Steelers football is finally back as Pittsburgh travels to Cincinnati to face the Bengals. Here are four players that the Steelers must gameplan against.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will face a familiar foe to begin their 2022 season, as they travel to Cincinnati to battle the Bengals. They were thoroughly dominated in their two meetings last season, being outscored 65-20. The Steelers are a different team this year of course, but the Bengals are a tough matchup for anyone.
If Pittsburgh wants to have a chance to settle last year’s score, they have to be able to gameplan against a few key players for Cincinnati. Let’s start with the “other” star receiver for the Bengals.
Steelers must limit WR Tee Higgins
After the rookie season Ja’Marr Chase put together last season, it’s hard not to pick him as the Steelers biggest concern heading into week 1. Believe it or not, however, it was Higgins who had the best game against Pittsburgh last year. He went off for six catches and 114 yards after missing the first contest against them, including a 32-yard touchdown.
Chase meanwhile had 104 yards total despite playing both games, with his only big play being against backup corner James Pierre. This isn’t to say I don’t worry about Chase having a big day, but the only Steelers corner with the size to matchup one-on-one with Higgins is Ahkello Witherspoon. I expect them to shade a safety over Higgins on most plays, especially when Witherspoon isn’t the corner on his side.
Steelers must slow down RB Joe Mixon
Anyone who watched the Steelers run defense last season would not be surprised that they finished last in the NFL against the run. The Bengals Joe Mixon took advantage of a weak defensive line to the tune of 255 yards and two scores last season, including a career-high 165 yards in week 12.
The Steelers can’t afford to let the Bengals dictate the pace of the game by running down their throats. Their passing attack is deadly enough even when Mixon isn’t having a great day. The last thing they need is to have to commit eight guys in the box just to keep him in check and leave their corners on an island against their loaded receiving core.
The depth along the Steelers defensive line is definitely better to start this season, and they have upgraded at linebacker with the addition of Myles Jack. They still need to prove it in a meaningful game, but Mixon shouldn’t find running lanes as easily this time.
Steelers must double Trey Hendrickson
The Bengals signing of Trey Hendrickson in 2021 was considered quite the risk, as he was coming off his first season of real production in 2020 with 13.5 sacks. Players who have a career year during a contract season often end up being fool’s gold for their next team. Instead, he had an even better season with 14 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Two of those sacks and one of the forced fumbles came against the Steelers, where he consistently beat rookie tackle Dan Moore Jr. That matchup will be key to watch once again after a rough preseason from Moore Jr. The Steelers will need to have a running back or tight end stay in to block or chip him on their way out on routes. If they can at least prevent him from making any splash plays like he did last year, they should be able to be more aggressive in the passing game.
Steelers must avoid DJ Reader
The Steelers may have a loaded receiving core and a more athletic QB room but make no mistake: this offense is designed to run through Najee Harris. Harris was very productive but inefficient as a rookie, and the offensive line didn’t exactly make his life easier. Whether the line has truly improved is yet to be seen, but week one against Cincinnati will be a great test for them due to the presence of nose tackle DJ Reader.
Reader is one of the biggest (literally) pieces on defense for the Bengals, standing at 6’3 and over 335 pounds. He was a huge part of the Bengals going from a bottom-five run defense in 2020 to a top-five unit in 2021. That was especially true against the Steelers last season, only allowing 96 yards on 30 carries.
They won’t do much better this year if their interior line can’t handle Reader. New starting center Mason Cole has been a quality run blocker in his career but is pretty light at just under 300 pounds. He will need help on just about every snap to avoid Reader getting in the backfield, which will put more pressure on the rest of the line. Hopefully, they are up to the task.