Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) at Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3)
When the NFL scheduled this game on Monday Night Football, they probably thought they’d be getting a competitive early season matchup between two hated division rivals. Instead, they got the second Monday Night Football game in the past thirty years between a pair of teams that are 0-3 or worse. The other instance was a 9-7 victory by the 0-4 Cowboys over the 0-4 Redskins in week 5 of 2001. Both of these teams came into the season with expectations, but have been ravaged by injury.
For the Bengals, the sheer amount of key players they are missing this early in the season is pretty incredible. They came into the season with major injury concerns, losing first round pick Jonah Williams for the season in June, losing long-time starting guard Clint Boling to an early retirement due to injury, and losing top wide receiver AJ Green, starting cornerback Darqueze Dennard, and top offensive lineman Cordy Glenn indefinitely with injuries suffered in training camp, and things have just gotten worse from there. In addition to the aforementioned players, the Bengals will also be without a pair of key rotational defensive linemen, defensive end Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, who also missed last week loss in Buffalo.
The Steelers don’t have the sheer number of missing key players that the Bengals have, but they have the most impactful injury between these two teams, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for the season. The Steelers are publicly confident in backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was a third round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, but he hasn’t shown much to be confident in thus far, averaging just 6.22 yards per attempt and leading the Steelers to just 19 first downs and 4 touchdowns on 79 snaps on 18 drives, a first down rate of just 29.11%. For comparison, the Steelers had a 40.55% first down rate last season. The Steelers almost won their first game with Rudolph as the starter in San Francisco last week, but they ultimately lost, despite winning the turnover battle by 3. In terms of first down rate, they were -14.24% and that tends to be much more consistent week-to-week than turnover margin.
Starting caliber quarterbacks rarely fall to the third round, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Rudolph has looked like a backup caliber player, especially this early in his career. As much as the Bengals are missing, they at least have a competent quarterback under center. The Steelers will also be without starting tight end Vance McDonald, rotational edge rusher Anthony Chickillo, and situational middle linebacker Vince Williams.
Despite that, I still have the Steelers as the slightly better team in my roster rankings, as they still have a pretty strong roster around the quarterback. This line, which favors the hometown Steelers by 3.5 points, is about right, so we aren’t getting much line value in either direction. The Bengals are my pick because they are in a better spot, hosting the Cardinals next week in a game in which they will likely be favored, while the Steelers host the Ravens in a game in which they will likely be underdogs. Underdogs are 100-56 ATS since 2014 before being favorites when their opponent will next be underdogs and even at 0-3 it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers get caught looking forward to a bigger divisional game next week. They’re facing a fellow winless team and this could be a bit of a sandwich game between a close loss on the road and a big divisional home game. It’s not enough to bet the Bengals in the shape they are in, but they should be the right side.
Pittsburgh Steelers 19 Cincinnati Bengals 17
Pick against the spread: Cincinnati +3.5