The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m. The Bengals have beaten the Steelers the last three times they’ve faced them, and the last two games were not particularly close. Last season Joe Burrow, Joe Mixon and Ja’Marr Chase torched the black and gold for 65 total points with 41 of those points coming in the second meeting between the two teams in November.
Ahkello Witherspoon who will draw the sublime Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase as his first assignment as the top cornerback for the Pittsburgh defense was asked after practice if the game against the Bengals would be a good barometer for how far the defense had come since last season.
“Yeah. Why not,” Witherspoon answered. “They were in the Super Bowl last year. We are coming from a camp that I think we competed well against our offense. I think we did well in preseason against the offenses that we saw.”
The bad news is that the Steelers faced the Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars and the Detroit Lions in the preseason. None of these teams are viewed as high-powered offenses heading into the 2022 NFL season. Pittsburgh’s offense is not supposed to be very good this season based on the prognosticators. The highest-paid defense in the league should have enjoyed success against the groups they have faced. The good news is that they got better with every preseason game and faced increasingly better offenses as they got nearer to opening day.
The Steelers were last against the run in the entire NFL last season, and it hurt them against the Bengals. Mixon gashed the Steelers in both meetings and seemingly gained yards at will last season. The Cincinnati wideouts are simply too good to stack the box against Mixon and not have Burrow check out of a run and burn the mismatch. It is likely that the black and gold will have to play nickel and dime packages a lot and when that happens Myles Jack will have to shine if they elect to use Mixon in RPOs.
Jack might be the most important free agent acquisition for the Steelers in recent memory. Devin Bush reacted slowly to the run in 2021 and Robert Spillane was a guaranteed target in pass coverage. The Steelers’ new top inside linebacker is exceptionally good in coverage and attacks the run aggressively. He should make a huge difference for the Steelers in shoring up the number one weakness from last season.
Pittsburgh will also have Tyson Alualu and Larry Ogunjobi playing alongside Cam Heyward and it will be a lot harder to push that group off the ball. Chris Wormley and DeMarvin Leal will provide quality depth for the older defensive line that should also be a much stronger and deeper unit if they stay healthy. Assuming the defensive line and Jack are effective in slowing Mixon, T.J. Watt could feast on the Bengals’ protection and harass Burrow on Sunday into a mistake.
“Let’s take that week one against a high-powered offense and see where we are at,” Witherspoon concluded.
The Cincinnati Bengals represented the AFC last season in the Super Bowl. They used a lot of magic to get to the big game, but Burrow was sacked nine times against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round and they still won. The Bengals and Burrow are very resilient and they made significant moves to try to shore up the offensive line. The Steelers are going to go as far as the defense takes them in 2022. We will have a good idea late Sunday afternoon, how far that might be.
What do you think Steeler Nation? Are you excited to see the Steelers return to an elite defensive unit? Comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.