Fri, 02 Dec 2022

Five things to watch: Bengals at Steelers

Cincinnati Bengals
19 Nov 2022, 20:58 GMT+10

Kyle Williams

The Bengals return from their bye week looking to earn a crucial AFC North Division win at Pittsburgh on Sunday. The game airs at 4:25 p.m. on CBS. Here are five things to watch:

1. Pass protection at a premium

Since allowing 13 sacks over the first two games of the year - including a season-high seven to Pittsburgh in Week 1 - the Bengals have given up just 19 in their last seven contests (2.7 per game). Cincinnati is 5-1 when limiting opponents to three or fewer sacks, and keeping that number low again will give quarterback Joe Burrow time in the pocket to dissect a banged-up Steelers secondary.

"I've been positive on that group, and I only think they're continuing to get better," said head coach Zac Taylor on the offensive line. "I think they've given us what we've needed to be able to go compete and win all these games that we've played in."

Though the Steelers enter the game with just 17 sacks this season (seventh-fewest in the NFL), they still pose several pass-rushing threats. Namely, the reigning AP Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt returned to the lineup in Week 10 after missing seven games, and fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith is coming off a two-sack performance against New Orleans that earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

2. Burrow nearing 10K mark

Burrow has already hit several career milestones in his third pro season, including his 50th touchdown pass and 1,000th pass attempt. Next up is 10,000 career passing yards, which he enters Sunday just 166 away from reaching. Should he do so in what will be his 36th career game, Burrow would tie Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner as the third-fastest player in NFL history to join the 10K club.

Burrow and the Cincinnati offense face a Steelers secondary that is allowing 263.9 passing yards per game, the third-most in the league this season. In the regular season opener against Pittsburgh, Burrow threw for 338 yards, with 229 of those coming after halftime.

3. Turnover margin

Turnover differential has proven to be a key factor for both teams this season. Dating back to the Week 1 matchup in which Cincinnati turned the ball over five times (Pittsburgh converted three of those into points), the Steelers are 2-0 when having a plus differential and 0-5 with a minus. The Bengals, meanwhile, are 3-1 this year when going turnover-free, and 0-3 in games that Burrow throws an interception.

The importance of taking care of the ball has also been at the forefront of the Bengals-Steelers rivalry in recent years. Dating back to 2019, the winner of each of the past seven matchups has been the team that came out on top in the turnover battle.

4. Hilton faces former team

Cornerback Mike Hilton is still looking for his first interception of the season, and there may be no better time to grab it than on Sunday at his former home stadium.

Hilton spent his first four NFL seasons in a Steelers uniform, but after signing with the Bengals as a free agent in March of 2021, he played a key role in Cincinnati upending Pittsburgh twice last year. Notably, he returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown in the Week 12 win, which according to Hilton was his first career pick-six at any level of football.

A sixth-year pro, Hilton this season has maintained his status as one of the league's top nickel corners with a knack for crashing the backfield. Among Bengals defenders, he ranks third in tackles for loss (three) and fourth in passes defensed (three).

5. Mixon aims for second straight 100-yard game

Halfback Joe Mixon is coming off perhaps his best career performance in Week 9 against Carolina. The AFC Offensive Player of the Week netted 211 yards from scrimmage, including 153 rushing, with five total touchdowns to lead Cincinnati to a dominant home win. Mixon has recorded 100-plus rushing yards in consecutive games three times before - the most recent instance was Weeks 11 and 12 of last season, when he went for 123 yards at Las Vegas and 165 against, coincidentally, Pittsburgh. A repeat stat line on Sunday would give the Bengals a crucial advantage, particularly in a road environment.

Also of note, Mixon's next 100-yard game will be the 15th of his career, which would tie Cedric Benson for the fourth-most such games in Bengals history.

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