The Pittsburgh Steelers should have two goals heading into their season opener Sunday in Cincinnati.
• Make this opener look as much like the one last year in Buffalo as possible.
• Make this game as unrecognizable as possible when comparing it to the two games against the Bengals last season.
The Steelers lost those games 24-10 at home and 41-10 in Cincinnati. The Bengals probably could’ve made the margins worse. Cincy was very much in control throughout both contests.
The Bengals roster is returning largely intact compared to the one that trampled the Steelers en route to an AFC North championship. Meanwhile, the hope in Pittsburgh is that changes in the depth chart and improved health along the defensive front will provide a stiffer test for Cincinnati this time around.
If that is to happen, here are a few areas where the Steelers defense can rewrite the script and avoid what would be a third straight loss in Cincinnati and fourth in a row overall against their AFC North rival.
• Exploit the exploitable: The Bengals managed to work around offensive line deficiencies all the way to Super Bowl LVI. But that’s where the bubble burst against Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams defensive front.
Quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked seven times in that game. He was sacked an NFL-high 51 times during the regular season.
“They are already one of the top teams in this league. And I feel like maybe they were just an O-line short of winning it all,” Steelers defensive lineman Tyson Alualu said. “But they brought in some vets, and they got new guys across the offensive line. This will be a good test to see where we are.”
Yet the Steelers — with their NFL-leading 55 sacks in 2021 — sacked Burrow only twice in 44 dropbacks last season. Granted, star pass rusher TJ Watt missed the first game between the clubs due to injury, but that’s still a disproportionate result given what should have been a mismatch in Pittsburgh’s favor.
The Bengals changed four of their five starting offensive linemen during the offseason. Everyone except left tackle Jonah Williams is new. Center Ted Karras (New England), right guard Alex Cappa (Tampa Bay) and right tackle (La’el Collins) played elsewhere last season, and left guard Cordell Volson is a rookie.
The Steelers need to create pass pressure while the Bengals offensive line is still coming together and may have some issues with cohesion.
“They thought they were bringing in better players,” Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “We know Frank (Pollack) is a quality offensive line coach. He does a great job. Those guys will be taught well. They will work together well. It’s our job to play better than they do.”
• Contains Joe Mixon: The Bengals running back had 90 yards on 18 carries in the first game between the teams. He popped off for 165 yards on 28 carries the second time.
Former Bengals defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi joined the Steelers this summer. He knows how difficult handling Mixon can be.
“He’s a special guy when it comes to running that football. We’ve got a tall order,” Ogunjobi said.
The Steelers were last in the NFL against the run a season ago, allowing 146 yards per game. But Watt should be healthy in this game. Alualu didn’t play against the Bengals last year. Stephon Tuitt missed all of 2021, and Ogunjobi has been signed to fill that void.
So the Steelers are banking on an improved front to make life more difficult for Mixon.
“We haven’t shown our full hand (in the preseason) at stopping the run,” Watt said this week. “I’m very comfortable with where we are in the game plan and where we are having the extra week preparing for these guys. I’m looking forward to righting the wrong when it comes to the Steelers stopping the run.”
• Pick your poison: The Steelers have to figure out a way to limit the impact of Cincinnati’s trio of impactful receivers. They did a decent job on Pitt product Tyler Boyd, holding him to just six catches for 49 yards in the two games last year. But he did catch a touchdown pass in Game 1.
Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins were the bigger problems. Chase had four catches for 65 yards and two touchdowns in the first game at (what was) Heinz Field. Higgins exploded for six catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in (what was) Paul Brown Stadium after missing the first game.
“Those are great receivers,” Steelers cornerback Levi Wallace said. “Those are game wreckers, all three of them. Three different skill sets.”
One key for the Steelers is to do better on first and second downs. Go back and look at the Cincy touchdown drives in the first half of that 41-10 blowout. The first one was the opening drive of the game. It lasted 10 plays. Only one snap was a third down, and it was third-and-1.
The Bengals’ second TD drive to make the score 17-3 started at their own 25. It was six plays long. Burrow never even saw a third down. The third touchdown jaunt was a 14-play romp that traveled 84 yards. Cincinnati only had one third down snap longer than a third-and-5. Burrow needed 12 yards on a third down, and he hit Higgins for 16.
To the previous point, if Mixon gets going and Burrow has options on second and third downs with manageable distances, the Bengals will eat up the Steelers again.
“It’s no secret they have a pretty balanced offense. They have a lot of key weapons at the skill positions,” Watt said. “We have to establish that we can stop the run. Not only against the Bengals but the whole season. That’s what setting a tone early is.”
Obviously, the offense needs to do a better job as well. It needs to possess the ball longer. Holding it for less than 25 minutes in Game 2 was a problem. A combined five turnovers in two games was a bigger problem. So was the fact that the Steelers managed just 51 yards and 45 yards rushing in the two games.
But Matt Canada’s new-look offense has quarterback Mitch Trubisky making his debut. The reconfigured offensive line needs to work its way into consistency. So the defense is going to have to carry the load early in the season.
It did the job last year in Buffalo against a good offense to win the game 23-16. That unit needs to do something similar Sunday afternoon to open 2022. Otherwise, this sudden drought of wins against the Bengals will surely continue.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.