A lot is going to look familiar to viewers in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Week 2 showdown with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Ben Roethlisberger and Andy Dalton will still be slinging the ball around to Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, respectively. James Harrison and Domata Peko, each of whom has played at least 10 seasons with their respective side, will still be around to lead their defenses. And, of course, Mike Tomlin and Marvin Lewis will still be patrolling the sidelines in their 20th career meeting against one another.
And, as was the case last year, this game figures to be a bit more heated than your typical NFL matchup. Regardless of what sort of lip service the teams and league are giving this game, you can expect to see more emotion, whistle-blowing and flag-throwing than in most games you’ll watch this year.
But that’s not to say things are unchanged heading into this rivalry game. In fact, due to free agency, injury and suspension, both teams head into this one with vastly different lineups. The Bengals, for instance, are without Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert. Those three accounted for 150 receptions, 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015.
That’s a lot of production to make up for. Of course, it’s always nice to have a top-10 (and arguably top-five) option like Green in your back pocket, but Cincinnati will need contributions from both Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd to keep pace with Pittsburgh’s high-flying offense. Especially given all that the Bengals lost on defense.
In the secondary, Cincinnati bid farewell to two stalwarts in Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson. The latter particularly stings as Nelson was the NFL’s interception leader in ’15 and always seemed to play his best against the Steelers. The Bengals might’ve looked to their rookie first-rounder, William Jackson III, to compensate for these losses, but he too is on the shelf with a pectoral injury.
But Cincinnati’s biggest defensive loss is undeniably Vontaze Burfict. The controversial linebacker is suspended for three games due to a history of illegal hits. The Steelers may claim that they’d prefer to see a Bengals team with Burfict in the lineup, but given how well he plays against Pittsburgh, they should be glad that they don’t have to contend with him.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, taking advantage of a lineup down a bunch of talent won’t prove easy. The Steelers themselves have lost quite a bit due largely to injuries and suspensions.
Two of Pittsburgh’s biggest playmakers, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, are suspended for this game due to drug-related offenses. Each of DeAngelo Williams, Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates proved to be capable fill-ins during the Steelers’ Monday night opener, but how the latter two, younger players fare against a more talented team, not to mention an intense rival, bears watching.
At tight end, the Steelers lost the dependable Heath Miller to retirement. They looked to the ultra-athletic Ladarius Green to fill the void, but due to a lingering ankle injury, he’s been forced to start the year on the PUP list. Jesse James has shown some promise in their absences, but he’ll never be the vertical threat that Green is and is not yet the blocker that Miller was.
On the defensive side, Pittsburgh’s losses aren’t as significant. It heads into this game down Bud Dupree, a promising, if largely unproven, young pass-rusher. Hard to say how good he might’ve been heading into year two, but it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh’s outside linebacker rotation struggled to get pressure in its opener.
Of course, the status of Ryan Shazier remains uncertain and losing him would be a huge blow for Pittsburgh. Shazier forced two fumbles in Pittsburgh’s playoff win over Cincinnati last January and continued to make impact plays with a forced fumble and an interception last week. He’s emerged as arguably Pittsburgh’s best defensive playmaker and losing him would prove tough to overcome.
With all the talent mentioned here, you’d think Pittsburgh’s meeting against Cincinnati is being glorified and overhyped. But that’s far from the case. These two teams are still among the most talented in the NFL and each showed that off with impressive Week 1 victories. Each side still has phenomenal skill players, stout offensive lines and imposing front sevens.
The Steelers and Bengals will both have a lot to contend with in tomorrow’s showdown. Both on their own sidelines and against talented and, frankly, pissed off opponents. Each side should presumably be closer to full strength for their next matchup, but by then it may be too late. Which team overcomes a ton of tough breaks to win this one could be the side that ultimately emerges with the AFC North crown.