Bengals, Steelers vie for early AFC North supremacy

This contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals is an early AFC North matchup that pits the division favorites against one another.

While the game takes place in Week 2 of a young NFL season, this game is bound to play a factor in the playoff picture. Both teams enter Heinz Field at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday with a 1-0 record, though one team escaped with a win in Week 1 while the other looked dominant.

The Bengals come into this game off a one-point victory over the New York Jets last week. The victory was not the cleanest win in head coach Marvin Lewis' career but his squad showed toughness, resiliency and urgency.

Quarterback Andy Dalton, who hasn't won a playoff game in his career, played this highly contested event like he was in the postseason. Dalton threw for 366 yards and a touchdown, but where he showed his moxie was withstanding a ferocious Jets' pass rush.

Dalton was sacked seven times and was hit on numerous other dropbacks. This is clearly an area the Bengals need to shore up heading into Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are also the opponent that knocked Dalton out for the season last year with a broken thumb. The Bengals' playoff hopes rest in keeping their quarterback upright and in one piece this season.

The one bright spot Cincinnati can take out of watching the Steelers' tape versus the Washington Redskins is the lack of pass rush by Pittsburgh. The Steelers, in a 22-point win over the Redskins, had plenty of offense but the defense did not sack Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins at all.

“I thought we stopped the run early, but our pass rush has to be better, especially since we're entering AFC North play,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “If I'm going to be out there I have to play a lot better, simple as that. The pass rush (stunk). I have to get to the quarterback.”

The key matchup in the game for the Bengals' offense and the Steelers' defense will be the pass blocking versus the pass rush.

The Bengals' offensive line, led by Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth, will need to take advantage of the aforementioned lack of the Steelers' pass rush after a long day at the office versus the Jets. The banged-up defensive line and outside linebackers of Pittsburgh can't afford to allow Dalton all day in the pocket to find the likes of wide receiver A.J. Green. The team that wins this matchup will hold a major key in the outcome of the game.

Cincinnati's offensive line not only struggled to protect Dalton but did not open up many lanes for running back Jeremy Hill. The Bengals' rushing attack was held to 57 yards last Sunday, although Hill did score on the ground. The Steelers, led by nose tackle Javon Hargrave and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, held the Redskins to similar rushing numbers (55 yards).

If Cincinnati's offensive line can win the battle in the pass blocking department, Dalton has shown the ability to pick apart defensive backfields. This does not bode well for a Steelers' pass defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in 2015.

While the Steelers did have two interceptions against the Redskins, both were by linebackers, and gave up large chunks of yardage to the wide receivers. If cornerbacks William Gay, Ross Cockrell and Sean Davis don't shore up their coverage responsibilities this week, all they may see is the back of the jerseys of wide receivers Green and Brandon LaFell.

LaFell, a free-agent pickup this offseason from the New England Patriots, has become a nice complement opposite Green.

“That's the thing we saw from Brandon, is he's got great body control. He's a very accomplished NFL receiver and you saw him catching the ball going across the field, you saw him catching the ball on the sideline today, and he caught a couple deep balls. It was big,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said.

The Steelers' offense looked like they have been playing for years together. While this might be the case with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown, the rest of the unit was missing four starters and had backups and spot players step in throughout the lineup. Starting running back Le'Veon Bell, fullback Roosevelt Nix, tight end Ladarius Green and receiver Markus Wheaton all missed the Redskins game.

Running back DeAngelo Williams, wide receivers Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates and tight end Jesse James all filled in admirably. These four weapons combined with Roethlisberger and Brown helped the Steelers gain 447 total yards and score 38 points. How these four answer the bell heading into tough AFC North play will dictate the outcome versus the Bengals this week.

The Steelers offensive line doesn't get a lot of accolades, but they opened seams for Williams to run through all game versus the Redskins.

Center Maurkice Pouncey, and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster, will need to continue to open holes in the middle of the field against the Bengals. Domata Peko and Geno Atkins are one of the best defensive tackle duos in the NFL. This makes this a matchup to watch. While both teams have shown the ability to pass the football with success, winning in the trenches in the run game could swing the outcome.