What to watch for in Bengals-Steelers on 'MNF'

Few things in the topsy-turvy realm of the NFL are predictable.

When it comes to the Steelers-Bengals rivalry, though, Pittsburgh supremacy has become a standard.

Not since Nov. 1, 2015 has one gone the way of Cincinnati, as Pittsburgh has won seven in a row (eight if you include the playoffs) and the Steelers have won 15 of the last 18 regular-season clashes.

However, these are not the Steelers of yesteryears and though the struggles are still there for the Bengals, they are very much a new-look team, as well.

As the Bengals (0-3) and Steelers (0-3) prepare to clash on Monday Night Football at 8:20 p.m. ET inside the confines of Heinz Field, perhaps it is hope that is on the line.

Odds are against both teams in their chances at prolonging their seasons into the playoffs, but Monday's loser can expect a litany of questions regarding plans for next season following all of its games going forward, while the victor can still cling to the hope of salvaging a season.

In a phrase usually reserved for the fight game, somebody's O must go on Monday night (fingers crossed there is no tie and both remain winless). The Steelers and Bengals are aiming for their first wins, a small change to their thus-far deflating storylines and a winless weight lifted from their shoulder pads.

Including two playoff meetings, this will be the 100th Bengals-Steelers showdown and, though it's a showdown of winless teams, it might well prove to be pivotal going forward in the future of two franchises that all of a sudden look very young and uncertain from the sidelines to the field.

Here are four things to watch for in Monday's battle for the season's first win:

Veteran, rookie coaches need win No. 1 just the same

On one sideline Zac Taylor is still searching for the first win of his NFL coaching career.

On the other, Mike Tomlin, in his thus-far unlucky 13th season at the Steelers helm, finds Pittsburgh off to its worst start since 2013, when the team went 0-4 at the onset.

While the hope for the Steelers was that with the distractions of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell having departed, smoother sails would guide Pittsburgh back to success. Instead, Ben Roethlisberger sustained a season-ending injury in Week 2 and the offense has failed to find its footing. Could Tomlin be on the hot seat? Only time and results will tell, but proving that the Steelers are still superior to the Bengals as in seasons past seems rather pivotal after this dismal start.

In contrast, though the wins haven't come yet for Taylor, there seems to be a more positive outlook.

The Steelers and Bengals have each lost twice by four points or fewer and each lost once in a blowout. For the Bengals, one can surmise there is a feeling and outlook that they were oh-so close. Whereas with the Steelers, those close losses, particularly last week's against the 49ers, are seen as frustrating defeats in which they found a way to lose.

Either way, Monday's outcome is likely to play a heavy factor in the fortune and promise and Tomlin and Taylor going forward (or going backward).

Can the Bengals win with Andy Dalton doing it by himself?

Approaching Week 4, only Patrick Mahomes (1,195) had thrown for more yards than Andy Dalton (979).

However, unlike Mahomes and just like fellow top-five passers Case Keenum and Matt Ryan, Dalton is quarterbacking a struggling squad.

Much of the reason behind the struggles is that it's all been on Dalton with a rushing attack that's ranked dead last in the league, having gained a meager 125 yards in three games.

Being without the injured A.J. Green has not helped, but receivers Tyler Boyd and John Ross have each done well.

Dalton, who's tossed five touchdowns so far, has done his part, but if a first win is to come to fruition for the Bengals, running backs Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard need to be bigger contributors.

Will Mason Rudolph drop back and let it fly?

With Roethlisberger out until 2020, the offense is Mason Rudolph's in the interim.

It's a safe wager that no matter the slips or falls, the Steelers are sticking with Rudolph and the plan going forward is to let Rudolph air it out a bit more.

With just two completions thrown for more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage, Rudolph threw a conservative game and then some in his starting debut against the Niners, completing 51.9 percent of his passes for 174 yards and a pair of scores.

It's also imperative for more than just Juju Smith-Schuster to get involved in the receiving game, as he's leading the team with 14 catches for 243 yards and no other Steeler has greater than 95 yards receiving.

Rudolph, the first Steelers QB other than Roethlisberger to start against the Bengals since Tommy Maddox in 2003, and the rest of the offense will also need more from James Conner, whose numbers across the board are down from last season as he's averaging just 32 yards per game on the ground and 2.9 yards per carry.

The Steelers' offense needs to get better. In a hurry. And ready or not, Rudolph must guide them tonight.

Can the Steelers' defense play to its potential?

On paper, the Steelers' young, first-round core on defense should be a delight to watch and a handful for offenses to deal with.

Instead, Pittsburgh's defense has been dreadful with an NFL-worst 442.0 yards per game allowed and 28.3 points given up on average (third-worst).

T.J. Watt, Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick are all first-round selections drafted over the last three seasons. Fitzpatrick, after he was traded for from the Dolphins, had an interception and a forced fumble in his Steelers debut in Week 3, while Bush had 11 tackles and two fumble recoveries. Edmunds had 10 tackles and Watt had seven. The talent's there. The potential's there. But it's past due for this first-round group to come together as a unit and produce first-round results.

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