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Steelers prepare to face a Cincinnati Bengals team in transition

Following a dismal start in 2017, the Bengals appear to be on the road to recovery.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the past, and regardless of their week-to-week performances, the Pittsburgh Steelers usually have been able to count their blessings, particularly when pondering the state of their divisional rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. Now in his 15th year as head coach of the Bengals, and despite many ups and downs, Marvin Lewis has compiled a respectable 120-106 record, for a winning percentage of .531. While this might be a higher percentage than many Pittsburgh fans would suspect, the overriding stat in the Lewis record is the Bengals’ 0-7 record in playoff appearances during his coaching tenure. That’s a very tough record for any NFL coach to live with—and when the Bengals began their 2017 regular season with three consecutive losses, their fans and the Cincinnati sports media broke out the torches and pitchforks, demanding the heads of Lewis, Andy Dalton and anyone else remotely associated with the organization.

Fast forward to Week 7, with the Bengals coming off of their bye-week and having added consecutive wins over the Cleveland Browns (31-7) and the Buffalo Bills (20-16), things are looking a bit brighter for Queen City football fans. The facts that stand out most about the 2017 Bengals are twofold. First, the team’s offense is in the midst of a youth movement at receiver and running back. Secondly, injuries and inexperience so far have combined to short-circuit the plans of Lewis and company to roll out a more potent offense.

Wide receiver John Ross, Cincinnati’s 2017 first-round draft pick (No. 9 overall), has struggled with injuries from the get-go, and he’s played only five snaps—all of them in the Bengals’ Week-2 loss to the Houston Texans. Just recently, the Bengals announced their talented tight end, Tyler Eifert, will be lost for the entire season due to undergoing his third back surgery. Because Eifert becomes a free agent next year, his future in Cincinnati—and possibly in the NFL—is cloudy to say the least.

Cincinnati’s 2017 second-round pick and currently their leading rusher, Joe Mixon, also has gotten off to a slow start in the league, posting 67 carries for only 187 yards and 2.8 YPC in the Bengals’ first-five games. In fact, the only real steadying force on Cincinnati’s offense these days is wide receiver A.J. Green who’s currently No. 2 in receiving yards with 504 (well behind No. 1 Antonio Brown’s 700 yards).

In a script that’s become too familiar for many Bengals fans, quarterback Dalton continues to intermingle flashes of brilliance with mind-boggling errors. Dalton currently ranks No. 21 in the league in passing yards (1,220 total) and No. 27 in total quarterback rating. This rating places the redhead squarely in the heart of Flacco Country—hardly a place in which the leader of any NFL offense wants to be discovered.

But it’s not all negatives for the Bengals this season. Their defense currently is near the top of the league, ranking No. 2 in the three key categories of points allowed, yards allowed and passing yards allowed. Besides the usual suspects—Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Vontaze Burfict—second-year linebacker Nick Vigil (a 2016 third-round pick and No. 87 overall) has become a youthful leader on this unit. Vigil currently leads the team with 43 tackles (solo and partial combined) plus one interception and three tackles for losses. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Utah State alumnus has given every indication of becoming a defensive star in the league for years to come.

In their planning for Sunday’s matchup at Heinz Field, the Steelers likely will seek to exploit some of the aforementioned personnel issues that continue to plague Cincinnati. But given the Bengals’ stout defense, it seems unlikely that Pittsburgh can expect to have the same kind of success running the ball as they had last Sunday in Kansas City. Also, whereas the Chiefs were sitting undefeated at 5-0 and atop their division going into last weekend’s game, the Bengals come into Heinz Field hungry for a win against their arch-rival and bolstered by two weeks’ rest following their bye-week. At this point, and given the Steelers’ uneven showings in their first-six games, it should be crystal clear by now that nothing is likely to come easy this season. And precisely this expectation of facing yet another tough challenge might prove to be the Steelers’ strongest psychological ally on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.