CINCINNATI — Sunday's game between the Bengals and Steelers has been circled on my calendar for months because it marks the start of AFC North play. It's Cincinnati's first chance to stake their claim in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL.
Like I’ve said a million times, if you can’t win in your division, you’re going to be sitting on your couch watching the playoffs, instead of competing which is a place no player or coach wants to be after working their tails off all season.
The Bengals need to prove themselves on the road, but earning a win over the Steelers at Heinz Field will be nothing short of a Mount Everest type of task.
These rivalry games have been ugly throughout the years. More specifically, I would compare three of the last four Bengals-Steelers games to the analogy of an average Joe Schmoe off the street going up against James Harrison in an Oklahoma drill. You know where I’m going with this—the other guy was not prepared or trained for this moment—he leaves with a significant injury. Mr. Schmoe leaves licking his chops after the whole team just watched him lose.
Hear me out, I’m not trying to be a jerk with that analogy, but it feels wrong to sugarcoat the current reality. The stats simply cannot be ignored.
Taylor is 1-3 against the Steelers, who have outscored his offense 96-50 through four games. The third year head coach is also 2-10 against AFC North opponents. Now's the time to start beating Mike Tomlin’s Steelers. There are no more excuses.
Changes to the coaching staff have been made and the roster has been flipped, it's time to win.
With that ugly reality addressed, let’s get to three keys to Sunday's matchup:
Surprise Mike Tomlin
This seems like a nearly impossible task, there’s a reason why Tomlin ranks among the NFL's longest-tenured active head coaches in the league. Tomlin and Keith Butler have a combined 42 years of coaching experience. Not much fazes them.
When he was hired, Taylor had a reputation for being an offensive juggernaut after spending the 2018 season as Jared Goff’s quarterback coach and helping the young quarterback make the Pro Bowl. That team made a Siper Bowl run, but fell short against Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Taylor needs to show aggression and creativity in his play-calling on Sunday.
Strong Start on D
Cincinnati’s defense has been carrying the team so far in 2021, keeping them in games, and giving the Bengals multiple chances to win. This unit will need to make big stops early and often. Everybody in the league knows what Ben Roethlisberger is capable of when he’s comfortable in the pocket. Getting after Big Ben is a must if the Bengals are going to pull off the upset.
Protect the Rock
The Steelers will look to suffocate Joe Burrow on Sunday by hitting him over and over and over again, much like they did in 2020. I would expect Butler to bring the blitz and focus on creating turnovers. Something they’ve been quite good at through two games in 2021 with five forced fumbles.
Committing multiple turnovers as the Bengals did against Chicago last week (4) will most certainly send them to a 1-2 start to the season.
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