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Steelers Analysis

Four Things the Steelers Must to do Win vs. Bengals: Testing Eli Apple Key



The Steelers have a pretty big game on Sunday as they face the Bengals. Now, this is not the very definition of a must-win game. However, falling to 1-2 with the Packers and Broncos coming up on the schedule would not be what the Steelers want to see overall to start the season.

A battered and bruised Steelers are heading into battle with their pass rush depth absolutely depleted, as Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt will both miss the game.

However, it is not as if the Bengals are coming into Sunday with a clean bill of health. In fact, it is very much the opposite. Without Tee Higgins and Xavier Sua-Filo, they are without two key offensive starters. Even more so, starting cornerback Trae Waynes is out. Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie have been really good. On the other hand, Eli Apple has not been good, at all.

The Steelers have a game plan and blueprint here to the game. Similar to what they did against Buffalo, the offense can move, especially if the Bengals sit in a lot of man coverage. Even without Diontae Johnson, testing Apple against James Washington, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster has to be at the top of the list to the Steelers potentially moving the ball and winning this game.

That does not mean they have to throw deep shots up and down the sideline. Sure, three or four of those are fine. However, Apple can beat at all three levels of the football field. This is the type of mismatch that Matt Canada loves to talk about every single week. Well, it is staring him right in the face with Apple’s downfall.

Thus far on the year, Apple has allowed 10 receptions and allowing a 120.5 passer rating when targeted. It all rounds up to be a good 11.8 yards per reception against Apple. All three of the Steelers wideouts, even without their talented route runner in Diontae Johnson can take advantage of Apple. In order to win this game, at least one touchdown at Apple’s expense is likely going to need to come.


Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has thrown three interceptions and been sacked 10 times in two game this season. With his mobility seemingly limited by the knee injury that ended his 2020 season (Burrow has one carry for two yards in two games), and the Bengals re-vamped offensive line still yet to gel in pass protection, the Steelers have an opportunity to impact the game by putting pressure on Burrow.

They were able to hurry Josh Allen in Week 1 by relying on a stellar four-man rush, but half of that rush won’t be participating this Sunday, with Tyson Alualu and Watt on the shelf. The Steelers blitzed more against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 2, with limited results. Derek Carr didn’t turn the ball over, and Tre Norwood didn’t impact his throw as an unblocked blitzer on his 61-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III.


The Steelers’ run game does not look like it is going to be a major driver of the offense, as long as the line continues to struggle, but Najee Harris has shown improvement in his ability to impact the game each week so far. He had 19 combined touches and targets for 49 yards in Week 1 and 15 for 81 yards and a touchdown in Week 2. He needs to continue that growth, most of which was by adding contributions in the passing game.


Joe Mixon is one of the best all-around running backs in the NFL, and he will likely have some impact on the game, but with the Steelers offense having a trouble getting started in each game so far, the defense will need to keep Mixon from helping the Bengals dominate the time of possession. With the Steelers likely unable to run, if the Bengals can establish Mixon, they can make a low-possession game that will heavily tilt things in their favor.

Alan Saunders contributed.