Cracks in Steelers’ foundation gives Bengals chance to climb AFCN ladder
As the Pittsburg Steelers limp into the offseason, their foundational cracks give the Bengals a chance to climb the ladder in the AFC North.
Unfortunately for a Cincinnati Bengals club right in the middle of a desperate rebuild, they call the AFC North home. It’s arguably the best division in all of football and sent three teams to the playoffs this season, two of which are still vying for a Super Bowl. It’s a daunting fact for a franchise that owns a three-decade postseason victory drought, the longest in the league.
If Joe Burrow and co. are ever going to bring the playoff rains to the Queen City once more, the first step to doing so is clawing their way out of the divisional cellar. With the way the 2020 campaign ended for the Pittsburg Steelers, they seem like the most vulnerable team to get bumped by the Bengals.
The history with the Steelers is ugly for the Bengals
Prior to Cincinnati’s shocking Monday Night Football victory over Pittsburg down the stretch of the season, the team hadn’t come close to pulling out a win against their bitter rivals in years. In fact, up to that point, the Bengals hadn’t beaten the Steelers since 2015. Not to mention, the series leans heavily in favor of the bad guys, 67-36.
As much as it may sting for WhoDey Nation to admit, Pittsburg has claimed the title of “big brother” up to this point. It’s a dynamic the Bengals are going to have to flip on its head if they want to take the next step.
The Steelers’ outlook isn’t the brightest
For three out of four teams in the AFC North, there is clear reason for optimism. For the Bengals, their hopes ride on the arm of their stellar young quarterback and exciting cast of offensive weapons. For the Browns, it’s their impressive young coach, punishing running attack, and stout offensive line. For the Ravens, it’s former MVP Lamar Jackson, an incredible defensive core, and the always reliable John Harbaugh at the helm.
While the Steelers still have plenty of reason for hope, namely some of the best young defensive players in the league, the path to returning to the heights of the NFL isn’t as clear as the others within the division, for a number of reasons.
The success of any football team begins and ends with the quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is now 38-years-old and clearly in the twilight portion of his career. Making matters even worse, he’s slated to take up north of $41M in cap space next season. Even if the Steelers decided to cut him, they’d have to swallow over $22M in dead cap.
That’s a tough situation to come to terms with for a Pittsburg franchise that is currently projected to be $21M over the cap this offseason. When considering major contributors such as Bud Dupree, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Alejandro Villanueva, and James Connor are all set to become free agents, the picture painted becomes even more grim.
In addition to the players that will inevitably leave during free agency, the Steelers will have to part ways with other veterans to address their cap situation. All of these factors combine to set Pittsburg up for a rare down year in 2021.
It’s a circumstance the Bengals absolutely must take advantage of. While the team still has a lot of work to do, they have the fifth overall pick and are armed with some of the most cap space in the league, unlike their counterparts.
The front office must use their plentiful resources to make a major leap this year, allowing them to gain a foothold in the AFC North. If they fail to do so, they’ll be staring down the barrel of a reloaded Pittsburg team with Mike Tomlin at the helm, in addition to two other outstanding football clubs.