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Key Matchups: Cincinnati Bengals vs Pittsburgh Steelers

Will the Bengals sweep the Steelers for the first time since 2009?

The Bengals begin a three-game home stretch on Sunday when the Steelers come to town. Cincinnati has won two straight against Pittsburgh and are looking to sweep them for the first time in a season since 2009.

Halftime adjustments willed the Bengals to victory last week against the Raiders after committing to the ground game. Cincinnati has outscored their opponents 162-115 in the second half/overtime this season.

The team will need to put together a complete game to leave the contest with a 7-4 record. Pittsburgh is expected to have key players back in the lineup this week, including T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick. 

Watt missed the first go-around between the two teams. Cincinnati didn’t allow a sack and Joe Burrow had one of his most accurate games in Week 3.

Like Watt, Diontae Johnson also missed that matchup. The speedy wide-out is Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target (95 targets in nine games).

The Bengals are 4.5-point favorites ahead of Sunday’s game. Cincinnati is in unfamiliar territory. Normally they aren't favored against Pittsburgh, even at home, but this game is an opportunity for Cincinnati to prove they're a legitimate threat in the AFC North.

Let’s take a look at the key matchups that will likely decide Sunday's game.

Joe Burrow vs. Steelers Defense

Burrow knows Week 12 will be different from Week 3. Both teams have settled into their seasons, but the Steelers’ pass rush will be much tougher with Watt on the field.  

Watt is second in the league with 12.5 sacks in just eight games. Myles Garrett leads the league with 13 sacks in 11 contests. Watt has 8.5 sacks, 26 tackles, and three forced fumbles in his career against the Bengals.

Burrow has faced two of the league’s top pass rush teams in Cleveland and Las Vegas the last couple of games. He’s had to get the ball out quicker, but the opposing defenses have also taken away the deep threat in both games.

The quarterback has not completed a pass longer than 20 yards in those games. Burrow’s longest throw was a 20 yard pass to Tee Higgins on the opening drive against Cleveland, while averaging 8.9 yards per completion. The previous eight games, Burrow averaged 13.2 yards per completion.

Pittsburgh’s secondary has given up 32 passes for 20 or more yards. They’re allowing an average of 240 passing yards per game and 11.7 yards per catch. 

Burrow found more control with his short passes against the Raiders and a balanced attack didn’t pressure him to throw. He led the offense to smaller yardage plays while taking time off the clock. Look for a repeat against Pittsburgh.

Advantage: Bengals

Bengals Offensive Line vs. Steelers Defense

Cincinnati’s offensive line had their way against the Steelers front seven at Heinz Field. They protected Burrow and opened lanes for Joe Mixon, who ran for 90 yards. Of course, Watt wasn't on the field.

The unit improved from their performance against the Browns last week in Las Vegas. They didn’t dominate, but they blocked consistently the top two edge rushers in the league and led the way for Mixon to pound the rock for 123 yards and two scores.

Jonah Williams will need to play Watt just as the team approached Garrett, Maxx Crosby, and Yannick Nagakoue with extra help from C.J. Uzomah and Drew Sample as well as Mixon and Samaje Perine in the backfield.

Cam Heyward is another name to watch. The nose tackle holds the leverage in his matchup against the interior of the Bengals’ line. Quinton Spain, Trey Hopkins, and Hakeem Adeniji have progressed, but Heyward draws double teams and has 4.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 7 tackles for loss this season.

Advantage: Steelers

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Bengals Skill Players vs. Steelers Defense

Mixon against Pittsburgh’s rush defense is the matchup of the game. The offense could not produce consistent momentum in the first half against the Raiders and their pass rush. Zac Taylor committed to pounding the rock coming out of halftime, which led to scores on all five second-half drives, outscoring Las Vegas 22-7.

The Steelers have given up an average of 126 yards per game and allowed 229 yards against the Lions and 159 yards to the Chargers in recent weeks. Establishing the run takes pressure off Joe Burrow and the pass game.

The running back’s physicality matches up with the physical approach Pittsburgh teams always have.

"They play hard. They play physical," Mixon said this week. "But I'm physical, too. At the end of the day they want to dictate the game by being physical and so do I. I want to impose my will on whoever we're playing. They know out of the gate what type of game it's going to be."

If Mixon can wear down the Steelers' defense, it will open the game up for the Bengals' offense.

Mike Tomlin said this week that Ja’Marr Chase has earned the respect of opponents, as teams have made an effort to minimize the rookie’s playmaking abilities. 

Chase saw single coverage in his first clash with Pittsburgh. He flew right past James Pierre on a 34-yard touchdown for his first trip to the end zone. Then, he beat Joe Haden for a 9-yard touchdown in his second score of the game.

The game plan against the rookie will be much different this time. Expect Chase to see more double teams from Haden, who is listed as questionable with a foot injury, and Cameron Sutton with Fitzpatrick over the top.

Keenan Allen and Mike Williams combined for 14 catches, 209 yards, and a score last week. Although Fitzpatrick and Haden were missing, if Chase draws extra attention it could present opportunities for Tyler Boyd and Higgins. Higgins didn't play in Week 3 against the Steelers due to a shoulder injury.

Advantage: Bengals

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Bengals Defense

Roethlisberger threw for a season-high 318 yards in the first matchup. He targeted nine separate receivers, but a majority of his targets were dink and dunks to Najee Harris with the Bengals applying the pressure all game.

Harris finished with 14 catches on 19 targets for 102 yards. Chase Claypool was the next leading receiver catching nine of 15 targets for 96 yards.

Roethlisberger has relied heavily on dump-offs and short passes to find success in the offense, especially with the pressure he’s been under this season. However, when he’s been given time the 39-year old can still throw the deep ball.

The quarterback has averaged the shortest amount of time to throw this season with 2.36 seconds per dropback, according to Next Gen Stats. Roethlisberger has been sacked 21 times and taken 26 hits.

Interceptions haven’t been as much of a problem for the play caller as fumbles have. Roethlisberger has thrown four interceptions, two of which were by Logan Wilson, but has six fumbles with three of them lost.

Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard could capitalize on the struggles of the offensive line and turn it into a long day for Roethlisberger under center. Hendrickson has at least one sack in the last six games and Hubbard has a sack in each of the last two.

Advantage: Bengals

Steelers Offensive Line vs. Bengals Defense

Like on the offensive line, the Bengals defensive line won the battle of the trenches in their first matchup. Roethlisberger was sacked four times and Harris finished with just 40 rushing yards.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line hasn’t shown much, if any at all, improvement since. They are second-to-last in pass block win rate (48%) and 28th in run block win rate (67%) entering Week 12. 

Cincinnati’s defensive line against the Steelers’ O-line is the biggest mismatch of the game. The Bengals can exploit the unit from any position along the line in both the pass or run. Hendrickson, Hubbard, Cam Sample, and B.J. Hill accounted for the four sacks in Week 3.

Advantage: Bengals

Steelers Skill Players vs. Bengals Defense

Harris’ role in Pittsburgh’s offense has greatly increased. Prior to their game against the Chargers in Week 11, the running back received 20 or more attempts in five-straight games. Harris is currently third in rushing attempts. He’s averaging 3.6 yards per attempt.

Cincinnati has only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season. Nick Chubb ran for 137 yards in Week 9. They’re the third-best defense against the run this season.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was sidelined with a shoulder injury earlier this season, but Johnson and Claypool have been reliable options for Roethlisberger.

Johnson has looked like a WR1 this season. He is having a career year with highs in yards-per-catch (12.1), yards-per-game (79.3), and receptions per game (6.6). Johnson also has four touchdowns.

Chidobe Awuzie has gone against opposing teams’ best receivers with Trae Waynes dealing with injuries most of the season. He has been solid. The cornerback has allowed completions on 55% of targets for 308 yards and two touchdowns.

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Eli Apple and Mike Hilton will split time between covering Claypool. Claypool mostly lines up out wide, but has seen time in the slot with Smith-Schuster out. Claypool has 10 catches, 210 yards, and a touchdown from the slot this season.

Pat Freiermuth could see an increase in targets with Eric Ebron out. Darren Waller finished with seven receptions for 116 yards against the Bengals last week.

Cincinnati showed a number of three safety looks with Ricardo Allen along side Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell to try to slow the star tight end down. Freiermuth is no Waller, but could be a factor on crossing routes or over the middle if Roethlisberger is forced to get rid of the ball. He had three receptions, 22 yards, and one touchdown in Week 3.

Advantage: Bengals

Evan McPherson vs. Chris Boswell

McPherson was named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for a second time this season after his performance against the Raiders.

“Money Mac” made all four of his field goal attempts, including three from 50-plus yards out (54, 53, 51). The rookie made 2-of-3 extra point attempts, accounting for 14 of the Bengals 32 points.

Boswell has been accurate for the Steelers this season. He has missed just one field goal attempt (21-of-22) and one extra point attempt (19-of-20).

Both kickers have booted important points on the board for their teams this season and Sunday’s game will be no different.

The advantage goes to Boswell as a result of his accuracy and points scored (82). McPherson has accounted for 74 points this season.

Advantage: Steelers

The Bengals have a slight edge in most of the key matchups. Pittsburgh has been plagued by injuries this season and although they are expected to be the healthiest they’ve been all year, they're still a factor going into Sunday's game.

Nonetheless, this is a rivalry game with high emotions. Pittsburgh has owned Cincinnati over the years. This is the first time in a long time they have their backs against the wall as they try to avoid being swept by the Bengals.

The Bengals could move a game and a half ahead of the Steelers in the AFC North standings with a win. They'd also hold the tiebreaker. 

Sunday’s about to be another wild chapter of this AFC North showdown.

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