it down earlier this week.
If Canada can put some momentum together and draw up plays to get Pittsburgh’s offensive skill guys open down the field, you have to trust your first-round rookie quarterback to make the throws to get the ball in their hands. While Pickett struggled making some throws early in the Saints game, he had a good second half which included an absolute dime to Diontae Johnson down the sideline.
With the banged up secondary and stout run defense of the Bengals, Pittsburgh will likely need to rely on the arm of Pickett to defeat their rivals for the second time this season. Can tomorrow be Pickett’s coming out party and silence the critics as he keeps the Steelers’ playoff hopes alive?