The Pittsburgh Steelers will open their 2022 regular season on the road Sunday afternoon against the Cincinnati Bengals and they’ll enter that contest listed as a big underdog. Below are five key things that I believe the Steelers will need to do in the game on Sunday to come away with their first win of 2022 season.
Make Mixon An Ordinary Joe – In the Steelers’ two games against Cincinnati in 2021, Bengals running back Joe Mixon was no ordinary ball carrier as he totaled 255 yards on 46 total carries with two touchdowns. Mixon totaled three explosive runs in those two contests and two more that each resulted in gains of 11 yards. The Steelers’ run defense was obviously ravaged by injuries and poor play last season and now that is supposed to be fixed heading into 2022. In the five games that he’s played in against the Steelers that he’s gained less than 90 yards on the ground, the Bengals were 0-6. The Bengals were also 5-6 last season in regular season games that Mixon rushed for under 90 yards in. They lost six games last season so there’s the story.
Make The Other Joe Throw A Ton – A byproduct of the Steelers’ defense hopefully shutting down the Bengals’ running game on Sunday should be Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow having to throw a ton. Against the Steelers in 2021, Burrow attempted just 42 pass attempts in total in the two meetings between the two teams. In his first two NFL seasons, the Bengals are 6-13-1 in regular season games that included Burrow attempting 30 or more pass attempts. Burrow is 6-0 in regular season games that he’s attempted less than 30 pass attempts in. The Steelers’ defense must make Burrow and company put the ball in the air a ton on Sunday to have a chance at winning the game.
Chunkinnati – Offensively in 2021, the Steelers struggled when it came to producing explosive plays. Just 50 in total in 2021 and only four other teams registered fewer. In the two games against the Bengals last season, the Steelers’ offense registered just six explosive plays of 20 yards or longer in total and wide receiver Chase Claypool was on the receiving end of half of those. The Steelers obviously now have a new quarterback in Mitch Trubisky and another deep receiving threat in rookie wide receiver George Pickens. Oh, and recently well-paid wide receiver Diontae Johnson has shown that he can catch deep balls in his first three NFL seasons as well. With the Steelers’ running game not expected to be much of a threat to start the 2022 season, the offense’s only prayer at moving the football out of the chute might be in chunks. Four or fewer explosive plays on Sunday against the Bengals isn’t likely to be enough. The goal should be six or more while not giving up that many on the other side of the football.
Mucho Muth – In all that was bad concerning the Steelers’ offense in 2021, tight end Pat Freiermuth emerged as a legitimate all-downs player during his rookie season. With the Steelers having a lot of new pieces on offense in 2022 and with their offensive line looking way less than shaky heading into Week 1, Freiermuth probably needs to be used quite frequently in the passing game should the running game indeed fail to find even average footing out of the chute. The Steelers’ wide receiver core, along with the pass catching ability of running back Najee Harris, should provide Freiermuth with a lot of space to work in on Sunday in Cincinnati. The Bengals’ defense might even be resigned to letting the Steelers’ second year tight end “have his” on Sunday in lieu of getting beat for big plays by the wide receivers. With wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster now gone for good, Freiermuth now figures to be the go-to option on third downs in the Steelers’ offense. Additionally, and as we witnessed in 2021, Freiermuth is an extreme red zone weapon and thus should be given chances to score whenever the offense enters the opposing 20-yard-line. A Sunday stat line of eight receptions for 75 or more yards and a score could go a long way in helping the Steelers upset the Bengals in Cincinnati. Muth’s mouth should be fed early and often in this Sunday afternoon contest and especially on third downs and inside the red zone.
Be Buffalo Special In Cincinnati – Remember the Steelers’ Week 1 road win last season against the Buffalo Bills? That game included a key blocked punt for a touchdown by safety Miles Killebrew midway through the fourth quarter and that play was ultimately a huge turning point in that contest. The Steelers pride themselves on having key core special teams players and if they’re going to win their fare share of games in 2022, they’ll need plays from that phase quite frequently. Killebrew is back again this season along with other core special teams players such as running back Benny Snell Jr. and fullback Derek Watt. Another key special teams play on Sunday similar to the one a year ago against the Bills might just wind up being enough for Steelers to leave Cincinnati with an upset victory and even more importantly, a 1-0 record in the AFC North.