MNF – Bengals at Steelers

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Bengals at Steelers (-3.5, 45), 8:15 pm ET, ESPN

I’ve long been of the belief that there’s no such thing as a true must-win in the NFL but admit that a division game where the loser falls to 0-4 is a pretty good argument against that. If you’re going to try and sell your team on turning things around in October after a slow start, that will be a lot easier to do for the winning coach come Tuesday than it will for whoever comes up short.

Only one team has made the playoffs after starting a season 0-4 over the past 40 years, and players are aware that a winless first month is tough to come back from.

Betting trends suggest the Steelers were overvalued at home despite starting a backup quarterback when this number came out, so Andy Dalton and a Bengals team that has won only once in 11 games has a lot of support as they look to try and hand Pittsburgh (0-3 SU, 2-1 ATS) only its second 0-4 start since 2013. To do so, the Bengals will have to snap an eight-game losing streak at the hands of the Steelers dating back to '16. New head coach Zac Taylor has had a tough time getting his offense on track, compromised by A.J. Green’s continued absence as he looks to return from an ankle injury sometime later this month.

Cincinnati (0-3 SU, 2-1 ATS) hasn’t scored more than 20 points yet despite Taylor’s desire to speed up tempo, putting together its best game when Dalton threw for 418 yards in a 21-20 loss in Seattle. He’s since been picked off three times and struggled with consistency in losses to the 49ers and Bills. The Steelers have lost to Seattle and San Francisco too. They’ve been encouraged by Mason Rudolph’s first outings in relief of Ben Roethlisberger, who will miss the remainder of the season after suffering an elbow injury in Week 2.

Rudolph has thrown for a pair of scores and been picked off once in each of his games this week and now makes his first home start in a crucial contest. There have been a number of guys pressed into duty in relief of Roethlisberger over the past 16 years, but none will get the extended look Rudolph is expected to receive if he can stay healthy. The 2018 third-round pick has looked promising in the preseason and is really the only chance they Steelers have of salvaging this season since they parted ways with Joshua Dobbs and list unproven rookie Devlin Hodges as the backup.

Running back James Conner hasn’t been able to get on track as Pittsburgh is averaging just 64 yards per game on the ground, so the Bengals will probably prioritize keeping him in check, which should create opportunities for Rudolph to make plays while avoiding mistakes given the blitzes and varied looks he should expect to see.

Rudolph is hoping to establish more of a connection with new No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has yet to break out with 100-yard output through the first three games in attempting to replace Antonio Brown. He did haul in a grab that he took 79 yards against the 49ers last Sunday but only caught two other balls for just five yards. Getting him going should be a priority. Rudolph probably won’t have favorite target Vance McDonald available. More on that in the injury report below. He does have college teammate James Washington on board in addition to veteran Donte Moncrief, rookie Diontae Johnson, so the receiving pieces are there for Pittsburgh to test a secondary that has allowed six touchdown passes through the first three games.

Pittsburgh has surrendered seven, done in by Tom Brady and Russell Wilson for three apiece. Last week’s loss in Santa Clara featured the defense finally showing a little backbone against Jimmy Garoppolo, which included picking off twice as new arrival Minkah Fitzpatrick paid immediate dividends in upgrading the secondary. There’s hope that the team’s familiarity with Dalton’s tendencies and the upgrade of adding Fitzpatrick to try and handle elite slot receivers like Tyler Boyd will help the defense build some momentum after looking like scrimmage partners over the first two weeks.

Dalton will look to utilize the speed of Joe Ross and the elusiveness of Boyd to his advantage when not handing it to Joe Mixon, but not having Green to help stretch the field puts extra pressure on him to be perfect with a lot on his plate considering the Bengals haven’t really bothered establishing the run. The beginning of this game is going to be crucial to the total since a slow start is a very good possibility given the uncertainty involved on both ends with Rudolph making his first start and Cincinnati likely trying to establish Mixon early while keeping things simple for an offensive line that has really struggled to block. While both teams are capable of hitting home runs with deep threats, I’d recommend the first-quarter under, which is widely available at 7.5.

For a look at a player prop involving Smith-Schuster, checkout VI’s Weekly NFL Free picks .

Both teams woke up to rain all day and can expect to see afternoon thunderstorms but the forecast indicates we’ll have clear weather once kickoff rolls around. Temperatures will be in the low 70s and there will be minimal wind, so once the kid gloves come off early, we could see points that will make a run at the closing total. A second-half ‘over’ play could be a natural fit if both offenses have shown signs of life in the opening 30 minutes and the rain has stayed away.


Caesars' Senior Oddsmaker Alan Berg provides insights from behind the counter.

"Sharps absolutely love the Bengals and the ‘over’," said Berg, whose entertaining observations can be found on Twitter (@percentberg). "Unfortunately for everyone that wants to ride with them, those numbers are long gone. The game opened with the Bengals at 4.5 and 43.5."

Cincinnati Bengals
Projected season win total: 6 (Over +130, Under -150)
Odds to win AFC North (pre-Week 1/current): 16/1 to 50/1
Odds to win AFC (pre-Week 1/current): 100/1 to 500/1
Odds to win Super Bowl (pre-Week 1/current): 200/1 to 1000/1
Pittsburgh Steelers
Projected season win total: 9.5 (Over -110, Under -110)
Odds to win AFC North (pre-Week 1/current): 13/10 to 10/1
Odds to win AFC (pre-Week 1/current): 9/1 to 100/1
Odds to win Super Bowl (pre-Week 1/current): 18/1 to 200/1

The Steelers came into the season with plenty of respect, so those who backed the Black-and-Gold to outperform some futures are currently holding tickets with odds that are nowhere near as lucrative as currently available. The loss of Roethlisberger and an 0-3 start have thrust the Ravens and Browns to the front of the division and makes it unlikely that Pittsburgh will be able to overcome its slow start behind the inexperienced Rudolph. If you’re a true believer, the payoff is enticing. I’d imagine that there will be a few among the stubborn Steelers’ faithful willing to double down at these odds. They won’t be better next week if they take care of business and won’t be realistic if they end up 0-4 so now is the time to act if you think the Steelers have simply had a rough start.

The Bengals were expected to bring up the rear and are playing their role, struggling under a first-time head coach while missing its top receiver. There’s no reason to get in on any of their futures even if you’re of the belief they’ll pull off a Monday night upset.

As far as this matchup is concerned, the Steelers were installed as a 3.5-point favorite when the Westgate’s early numbers were announced, opened the week as a 4.5-point 'chalk' throughout most shops and was bet down to 3 points on Sunday before rising up to 3.5 at many books. Look for that dance between 3 and 4 points to play out until kickoff but it’s hard to see significant action coming in.

The money line opened at Pittsburgh-200 at Caesars and has since dipped to -170. If you're in on the underdog Bengals to pick up their first victory, they've moved from +175 to +155.


Carl Lawson will again be missing from the Bengals’ defense due to a hamstring issue, while DE Kerry Wynn remains out with a concussion and DT Ryan Glasgow won’t get back from a thigh injury. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard should play, as will corner B.W. Webb.

Cincinnati is still without Green and key offensive tackle Cordy Glenn, but will have tackle Andre Smith and guard Michael Jordan available up front.

Pittsburgh is expected to be missing McDonald due to a shoulder injury, so newly acquired TE Nick Vannett and rookie Zach Gentry will be pressed into duty. Fullback Roosevelt Nix remains out with a knee injury, which means that the running game could again struggle to get going. The Steelers will be missing linebackers Anthony Chickillo and Vince Williams but should have corner Joe Haden available. Mark Barron should play despite not practicing and LB Jayrone Elliott is questionable due to a hamstring.

RECENT MEETINGS (Steelers 11-1, 8-4 ATS last 12; UNDER 7-5)

12/30/18 Steelers 16-13 at Bengals (CIN +14, 45)
10/14/18 Steelers 28-21 at Bengals (PITT +1.5, 49.5)
12/4/17 Steelers 23-20 at Bengals (CIN +4.5, 42.5)
10/22/17 Steelers 29-14 vs. Bengals (PITT -4, 40)
12/18/16 Steelers 24-20 at Bengals (PITT -3, 45.5)
9/18/16 Steelers 24-16 at Bengals (PITT -3, 48)
1/9/16 Steelers 18-16 vs. Bengals (CIN +3, 45)
12/13/15 Steelers 33-20 at Bengals (PITT +2.5, 50)
11/1/15 Bengals 16-10 vs. Steelers (CIN +1, 48.5)
12/28/14 Steelers 27-17 at Bengals (PITT -3.5, 48)
12/7/14 Steelers 42-21 at Bengals (PITT +3, 47.5)
12/15/13 Steelers 30-20 vs. Bengals (PITT +1.5, 44.5)


The Westgate opens its advance lines for the following week on Tuesdays and Week 5 currently has the Steelers as a 3-point home underdog against the Ravens. The Bengals are listed as a 4-point favorite against the Kyler Murray-led Cardinals, who have yet to win a game this season.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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