When the Cincinnati Bengals (2-10-1) last toppled the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) in 2015, Ben Roethlisberger was on his way to a fourth Pro Bowl appearance while Ryan Finley was a redshirt sophomore at Boise State.
Needless to say, it’s been a minute since Pittsburgh, losers of its last two, has fallen to its division rival. The added incentive of clinching the AFC North with a win on Monday Night Football should be more than enough motivation to keep Cincy at bay once again.
Here are three storylines to watch for when the Steelers and Bengals clash on MNF (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN):
Is Big Ben due for a big bounce back?
Against Buffalo, Roethlisberger looked like a magician who ran out of tricks. Even with the Steelers struggling on the ground for most of the year, Big Ben found ways to make magic. But the Bills D was fully prepared and locked in, holding Roethlisberger to 187 yards and a season-low 5.1 YPA. The offense’s play in Week 14 is a microcosm of the issues that have plagued it during a season in which the Steelers were the last unbeaten until Week 13.
The inconsistent run game has led to teams centering their schemes around containing the short passing game Big Ben has thrived in. His 283 completions on 377 attempts of less than 10 air yards both lead the NFL, per NFL Research. Roethlisberger’s 77% completion rate in that area of the field in Weeks 1-12 dipped to 66.2 in the losses. His five INTs in Weeks 11-14 have all come when opponents have dropped seven-plus defenders in coverage; he threw three on non-blitzes the previous nine weeks. Drops have also been an issue, most notably by Diontae Johnson, in the losses. According to PFF, the Steelers lead the NFL with 35 drops; Johnson has 12 (most by a player). Being that this is a copycat league, Cincy will try to replicate that game plan to disrupt Big Ben, who had one of his best games in Week 10 against this team. It’s going to take Johnson, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster to do what they do so the offense can get back on track.
Can Cincy steal one against a reeling bunch?
Last week’s late-game injury to Brandon Allen, who took over in Week 12 following Joe Burrow’s season-ending injury, has forced Cincy to pivot back to Finley. After failing to manifest a comeback in Week 11 after Burrow went down, the second-year QB saw garbage time in Weeks 13 and 14. MNF will be his first start since going for an unsuccessful test run in 2019 for three games. As fate would have it, Finley’s last start came against these Steelers. He recorded 192 yards (12-of-26) and a TD in a 16-10 defeat. T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Heyward are among the familiar faces looking to give Finley another rough night. With a run game that’s also stuck in neutral (92.3 YPG), the Bengals, one of the league’s lowest scoring teams, could still potentially steal a win should Pittsburgh’s woes continue and this one stays close. Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and A.J. Green, fresh off his best game in weeks, better show up ready to go.
Steelers’ run game needs to get right fast
After totaling over 100-plus yards rushing in each of the first five games, Pittsburgh’s ground game has been running in place ever since, thanks in part to a reliance on a pass-heavy attack. Since Week 6, the Steelers have run on 33.4% of their plays, the lowest in the NFL in that span, according to NFL Research. James Conner and Benny Snell have been at the center of this underwhelming unit. On the year, the Steelers rank 31st in rush YPG (89.1) and YPC (3.7). Luckily for them, the Bengals are among the worst in those — and several other — defensive categories. If Pittsburgh plays its cards right, this could be the get-right game this bunch desperately needs.
The Steelers have averaged 17 PPG over their last three after averaging 29.8 in the weeks prior; the run game hasn’t pitched in any points since a 1-yard Snell TD in Week 11. It’s true Conner’s availability has been hindered lately and could be again due to a new quad injury. But, if he can go, the Steelers should look to re-establish the run because the one-dimensional approach is no longer working as effectively as it once was.