For 17 years, Ben Roethlisberger has been an obstacle the Bengals have seldom been able to get past. Whether the quarterback will be barring the way again remains in question as the Pittsburgh Steelers host Cincinnati at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Roethlisberger suffered a left pectoral injury during the Steelers’ Week 2 home loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. On Wednesday, Roethlisberger stayed in street clothes, didn’t participate in practice and admitted he hasn’t thrown a ball since that loss. But he also didn’t discount his chances to start.
“Today’s only Wednesday,” said Roethlisberger, who has thrown for 483 yards during the Steelers’ 1-1 start but also took 10 hits against the Raiders. “We have a lot of time to get ready to go.”
Cincinnati (1-1) is counting on facing Big Ben.
“We’re gonna prepare for their guys to play,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor. “If they don’t, they have really good guys in place behind them.”
No one is behind in the AFC North, where all four teams have 1-1 records. That sets up the Bengals’ trip to Pittsburgh as a big early-season swing game inside the division. Cincinnati won an overtime game in Week 1, then lost a close game at Chicago in Week 2 after four turnovers — including three interceptions on three consecutive throws by Joe Burrow.
The second-year quarterback said he’s already put it in the past.
“Those guys get paid on defense too,” Burrow said. “You just put it behind you and move on to the next one.”
Burrow has been sacked nine times in just two games, second-most in the NFL, and the Bengals may try to offer more protection by leaning on running back Joe Mixon (196 rushing yards) against a defense that prioritizes getting to the QB. But Cincinnati’s plans often go awry at Pittsburgh, where it hasn’t won since 2015.
The Bengals snapped a 10-game losing skid to the Steelers in the second meeting last season, a 27-17 win in Cincy. But Roethlisberger is 24-8 in his career against this divisional rival; the win total is tied for the highest in the 39-year old’s career against a single team.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin didn’t sound concerned about Roethlisberger on Monday. Instead, his focus was on the first divisional matchup of the season.
“We got a hot kitchen this weekend in Pittsburgh. AFC North ball,” Tomlin said. “This is a coach’s week. We’ve got to work.”
Typically “AFC North ball” involves strong defense and a running game. The rushing attack hasn’t yet materialized for Pittsburgh with rookie first-round pick running back Najee Harris held to just 3.2 yards per carry in his first two NFL games. Pittsburgh enters last in the NFL with 57.0 rushing yards per game.
The Steelers will also be working to shore up a dinged-up defense. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt, with his team-leading 3.0 sacks, was limited by a groin injury on Wednesday, as were cornerbacks Joe Haden (groin) and Justin Layne (Achilles). Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith (groin), defensive end Carlos Davis (knee), and receiver Diontae Johnson (knee) were all non-participants. Nose tackle Tyson Alualu also went on injured reserve this week with an ankle fracture.
The good news for the Steelers was linebacker Devin Bush (groin) was a full participant.
The Bengals were missing a trio of key players on Wednesday. Wide receiver Tee Higgins (shoulder), cornerback Trae Waynes (hamstring), and guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (knee) all did not participate.
The Bengals believe they’ve improved from a year ago. Getting a second straight win against Pittsburgh, which hasn’t happened since 2012-13, would go a long way toward proving it. Taylor sidestepped the specific matchup, but acknowledged it was a key measuring stick game.
“Getting a road win, versus a division opponent … yeah, that does mean a lot in that way,” he said.