Steelers Open Season with Big Test Sunday in Cincinnati

(Sam Greene/USA Today)

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We did it everyone.  We made it to Week 1 of the NFL season.  What felt like an endless offseason is finally over, which means we finally get to see meaningful professional football this weekend.  

The Pittsburgh Steelers will start the season on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday.  The Bengals come into this game fresh off a loss in the Super Bowl, while the Steelers head into the season with their first new starting quarterback in nearly two decades.  In what should be a typical hard-fought clash between two AFC North teams, this will be a true test for the Steelers right off the bat, and fans will be hoping to see immediate improvements from the play we saw last season.

All offseason, the talk of the town has been the offense and all of the changes to it heading into this season.  While I'll be sure to touch on that later, I actually wanted to start by discussing the defense this time.  Just like last season, once again this unit will be the catalyst of the entire team - the team goes as the defense goes.  With so many new pieces on the offensive side of the ball, the defense is going to have to keep the Steelers in games week after week.  

They return T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, three cornerstone pieces, while also adding the likes of linebacker Myles Jack and defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi.  With the veteran presence on this side of the ball, my attention will be firmly on them this weekend.

The Bengals sport one of the best offenses in the league.  Quarterback Joe Burrow took some big steps forward last season and once again has no shortage of weapons at his disposal.  Running back Joe Mixon, along with wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Pitt product Tyler Boyd, all pose threats to defenses across the NFL.  

In the offseason, the Bengals also addressed their biggest weakness, the offensive line.  They signed three new offensive linemen, which should allow Burrow even more protection than he had last year when he took them to the Super Bowl. 

That is why I'm keen to see if this Steelers defense is up for the challenge this weekend.  I think it will go a long ways in showing what the overall outlook for this team is.  Going up against not only one of the best teams in your division, but one of the best in the league, in Week 1 is no small task. 

Last season, the Steelers were terrible at stopping the run.  While I hope that glaring weakness was corrected, this game will probably be predicated on stopping the aerial attack.  Burrow complemented by three very good receivers can give any defense fits, if given time to throw.  Watt and the rest of the defensive line will have to create pressure on Burrow or the Steelers' secondary could be in for a long game.

What they have going in their favor is Burrow missed all of the preseason due to appendicitis, so there may be some rust that he has yet to shake off.  Plus, teams that lost the Super Bowl tend to have a bit of a hangover in Week 1 of the following season.  Add in the division rival component, and I think the Steelers defense can manage to keep this one close.  However, will the offense be able to put points on the board?

I think that's the big question on most Steeler fans' minds.  Although just officially named this week, Mitch Trubisky has seemingly been the starting quarterback from the get-go.  And wide receiver Diontae Johnson further confirmed this suspicion in an interview this week, saying the team was told this would be the case at the onset of training camp.  That's music to my ears because it shows to me that Trubisky's been taking first-team reps all along, and there should be no unfamiliarity's between him and the skill players on this offense.

The main concern with this offense (which feels like it's been talked about ad nauseum at this point) is the instability of the offensive line.  They were dismal last season, and although they added some new pieces in the offseason, the preseason games didn't give me much confidence that they'll be better this season.  The one thing they have going for them is that Trubisky is a much more mobile quarterback than the Ben Roethlisberger we saw the last few seasons, so this should help in evading a few more sacks than we saw last year.

Going back to Johnson's interview from this week, he also went on to say that the shoulder injury he suffered in the final preseason game was more serious than the team led on to it being.  He claims that he could not have returned to the game if it was a regular season game and failed to provide any real clarity on his status for this week's showdown against the Bengals.  While rookie wide receiver George Pickens has looked exceptional this preseason, it would certainly be a huge loss to go into such a big game against an AFC North opponent without the team's top receiver.

All in all, there is a lot going against this offense in Week 1.  So many new parts paired with a handful of question marks seems like a recipe for disaster.  An inability to move the ball will only put an added emphasis on the defense.  They'll need to keep this explosive Bengals offense off the scoreboard, while creating a few turnovers, to keep this a close, low-scoring affair.

The Steelers head into this game a 6.5 point underdog at the time of this writing.  While that seems to be another strike against them, I still remain hopeful.  Underdogs, especially those in division games, are always live in Week 1.  

Not to mention, while we as fans aren't sure what to expect from this offense, neither do teams in the league.  Offensive coordinator Matt Canada finally has the opportunity to open up the playbook with a mobile quarterback at the helm and an abundance of skill players at his disposal.  As a Steelers fan, part of me thinks they can potentially catch the Super Bowl losers napping in their first game since the loss.  Realistically, I'm just hoping for them to keep this one close.  As long as we don't get blown out, I'm just happy that I get to say Steelers football is officially back!