The Cincinnati Bengals begin their tilt at Super Bowl LVII against familiar foes on Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers come to town, and Ben Roethlisberger won’t be leading them. That means a raft of new faces on both sides, leading to intriguing matchups.
We look at four battles that should play a large part in the final result.
All states provided by PFF unless stated.
Cordell Volson vs. Cam Heyward
Cordell Volson faces a baptism of fire on Sunday. The fourth-round rookie guard out of North Dakota State displaced Jackson Carman on the Bengals' offensive line's interior and gets the pleasure of lining up across from veteran Cam Heyward.
Heyward logged 11.0 sacks last year, one against the Bengals and will be chomping at the bit to take on the rookie. The Bengals will depend on the experience of Ted Karras and Jonah Williams on either side of Volson to marshall him through his debut.
A solid interior pass rush is the quickest way to the quarterback, and it will be high on Zac Taylor’s priority list to find a way to slow Heyward down. Volson doesn’t have to be perfect, but he needs to hold up more often than to give Burrow time in the pocket.
La’el Collins vs. TJ Watt
Staying with the Bengals' offensive line, the second big battle will be between TJ Watt and La’el Collins. Watt led the NFL last year in sacks, logging 22.5 per ESPN. The Bengals kept him relatively quiet in his one outing against them in 2021. He only managed one hurry and a PFF grade of 56.1. A repeat of that would be seen as a significant success.
Watt was one of the many reasons that the Bengals made finding a long-term right tackle a priority. That said, nerves have been jangling in the Bengals camp considering Collins has not seen much action, in practice or preseason. Hopefully that was just precaution and the Bengals revamped line will be at full strength.
While Collins will need to survive in pass protection, he will hope to make gains in the running game. Carving open running lanes for Joe Mixon is another way of making things that little bit easier for Joe Burrow on second and third downs.
Eli Apple vs. George Pickens
Steelers training camp has been abuzz about rookie wide receiver George Pickens. His physical nature and unwillingness to back down has chimed with the fanbase. It also means he is likely to become an unpopular figure in Cincy.
His arrival and immediate inclusion as a starter should push Chase Claypool infield to become a ‘big slot’. It also means that Pickens will likely see plenty of time across from Eli Apple. Apple had an excellent year for the Bengals in 2022, a surprising comeback having previously bounced around the league.
Injury to rookie Cam Taylor-Britt means he never really faced a challenge in camp, and there are some reservations as to if he can hold up again as a starting corner. Apple will undoubtedly revel in the challenge Pickens presents, and you can imagine a lively back and forth come gameday.
Trey Hendrickson vs. Dan Moore Jr.
The Steelers have serious offensive line concerns of their own. The group has slowly declined, and additions through the draft and free agency have failed to provide much confidence. One of the players tasked with becoming a cornerstone is left tackle Dan Moore Jr. It was a rough rookie season for Moore, and confidence in him solidifying the spot is low.
Moore allowed 46 pressures, including seven sacks last year, making it puzzling why the Steelers didn’t make more effort to revamp the line and protect their new franchise quarterback. It will be Mitch Trubisky on Sunday, and it’s difficult to see him being able to get rid of the football as efficiently as Big Ben did in the late throes of his career.
The Bengals couldn’t have hoped for any better out of Trey Hendrickson in his first season in Cincinnati. His 16.0 sacks were vital in disrupting opposite offenses, proving he could maintain productivity even as the number 1 player on the defensive line.
Hendrickson will need to ensure he sets the edge and gets pressure. Trubisky is likely to bail the pocket if things get tricky, and if the Bengals can contain him, he is unlikely to have time to pick apart the secondary.
These are the key matchups to watch. Is there any other that you're going to fixate on?