Two teams undergoing significant midseason change and turmoil meet on Sunday afternoon when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals (5-5) have followed four straight wins with two losses, including a painful 34-20 setback in Baltimore on Nov. 16.
The loss to the AFC North rival Ravens was not only costly in the standings, but it was also devastating to Cincinnati’s playoff chances, as franchise quarterback Joe Burrow was lost for the season due to a right wrist injury.
Jake Browning stepped in following Burrow’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Joe Mixon in the second quarter and will be taking over starting quarterback responsibilities going forward. Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh will mark his first career NFL start.
“It’s unfortunate to see (this happen to) a guy who works as hard as he does,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said of Burrow’s injury. “The time and energy he puts into his body and making sure he’s at his best for this organization. It kills you to watch somebody have to go through this several times now.
“That’s football. You look around the league, and this is something that happens to quarterbacks. Now it’s on the rest of the team to rally around each other and find a way out of this.”
Cincinnati has faith in Browning, though.
“I don’t think you need to cut anything back,” Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said of the play calls. “He’s mentally capable of handling the system as it stands. … I think if you were to ask him, he’d probably get irritated if you felt like he had to cut back at all.”
While Browning also replaced Burrow in the season opener in Cleveland in the fourth quarter, he took his first meaningful NFL snaps in the Baltimore game.
Browning completed 8 of 14 passes for 68 yards with one touchdown against the Ravens. He led a 10-play field-goal drive to open the third quarter and a threw a 2-yard TD pass to Ja’Marr Chase to account for Cincinnati’s final 10 points on the night.
The Steelers aren’t changing their quarterback, but instead their offensive coordinator, as Matt Canada was fired on Tuesday and replaced with Eddie Faulkner, the team’s running backs coach.
Pittsburgh enters the game in playoff position despite an offense that is ranked 28th in both scoring (16.6 points per game) and yards per game (280.1).
After last week’s 13-10 loss at Cleveland, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin fired Canada and replaced him with Faulkner.
“We’ve got to score touchdowns in this business. You have got to win games in this business. And just the totality of it has us where we are today,” Tomlin said.
“I’m excited about Eddie Faulkner coordinating our efforts, organizing staff responsibility in meetings, organizing game planning, leading our unit as a collective in review of our tape in preparation for upcoming opponents and things of that nature, things that the coordinator does.”
While Faulkner will assume the coordinating duties, Tomlin indicated quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan will be the chief play-caller.
Defensive end Sam Hubbard missed Cincinnati’s last two games — both losses — with an ankle injury, but he returned to practice Wednesday and was a full participant Friday.
Receiver Tee Higgins (hamstring) and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (quad) did not practice for the Bengals all week and were ruled out. Offensive tackle D’Ante Smith (knee) did not practice Friday and is listed as doubtful. Running back Chase Brown (hamstring) and linebacker Germaine Pratt (illness) are questionable.
Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring), a three-time Pro Bowl selection, will miss his fourth straight game after not practicing all week. After missing practice Wednesday, wide receiver George Pickens (shin) practiced Thursday and Friday and will play Sunday. Defensive tackle Montravius Adams (ankle) was limited all week and won’t play Sunday, while cornerback James Pierre (shoulder) didn’t practice Friday and is questionable.