Lolley’s Kickoff: Analysis, stats, data, picks ☕


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Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

When the NFL scheduled the Steelers and Bengals to play Monday night in prime time in front of a national audience, the league likely assumed these two teams would be renewing what has become a fierce rivalry.

After all, the two AFC North opponents have played some serious, knock-down, drag-out games against each other over the past 10 to 15 seasons, including a pair of playoff games, both won by the Steelers.

So why not put the 100th all-time meeting between the two rivals on national television?

What the league surely didn't think, however, is that both would be 0-3 heading into this game at Heinz Field. There has been desperation involved in previous meetings between the two. After all, when you're playing in the postseason or with a division title on the line, there's plenty for which to play.

In this case, however, there figures to be a different kind of desperation involved.

"I think so," David DeCastro told me this week. "It’s a different situation than it’s been in the past, but it’s similar in that both teams are desperate to win."

Both teams know that if they fall to 0-4, digging out of that hole is improbable. And there will still be a whole lot of season remaining. The winner, however, will find itself just one game out of first place after the Browns beat the Ravens Sunday to send both teams to 2-2 records.

That's not the only thing new about the rivalry. While the Steelers are without Ben Roethlisberger for the remainder of this season, the Bengals have undegone a far bigger change.

Zac Taylor replaced longtime head coach Marvin Lewis in the offseason. And while the Bengals didn't undergo wholesale changes in personnel, Taylor did jettison longtime Bengals such as linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam 'Pacman' Jones.

"This is a great football rivalry," Bud Dupree told me. "It’s always like a high school or college rivalry against each other. A lot of the players that really brought the rivalry to the forefront are kind of gone now, so in that spirit, we’ve got to make sure we go out and make this our best game."

Taylor, a former Rams assistant, hasn't been involved in the rivalry. But he knows all about it.

If he didn't, you'd better believe he was informed just what this game has meant in Cincinnati over the years. Though the Bengals didn't have a lot of success against their rivals from up the Ohio River -- Lewis was just 8-26 against the Steelers -- it was always tagged "Steelers Week," when the two teams prepared to meet.

“This has been, from afar, one of the premier divisions to watch football," Taylor said. "You always know it’s going to be a slugfest, a dogfight, or whatever you want to call it. Obviously there’s a history here between these two teams. It’s fun to watch.”

Now, he'll be taking center stage.

The Bengals didn't necessarily have high expectations this season after finishing in fourth place in the AFC North a year ago at 6-10. But they didn't expect to be 0-3.

Neither did the Steelers, who felt they had retooled enough coming off a 9-6-1 season to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The 0-3 start is enough to shake the confidence of even the most self-assured people in the team's locker room.

"Yeah, obviously," DeCastro said of the team's overall confidence. "But it’s one of those things where you have to go about things the way you normally do, but it’s always in the back of your mind. Everyone recognizes the situation. It’s tough to come to work each day with the record like that. But you have to be professional. You have to come to work with the attitude you would if you were 3-0. That’s what I do. You can’t let it affect you."

A win would change a lot of that feeling. And one team is going to get it.

"The standard here at the Pittsburgh Steelers is the standard," Mason Rudolph said. "We know that, and we look forward to answering the call every season. As long as I’ve been here, that’s been preached kind of as our motto. So we understand that we need to win and we’re looking forward to winning and get this thing back on track.

"Once you stack one, they just start to come easier, kind of start rolling."

Cameron Heyward agrees.

“We just have to get this ‘W’,” he said. “That’s all it comes down to. I don’t care how it gets done, it has to get done. Our execution has to be flawless from here on out. Our room for error is out the window. We have to be perfect in everything we do. It’s my job to keep us accountable. It’s my job to keep guys ready for the opportunity. Both teams are 0-3, but one team is going to be 1-3 after this game."

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