The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers kick off their respective 2022 NFL campaigns on Sunday at 6pm (UK time).
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In previewing this contest, I’m eschewing the traditional “Team X news/Team Y news” format in favor of drawing a comparison between two high-profile teams that, in different ways, are in similar spots.
The New England Patriots, a season after seemingly striking gold in the middle of the first round of the draft with Mac Jones , and seemingly securing their post-Brady future, are a mess on offense. Main reason for this is that the identity of the individual calling the plays on that side of the ball (apparently Matt Patricia?) remained a mystery until the latter stages of the offseason. Beyond that, as it has for years now, the offense remains almost completely bereft of dynamic playmakers, only now the offensive line, for years a strength of Bill Belichick‘s teams is, generously, a major question mark.
Against the Miami Dolphins in Week 1, despite Jones’s cosmetically acceptable 21-of-30, 213-yard showing, the Patriots’ attack posed no threat, averaging barely three and a half yards per carry on the ground, managing only a lone touchdown, and committing three turnovers, one of which resulted in a Dolphins’ touchdown.
Ideally, the Pats would like to lean on their defense, which did a solid job of holding the Dolphins, more or less, in check. Though Tua Tagovailoa completed 23-of-33 for 270 yards, the Dolphins’ offense managed only a touchdown, and though their top two receivers, Tyreek Hill (8 catches, 94 yards) and Jaylen Waddle (4 ctaches, 69 yards and a TD) had good games, they did not blow the game open. Beyond that, the Pats shut down the Miami running attack, to the tune of just 65 yards on 23 carries.
In the Steelers’ offense, the Patriots will encounter, almost across the board, a lesser version of the Dolphins team they faced in Week 1: a quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky on whom most are not sold; a deep and talented crew of receivers in Chase Claypool, Dionte Johnson, George Pickens and tight end Pat Friermuth; as well as a suspect offensive line. One area where the Steelers have a theoretical clear edge over the Dolphins is at running back, though Najee Harris struggled horrifically against the Bengals in Week 1, managing just 23 yards on 10 carries and three yards on two receptions (admittedly one of them was for a touchdown).
The loss that the Steelers are contending with is that as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year TJ Watt, who’s expected to miss most (if not all) of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. It’s worth noting that the Steelers defense it’s hardly devoid of talent in Watt’s absence, Minkah Fitzpatrick not only intercepted Joe Burrow’s first pass of the season and returned to 31 yards for a touchdown, also made ten solo tackles and assisted on four others. D-lineman Alex Highsmith had three sacks, a team-high four QB hits, six solo tackles, two tackles for loss, and forced a fumble. Newly acquired linebacker Myles Jack and six solo tackles, assisted on four others and had a tackle for a loss. Star D-lineman Cam Heyward hit Burrow three times and had a sack of his own.
The absence of TJ Watt is something that absolutely must be accounted for in Pittsburgh. That reckoning will probably brings some pain. However, given all the talent that does remain on this defense, combined with the apparent toothlessness of the Patriots’ offense, it’s unlikely that that reckoning comes this week. Look for the Steelers, as two-and-a-half point home underdogs, to win this game outright, while holding the Pats’ offense in check.