PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Cincinnati Bengals began the season with momentum and a fair amount of swag thanks to their stunning run to the Super Bowl a year ago.
What threatened to be a return to the “same old Bengals” instead looks like a mirage as the longtime AFC North rivals prepare for the rematch Sunday at Acrisure Stadium. Cincinnati (5-4) has won five of seven following an 0-2 start and enters the second half looking as dangerous as it did a year ago, when Joe Burrow's learning curve accelerated and the club finally took flight.
“I think it’s important that you play your best football in the back half of the season,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. "That’s what we have to be hell-bent on doing ... We’ve had a great mindset before, but now it’s time to really lock in and focus, and so I think we’ve got the right mentality for that.”
Pittsburgh's stunner in the opener came at a heavy price. All-Pro linebacker T.J. Watt went down late in the second half with a torn left pectoral, preceding a skid the Steelers hope came to a halt last week against New Orleans, when Watt returned to help spark a 20-10 win that breathed life — at least temporarily — into their season.
Sweeping the Bengals would go a long way toward validating Pittsburgh's belief it can still make noise in 2022. Time, however, is running out quickly.
“We acknowledge that this is a really big game,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Every time you win, the subsequent one gets bigger. So that’s our agenda, to keep making sure that they all get a little bit bigger.”
LOOKING TO MIXON
Before that performance, Mixon was averaging 3.4 yards per carry, had only three plays of more than 15 yards and scored just three touchdowns. Against the Panthers, Mixon averaged 7 yards per carry in rushing for 153 with four touchdowns. He added another 58 receiving yards and a TD catch.
Mixon will try to sustain that momentum against a run defense that certainly looked better with Watt's No. 90 manning his usual perch at the end of the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh held New Orleans to just 29 yards rushing, though Mixon presents a significantly stiffer test.
"If Joe Mixon runs on us, that doesn't leave us much of a chance,” Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said.
Pittsburgh rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett watched the Week 1 win from the sideline as Mitch Trubisky's backup. The 20th overall pick in the 2022 draft will have a far different vantage point as he makes his first start against another team from the AFC North.
Pickett managed to avoid throwing an interception for the first time in his brief career last week against the Saints, though he did absorb six sacks, some of them because he held onto the ball too long.
“Sometimes, Kenny gets Kenny in trouble,” Tomlin said. “But that’s just the nature of being a young guy.”
NO WORD ON CHASE
The Bengals had no update on injured receiver Ja’Marr Chase, but he was still on crutches this week as his hip injury heals. He's expected to miss a few more weeks.
In other injury news, defensive back Dax Hill (shoulder) is day to day, coach Zac Taylor said.
Cincinnati’s run defense could get a boost if nose tackle D.J. Reader is ready to play. Reader, a key player in the Bengals’ run to the Super Bowl last season, was cleared to return to practice this week and if all goes well could be activated for Sunday’s game. Reader injured a knee in Week 3 and hasn’t played since, but the seven-year veteran said he’s feeling good.
Backup safety Brandon Wilson, who hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury, also was cleared to return to practice.
READY TO RUN?
One of the NFL's worst rushing offenses took a step forward against New Orleans as the Steelers piled up 217 yards on the ground. Najee Harris ran for a season-best 99 yards and four players had a run of at least 20 yards, the first time Pittsburgh has done that in a game in 11 years.
Cohesion among a steadily improving offensive line has helped. There were ample running lanes for ballcarriers to find, a tribute to the chemistry the line has been chipping away at since the start of training camp.
“When those guys have an opportunity to log snaps together and they have shared experiences and benefits from that,” Tomlin said. “When they don’t, and then there’s moving people around and the inclusion of different people, then obviously it slows down progress.”
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati contributed to this report.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press