In Week 2, the Bengals faced a fired up Steelers team and went down swinging. This time, Cincinnati should be focused and ready to do battle.
This was supposed to be the grudge match of the year. The rematch with Pittsburgh had early implications of being a dogfight worthy of a primetime showcase. But, since their lopsided Week 2 loss to the Steelers, the Bengals haven’t had much to brag about. Now, riding a two-game winning streak into the final battle with Ben Roethlisberger and Co., things could be different. Bengals players are showing the confidence that captured the AFC North crown.
In the first battle with the Steelers, there was a feeling of skepticism. The Bengals had narrowly escaped a loss in New York and were trying to find themselves under new OC Ken Zampese. The first half was a brutal and sobering display of how “not” to run an offense. Cincinnati was able to get 412 yards on the Steelers but only scored 16 points. Andy Dalton delivered the majority of the offense with 366 passing yards.
Giovani Bernard had 117 yards from scrimmage but he’ll be missing from the rematch. The running game was abysmal. Jeremy Hill and Gio had a total of 16 rushes and found only 39 yards. Either Zampese wasn’t confident about the offensive line or he’s not a fan of the run. Essentially, the bad play calling and lack of execution resulted in a 24-16 loss.
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Since that Week 2 encounter, things have changed. Even though the Bengals are a mediocre 5-7-1, the attitude has changed. In the past four games, the defense’s scoring average has been 14.8. Suddenly, the Bengals’ D is playing like the squad that caused problems last year. Through the first nine games, the defense was yielding 23.3 points a game. The improvement has lowered the overall average to 20.7 on the year. That’s not quite championship caliber but it’s a sight better than before.
During the Bengals’ defensive bounce back, Vontaze Burfict has been a beast. He’s, arguably, playing the best football of his career. Against the Eagles, Burfict had a monster stat line. He has 15 tackles, two interceptions and four pass deflections. Prior to the Philly game, the Bengals had surrendered an opening drive TD in four straight games. Those results of those games were three losses and a tie. Hindsight? Just do the math.
The Steelers will be facing their old buddy Burfict, this time around. Since regaining his focus and playing into shape, Vontaze has 92 total tackles to lead the team. He’s also found his mojo without getting any flagrant fouls called. In fact, No. 55 should be a prime candidate for the Pro Bowl. But, after what happened to Tyler Eifert (foot surgery) that shouldn’t be a prime directive.
Recently, the Bengals have been able to find balance on offense. Without the services of A.J. Green, Dalton and Zampese have been forced to use the other weapons. Spreading the ball around seems to be making Dalton sharper. Hill seems to be making strides behind the O-line but he’s still spotty. His 111 yards rushing against the Browns was expected. The proof will be how he performs against the Steelers.
Green could possibly be a late-week decision to start. But, getting him on the field would give the Bengals even more firepower. The speed of Rex Burkhead could come into play also. Gio had 100 yards receiving in Week 2. If Zampese sees a pattern, Burkhead could do some damage.
Hopefully, the Bengals will come out with the intensity of a playoff game. In essence, this could be a fight that determines what happens in the AFC North.
Both teams are playing some of their best football of the season. If Paul Guenther can inspire the gang to stop Le’Veon Bell and collapse the pocket around Big Ben, things could get interesting.