The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals are set to face off for their second outing of the season in Week 16. Though the Steelers pulled away with the win in their first outing just weeks ago, each of these teams feel like they’re in a much different spot than they were just a month ago. We discuss Bengals QB Jake Browning, Cincinnati’s playoff hopes and more with Anthony Cosenza of Cincy Jungle ahead of Week 16.
1. QB Jake Browning has really been special over the last month, ranked third amongst quarterbacks in EPA per play since Week 12. What has changed between that first Steelers game and now?
Oh, boy, quite a bit has changed. In the two-plus quarters against the Ravens and the game against the Steelers, Browning and the offense was essentially running the identical system to what they had with Joe Burrow. It proved to be a bit much and not playing as much to Browning’s strengths, so they tweaked it and it paid off well.
A higher effectiveness in the run game, boosted by the return of rookie Chase Brown has both directly and indirectly helped things. There are a lot more play-action passes now, with bootlegs as part of the norm. Cincinnati has also run screens much more effectively, with Browning utilizing the tight ends much more to give him favorable passing matchups.
2. No Ja’Marr Chase in this game. Last game, I believe, there was no Tee Higgins. Do you still expect big things through the air?
Yes, I think you’re referring to Higgins missing the last Steelers game. Of course, Chase being out is a huge loss, but I suppose the silver lining, if I have to cling to one, is in the fact that Browning has dispersed the ball pretty evenly across the board. Chase has had only one true dominant performance in Browning’s four games (11 catches for 149 and a score against Jacksonville), but he’s still had timely, highlight-reel catches and his mere presence on the field commands a ton of attention.
I don’t think this is going to be an Air Player of the Week-type of deal from Browning, but rather trying to use the size and catch radii of Higgins and his tight ends in a controlled passing attack, driven by the play-action. Again, look for swings, screens and intermediate chain-moving passes this week, particularly with the Steelers so decimated at safety.
3. What’s the general consensus right now amongst Bengals fans? How far do you think they can go in the playoffs with Browning?
It’s weird. Everyone’s enjoying the Cinderella story with Browning and the fact that they’re in the thick of the AFC playoff picture despite losing one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. After a win or two, I think people were stoked, but were still hesitant to call them contenders.
But, Browning seems to have a similar “it factor” to Burrow’s immense one and this team has held a strong belief in itself after losing Burrow. Throw in the fact that some of the teams they may face in the postseason (if they make) at some point, might either be a team they’ve already beaten (Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Buffalo) and/or one sporting a backup quarterback of their own.
Still, last week’s game against the Vikings was a bloodbath. They lost run-stopping savant, D.J. Reader, for the season along with reserve corner D.J. Ivey, with Chase also getting hurt. Their defense is giving up a lot of yards and relying on the random huge plays rather than methodical stops and two of these three wins have been in overtime. They need to win at least two of the next three tough ones (at Pittsburgh, at Kansas City, home against Cleveland) to get in and may even need more help with 10 wins.
Can they make it? Sure. Can they make noise in the bracket? I think so, yeah. They’ve had and continue to have their backs against the wall a bit, though. We’ll see just how much grit and magic this team truly has in these next few weeks.
4. Is there really any concern from the Bengals going into this game facing Mason Rudolph and a Steelers team that’s lost three straight?
Those who either cover and/or cheer for the team likely have some semblance of “Steelers PTSD”. Be it the two Wild Card losses in the Marvin Lewis era, Jerome Bettis doing the trademark clock bleed, or a myriad of other cringe-worthy moments, we’ve seen the Steelers impose their will on the Bengals so many times. And, just like a month ago, the Steelers are making last-ditch efforts to save their season right on the cusp of facing Cincinnati. It worked last time and, as I mentioned above, Cincinnati is without two of its best offensive players this week (Burrow and Chase), as well as their second-best defensive player in Reader.
As for Rudolph, he’s 3-0 against the Bengals and Zac Taylor, however only one of those was a game with Burrow and this is a much better roster than that of 2019-2020—even with the injuries. The Steelers will get theirs on the ground, probably generate pressure/sacks, but it will be up to Rudolph to make at least a few big plays for Pittsburgh to get the win.
5. DraftKings has the Bengals as 2.5-point favorites. Do they cover that spread?
This game is a big challenge and, if I’m being honest, might be the toughest of the three extremely-tough games remaining on the Bengals’ schedule. An AFC North bully at home that is doing everything it can to salvage their season on the heels of a three-game losing streak? Yikes.
Still, the Bengals and Browning just keep shattering expectations and proving everyone wrong. There were so many moments of high effort and simple magic last week that seems to point to this team being a problem for the NFL going forward. I think the Bengals win and barely cover. I can see the other side of the coin occurring with the Steelers having a similar win, but I’m rolling with the feast-or-famine Cincinnati defense creating big plays when it’s Rudolph’s time to make one.