Steelers ought to follow Bengals’ blueprint

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | Quarterback Joe Burrow has turned the Cincinnati Bengals into an annual Super Bowl contender.

Luke Henne | Editor-in-Chief

Jan. 26, 2023

For years, the Cincinnati Bengals were a doormat of the AFC North. Come 2020, even the Cleveland Browns looked like they had a brighter future than the Bengals.

Seemingly all that Cincinnati had was Joe Burrow, its quarterback who was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Just 10 games into his professional career, Burrow was out with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.

With an injury that isn’t always the easiest to recover from, it looked as if the Bengals could be in jeopardy of another draft failure.

However, Burrow swiftly recovered and made it back in time for the 2021 campaign. Even with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd slotted in as talented wide receivers for Burrow to throw to, Cincinnati took a risk and selected Ja’Marr Chase with the No. 5 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

It was a pick that was heavily scrutinized, as many believed that the team should’ve drafted offensive linemen, particularly after missed blocking was a source of Burrow’s injury.

However, Burrow and Chase had formed an unstoppable connection during their collegiate careers at LSU. Chase caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns from Burrow during the Tigers’ run to an undefeated season and a national championship in 2019.

The “Bayou Bengals” of Baton Rouge, La., reunited in Cincinnati. The front office took a risk, and its paid dividends.

As a result of the successful gamble, Cincinnati is one win away from reaching its second-consecutive Super Bowl.

For years, the Bengals were the Steelers’ little brother. Now, however, it’s time for Pittsburgh to take a page from Cincinnati’s playbook.

With quarterback Kenny Pickett having a year of NFL development now under his belt, the Steelers’ next step should be to surround him with a target he’s already comfortable with.

He formed a dynamic duo with fellow rookie George Pickens in 2022, but now it’s time for the Steelers to bring in Pickett’s old college connection from their time together at Pitt: wide receiver Jordan Addison.

The tandem began to gel during Addison’s freshman year with the Panthers in 2020, but 2021 saw the duo take Pitt to a place it hadn’t been in a long time.

Pickett threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns, while Addison snagged 100 passes for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns. Those two helped the Panthers to their first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference championship, as well as the program’s first season with 11 wins since 1981.

Pickett-Addison draws parallels to the connection between Burrow and Chase. A duo formed in college. The quarterback getting a year under his belt at the professional level before reuniting with a signature wide receiver.

It’s not like Pickett is the only one in town familiar with Addison. The Steelers and Pitt share a practice facility, where Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin was witness to Addison’s talents before he abruptly decided to transfer to USC following the 2021 season.

After spending the 2022 campaign with the Trojans playing alongside Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, Addison is now projected to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

If you’re truly set on developing Pickett as the franchise’s top quarterback for the foreseeable future — which was implied by using a first-round pick on him in the 2022 NFL Draft — get him some targets that he’s already comfortable with.

It’s done wonders for the Steelers’ division rival. During the 2021 postseason, Chase grabbed 25 of Burrow’s passes for 368 yards and a touchdown. In two games so far this postseason, Chase has 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns.

In a 2021 season in which the Bengals weren’t expected to have much success — particularly after all three AFC North teams but them made the playoffs in 2020 — Cincinnati fell just one win shy of earning the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl title.

In 2022, with expectations surrounding the team for the first time in a long time, people raised doubt after the team started 0-2, 2-3 and 4-4. The Bengals have erased all that doubt, having won 10 games in a row (eight regular season, two in postseason) following an Oct. 31 loss to the Browns.

The Bengals are legitimate, and the chemistry between Burrow and Chase is a major reason why.

Don’t just look at Cincinnati. Across the state in Philadelphia, Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts and wide receiver DeVonta Smith went from being teammates at Alabama to forming a successful pairing of their own at the NFL level.

Familiarity breeds comfort. One of the best ways to get Pickett comfortable as he continues to develop into the quarterback the Steelers hope he can be would be to draft someone that he’s got preexisting chemistry with.

The Steelers tried something somewhat similar before. In the 2018 NFL Draft, the team selected both quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington, who were teammates at Oklahoma State.

Rudolph, the team’s third-string quarterback in 2022, has had just one prolonged period of playing time, which came when Ben Roethlisberger was hurt in 2019. Washington is no longer in Pittsburgh.

Did that draft strategy work? No.

However, this one feels different. Neither Rudolph nor Washington were never considered to be integral parts of the Steelers’ starting offense.

Pickett feels like the No. 1 quarterback moving forward, and it would behoove the front office to draft someone like Addison.

It’s done wonders for the team in the next state over.

While the Bengals haven’t been a blueprint for success for a long time prior to 2021, the Steelers would be wise to take a look at what the Burrow-Chase connection has brought to Cincinnati.