The Steelers open up with a daunting divisional battle to start off the season. With so many changes from last season to now, what should we even expect for this Sunday’s game?
To quote the famous words of Bruce Buffer, “It’s time!” The NFL regular season is back and in full force with an incredible slate of games from Thursday night to Monday night. One of those being the Pittsburgh Steelers returning to Cincinnati, seeking redemption against a talented Bengals team that swept the Steelers just a season ago.
The most previous matchup between the two divisional foes resulted in an embarrassing 41-10 blowout win for the Super Bowl runner-up Bengals. The Pittsburgh Steelers however lead the all time series 67-38, but have only managed to win one out of the last four meetings between the two teams. Pittsburgh’s last win dates all the way back to November of 2020.
Pittsburgh faced a similar challenge in week one of last year as well, playing on the road at Buffalo against a Bills team that made it to the AFC Championship game in 2020. The Steelers relied on a monstrous effort from TJ Watt as well as a blocked punt in order to steal an upset on the road from a better team. A performance like that might be just what Pittsburgh needs in the season opener this year as well.
Steelers Defense Gets Their First Test
One of the more intriguing storylines of week one’s game will certainly be how the Steelers defensive backs matchup with the speed and sheer playmaking ability of the Bengals receiving corp. Newly acquired corner back Levi Wallace should provide some much needed experience on the outside after the departure of Joe Haden, but will it be enough to limit Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd? It will be interesting to see for sure, and a matchup like this will give fans a look at what the Steelers’ secondary is capable of.
Pittsburgh’s number one corner back Ahkello Witherspoon knows just how tough of a matchup Sunday can be for his team. When asked if Cincinnati’s offense could be a good barometer for how far the Steelers’ secondary has come from last year, Witherspoon stated, “Yeah, Why not? I mean, they were in the Super Bowl last year. We’re coming from a camp that I think we competed well against our offense.” Ahkello would continue to say, “Let’s take that week one against a high powered offense and see where we’re at.”
Ahkello Witherspoon should line up across from Bengal’s star receiver Ja’Marr Chase, a challenge that he will definitely not shy away from. Witherspoon showed Steelers’ fans last season that he has what it takes to run with the best of the receivers in the league. While Cincinnati’s high octane passing game is something to be worried about, I personally am more worried about how Pittsburgh’s front seven will fare against Joe Mixon and the Bengals’ newly revamped offensive line.
Can Pittsburgh Finally Stop The Run?
The signing of Myles Jack was a must if the Steelers wanted to remain competitive this year in the AFC North. Each team they will face off against within the division has a running game that is near the top when compared to the rest of the league. Jack’s counterpart, Devin Bush, won the other starting linebacker job after a shaky preseason, and was part of a historically bad run defense last year that suffered from a lack of depth on the defensive line as well as a lack of talent in the interior linebacking group.
Jack and company will get the chance early on in the season to make a new identity for the defense that finished last year as the worst against the run across all 32 teams. To make things worse, the Bengals completely revised the right side of their offensive line with the signings of (C) Ted Karras, (RG) Alex Cappa, and (RT) La’el Collins. Joe Mixon was a top five running back last year running behind a much less impressive offensive line, and should continue his dominance into 2022 as well.
TJ Watt will line up across from La’el Collins in what is certainly a five star matchup in the trenches. Watt, the NFL’s premiere pass rusher, will definitely need to make his presence felt from a pass rush standpoint as well as in the run game.
A Tale of Two Very Different Quarterbacks
Mitch Trubisky was named QB1 for the Steelers earlier this week, a surprise to few, and will begin his career redemption tour against a ferocious defensive line in Cincinnati. Joe Burrow on the other hand, is coming off a career year and a Super Bowl appearance, and will now be taking snaps behind a much improved offensive line that will most likely be leaps and bounds better than Pittsburgh’s come time for kickoff.
Trubisky managed to fend off rookie Kenny Pickett from the starting job, and has all of Mike Tomlin’s trust at this point in the season. He also has a skill position group that has the potential and talent to keep up with Cincinnati’s offense if they can just get a competent performance from the offensive line.
One key matchup for Mitch Trubisky to keep an eye on, is whoever gets the privilege of lining up against Bengal’s corner back Eli Apple. Whether it’s Diontae Johnson managing to fight off a shoulder injury that he sustained in the final preseason game, or George Pickens starting in his first career NFL game, Mitch Trubisky should look to throw that way early and often.
As I stated in my AFC North Preview from earlier in the summer, the NFL is extremely unpredictable. Just because a team looked like a contender the year prior, does not mean they will be lights out the following year. The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of talent on both offense and defense to stick it out with any team in the division. Their only hinderance is the offensive line. The result of Sunday’s game will revolve entirely around the ability of the offensive line to keep Mitch Trubisky upright.
Week one of the NFL comes with plenty of surprises each year, and I think the Steelers can be one of those surprises this week if they can just catch some lucky breaks here and there. It isn’t likely that the Steelers will be able to steal a win on the road, but it is far from impossible. Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, I am absolutely ecstatic to have football back and I am sure you all are as well. Here’s to another exciting Pittsburgh Steeler’s season!