The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers kick off their respective 2022 NFL campaigns on Sunday at 6pm (UK time).
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Defending AFC champions the Bengals are looking to cement their status as perennial contenders, while the in-transition Steelers hope to show that they’re still truly in the AFC North mix. The Bengals, for years the derided doormats of the AFC North, will be looking to show that last season’s magical run to the Super Bowl was no fluke. If they’re able to make a compelling case on Sunday, they’ll enjoy the added bonus of driving their division rivals (and, for some time, perennial contenders) the Pittsburgh Steelers, deeper into uncertainty.
Pittsburgh Steelers team news
These are strange times in the Steel City. For the first time in two decades, the Steelers will not be led on offense by Ben Roethlisberger. We should, however, be careful about making too much of this, as, for as strange as it will be to not see #7 under center in the black and gold, it had quietly kind of been a while since Big Ben, who was a disaster in 2021, was even a ‘good’ quarterback, let alone an elite one.
Even with that being the case, the transition to quarterback isn’t necessarily a simple. And, in Roethlisberger’s (and in the absence of any kind of succession planning during his decline), the Steelers have turned to Mitchell Trubisky, a former top-five pick who suffered through a rough transition to the NFL as a member of the Chicago Bears before spending last season as Josh Allen’s backup in Buffalo. Trubisky (surprisingly to some) beat out the team’s first round draft pick and a local hero from the University of Pittsburgh, Kenny Pickett, with an impressive (24 out of 34 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns) preseason showing.
The good news for Trubisky is that the Steelers are loaded at the skill position, with a receiver trio of Dionte Johnson, Chase Claypool and rookie George Pickens that’s one of the most talented in the NFL, and a young running back in Najee Harris who could be poised for stardom.
The problem, of course, is that for either for Trubisky or the running game to have much success, opposing defenses will have to be kept out of the Steelers’ backfield. That could be a problem. The Steelers offensive line, already a weakness a year ago, projects as one of the very worst in the NFL. On the other side of the ball, meanwhile, the Steelers’ defensive front (with the exception of Defensive Player of the Year and superstar TJ Watt) struggled a year ago, particularly against the run (they were dead last in rushing yards and yards allowed per rush in 2021).
It’s tempting to simply look at the departure of a future Hall of Famer and project doom, However, it’s exceedingly likely that the Steelers’ quarterback situation is markedly better in 2022 than it was in 2021. The problem, however, is that the offensive line looks to be a decided, readily exploitable weakness. Unless something changes, that;’s likely to torpedo this offense.
Cincinnati Bengals team news
Meanwhile, the vibe around the Bengals, in just about every way imaginable, could not be much more positive. This team is set up for long-term success. First, and most importantly, in third-year man Joe Burrow, the Bengals have a bonafide franchise quarterback – who’s not yet earning franchise quarterback money. Similarly, last year’s first round pick, wide receiver Ja’marr Chase wasted no time in establishing himself as a top-five player at the position, and shattering records set by the likes of Randy Moss and Justin Jefferson. Those two alone, on rookie contracts, are the foundation of a dynasty.
With the high ends skill position talent surrounding them – namely Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd, and running back Joe Mixon – a revamped offensive line (this group doesn’t need to be elite; but, from where where we left off last season, ‘middle of the pack’ group would be a dramatic improvement) and a defense that is solidly ‘very good’, all back, and fresh off of a magical run to the Super Bowl, that they reasonably had a chance to win, there’s a lot to love in Cincy.
There’s no reason to overthink this. The Bengals are almost assuredly going to remain one of the top handful of teams in the AFC. Given their talent and continuity, against a Steelers team that was mediocre last season and is integrating a new quarterback behind an offensive line can’t protect him, there’s really only one way for this to go.