Bengals, Steelers try to push drama aside

CINCINNATI — Matt Canada is gone. The Pittsburgh Steelers are hopeful their season(s)-long offensive malaise is, too.

Joe Burrow is gone. The Cincinnati Bengals are hopeful their playoff aspirations didn’t exit along with their injured franchise quarterback.

The AFC North rivals will get a chance to set the tone for the rest of the season when they meet on Sunday, with the loser potentially facing a difficult road to stay in the crowded and competitive AFC North race.

The Bengals (5-5) may already be there. With Burrow’s season over because of a wrist injury sustained last week in Baltimore, Bengals coach Zac Taylor is turning to inexperienced backup Jake Browning, who will make his first NFL start against the Steelers (6-4).

“Every team faces adversity in this league. Every team loses players,” Taylor said. “It’s got to come down to the strength of your locker room, the character in the room and finding ways to win games.”

Browning was a practice-squad player for several seasons before winning the backup QB job for Cincinnati in training camp.

“We believe in Jake,” Taylor said. “That’s why he’s here, and that’s why he’s getting this opportunity.”

The same goes in Pittsburgh, where Eddie Faulkner was promoted to offensive coordinator this week after Matt Canada’s abrupt midseason firing, the franchise’s first major in-season coaching change since World War II.

Considering the Steelers rank near the bottom in most offensive categories, they are fortunate to be in third place in the AFC North and within reach of a playoff spot, at least for now. Their six wins have come by eight points or less.

“Y’all could look at it like it’s a good record, but I mean it’s the NFL,” Steelers running back Najee Harris said. “Winning how we did, it’s not going to get us nowhere.”

Pittsburgh lost to Cleveland 13-10 when Browns rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson guided Cleveland to a game-winning drive in the final minutes.

A week later, the Steelers face another largely unknown quantity in Browning.

More on Jake

The 27-year-old Browning, a former University of Washington star, went undrafted in 2019 and ended up on the Vikings practice squad. Browning was signed to the Bengals practice squad in 2021 and ‘22. With Burrow sidelined by a calf injury during training camp this summer, Browning beat out the more experienced Trevor Siemian for the backup job.

After seeing action in six preseason games in the past two seasons, Browning made a brief regular-season debut in Week 1, attempting one pass. Entering for the wounded Burrow against the Ravens, he was 8 for 14 for 68 yards and threw a TD pass to Ja’Marr Chase.

He led a 10-play field-goal drive to open the third quarter that cut the Bengals’ deficit to 21-13, but Baltimore responded with 13 unanswered points to seal it.

“This is what Jake’s built for,” said Bengals offensive tackle Jonah Williams, who played high school football with the quarterback in Folsom, California. “He’s just very even-keeled.”

Two heads are better than one?

The Steelers are taking an unusual approach to replacing Canada. Faulkner will organize the meetings and put together the game plan, with quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan calling the plays on Sunday.

“On game day, any playcaller wants to be narrowly focused on what he needs to do and I’m not going to interfere with that,” Faulkner said. “At the same time, we’re going to have enough conversations so when we go into that game atmosphere we’re all on the same page when the chips start to fall out.”

Hunting ground game

With one of the NFL’s best passers sidelined, the Bengals likely will try to step up their running game, which has been stuck in the mud all season. They are 30th in rushing out of 32 teams. No. 1 back Joe Mixon is averaging 4 yards per game and hasn’t eclipsed the 100-yard mark this season.

Pickett’s charge

Steelers second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett has struggled in recent weeks and has only two touchdown passes since Oct. 1, one of the main reasons Pittsburgh opted to move on from Canada.

While the Steelers figure to try to rely on a running game that has piled up 543 yards on the ground over the last three weeks, Pickett knows he needs to take a significant step forward down the stretch if Pittsburgh wants to be a legitimate playoff threat.

“We all got to improve, I got to play a lot better,” Pickett said. “We got to play a lot better as an offense. Put more points on the board. Our defense is doing a great job, so we got to handle our business. Obviously, you know, a tough test going into another road environment in the AFC north. So, we got to get ready.”


Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, CBS.

OPENING LINE: Steelers by 1 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

AGAINST THE SPREAD: Steelers 6-4; Bengals 4-5-1.

SERIES RECORD: Steelers lead 68-39.

LAST MEETING: Bengals beat Steelers 37-30 on Nov. 22, 2022, in Pittsburgh.

LAST WEEK: Bengals lost to Ravens 34-20 on Nov. 16; Steelers lost to Browns 13-10 Sunday.





TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Steelers plus-11; Bengals plus-10.

STEELERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Kenny Pickett. The second-year starter has regressed on some levels in 2023, a development that led to offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s firing on Tuesday. Coach Mike Tomlin frequently praises Pickett’s intangibles such as his grit and toughness. It’s time for some of the intangibles to become tangible for a player who has just 13 touchdown passes in 23 games.

BENGALS PLAYER TO WATCH: With the season-ending wrist injury to Joe Burrow, all eyes will be on backup Jake Browning, who until he had to step in last week with just one previous NFL pass attempt. He was 8 for 14 for 68 yards and a touchdown in relief of Burrow in the loss to the Ravens.

KEY MATCHUP: Bengals offensive line vs. Steelers defensive front. The Cincinnati O-line was bolstered by the offseason addition of Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr., but it hasn’t provided especially good pass protection or been able to help get the run game going. The Steelers are 23rd in the league in rushing defense.

KEY INJURIES: In addition to Burrow’s injury, WR Tee Higgins (hamstring), CB Cam Taylor-Britt (quad) and DT D.J. Reader (illness) missed practice Wednesday; DE Sam Hubbard (ankle) and DT B.J. Hill (knee) were limited participants. Steelers WR George Pickens and S Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) were out of practice; CB James Pierre (shoulder), LB Nick Herbig (hamstring) and DT Montravius Adams (ankle) were limited.

SERIES NOTES: Cincinnati has won four of the past five over the Steelers going back to Dec. 21, 2020. Before the Burrow era, the Steelers had piled up 11 straight wins and 14 of 15 going back to 2013. The teams will play at Pittsburgh Dec. 23.

STATS AND STUFF: The Steelers overhauled the offensive staff on Tuesday, firing Canada, promoting running backs coach Eddie Faulkner to offensive coordinator and making quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan the play-caller in an effort to spark an offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in most major categories. … Pittsburgh has somehow stayed in the playoff mix despite being outgained in each of their 10 games thanks to a defense that’s produced 19 turnovers, tied for second in the league. … The running game has been a bright spot of late. The Steelers have piled up 543 yards rushing over the past three weeks, their highest total in a three-game span since the first three weeks of coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure in 2007. … Pittsburgh has won its past eight games against a quarterback making his first career start, as it will on Sunday against Cincinnati’s Jake Browning. … The Steelers have struggled against first-year starters this season, beating Tennessee’s Will Levis but losing to Houston’s C.J. Stroud and Cleveland’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. … Pittsburgh’s loss to the Browns last week snapped a nine-game winning streak in one-score games (eight points or fewer). … One of the mandates in the post-Canada era will be getting the ball downfield to WR George Pickens. Pickens has just 10 receptions for 104 yards over the past four games. … Steelers LB T.J. Watt has 11 1/2 sacks through 10 games. Watt is the 22nd player in NFL history to have 11 1/2 sacks in five or more seasons in their career. … The loss of Burrow in Week 11 is reminiscent of his rookie year in 2020 when he was lost for the season to a knee injury at the same point of the season. … After Burrow went down, backup Jake Browning went 8 of 14 for 68 yards and threw a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter of the loss to Baltimore. … The Bengals are an AFC-worst 1-5 in conference games and are winless in their three division matchups. … Bengals rookie safety Jordan Battle had a season-high 11 tackles, including 10 solo stops. He also played a season-high 57 snaps. … According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Cincinnati left tackle Orlando Brown has allowed 31 quick QB pressures this season, seven more than any other offensive lineman in the NFL. … Five seasons since 2008 a Bengals starting quarterback hasn’t been able to finish the season. There was Carson Palmer in 2008, Andy Dalton in 2015 and ’18, and Burrow in 2020 before this season. … Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon managed just 59 yards on 13 carries last week. … The Bengals primary offensive playmaker, Ja’Marr Chase, had just two catches for 12 yards and a TD. … Cincinnati’s top receiver was TE Tanner Hudson with four catches for 49 yards. … The Bengals have lost their past two games after winning four straight.

FANTASY TIP: Second-year Steelers back Jaylen Warren is getting more carries behind Najee Harris. He had a season-high 129 rushing yards and a touchdown in the Browns loss, his second consecutive 100-yard game.