ESPN senior writer Mike Sando asks league insiders to pick winners in select games each week. Three evaluators joined the panel for Week 6. This week’s games: Steelers-Bengals, Chargers-Browns, Bears-Dolphins, Panthers-Redskins and Chiefs-Patriots.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Sunday: 1 p.m. ET, CBS | Point spread: CIN by 2.5 | Insiders pick: CIN (2/3)
The Steelers are 22-8 against the Bengals during the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati. They have won the past five in the series without allowing more than 20 points in any of those games. Pittsburgh has held the Bengals to 21 or fewer points in 17 consecutive meetings between the teams. The Steelers are 13-4 in those games.
Does it change this time?
“I don’t believe in Pittsburgh’s secondary and I think [Andy] Dalton has been playing well,” an insider picking the Bengals said. “That running back [Joe Mixon] makes a big difference because he is a real guy. They are a team that nobody really talks about that could shock people. I know everybody has seen this before, but they could do something.”
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The Bengals have scored at least 27 points in four of their first five games. They have accomplished that only one other time during Lewis’ tenure — in 2015, when the team was cruising along until injuries wiped out key performers, precipitating another playoff collapse.
“Maybe I am not giving Cincy enough credit, but in watching a couple of their games, I think their O-line can be overpowered by Pittsburgh,” the insider picking the Steelers said. “Watching Pittsburgh, their defense is playing their asses off. It’s not always pretty, and their secondary is exposed at times, but their front seven just plays so hard with Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and those guys. Throw in Bud Dupree and then T.J. Watt coming off the edge with all their blitzing, I’m just waiting for everything to click.”
One problem, all agree, has been inconsistent play from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With Ryan Shazier missing from the defense and Le’Veon Bell missing from the offense, the Steelers need their quarterback to pick up the slack. The perception is that Roethlisberger has failed to do that. However, his 64.2 Total QBR through five games is similar to his 65.9 QBR through the first five games of all seasons since 2006.
Last season, Roethlisberger actually had more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six) to this point in the season, with a 53.9 QBR. That Steelers team ranked 16th in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency through five games. The current team ranks higher on offense (eighth) and lower on defense (16th).
Shazier’s absence is big. The Steelers allowed 295 yards per game, 17.8 points per game and a 41.3 Total QBR through the 2017 Week 13 game in which Shazier was lost to injury. They are allowing 376 yards per game, 27.3 points per game and a 63.7 QBR to opponents since then, counting playoffs.
“Pittsburgh looked good against Atlanta, but Atlanta is just not a good team right now,” the other insider picking the Bengals said. “People don’t really realize how much Shazier covered up things for that defense with his range and athleticism. Not having Shazier and Le’Veon Bell limits what they can do, and then you have Joe Mixon on the other side, playing that role for Cincy — a poor man’s Le’Veon Bell.”