During a midweek conference call with media in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin kept the focus on the upcoming game against the Bengals rather than addressing the off-the-field chatter that comes with the rivalry.
Here are five takeaways from what he said about the Monday Night Football matchup ahead in Cincinnati:
1. ‘Pettiness’ and ‘silliness’ surrounds the game
There is no love lost between these two teams, and it’s seen in everything from banter on social media to nasty hits on the field. Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster even went so far as to mock Bengals receiver A.J. Green for his Week 9 chokehold of Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, which Smith-Schuster re-enacted as part of a touchdown celebration.
But when asked if his team seems to have a way of getting under the Bengals’ skin, Tomlin said he wasn’t going to “acknowledge the pettiness.”
“We are here to play a football game,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got business. Maybe it goes down and that’s unfortunate, but there is a lot of good, hard, competitive play by professionals on both sides that needs to be highlighted. We waste too much time talking about silliness in my opinion.”
2. Recent success over Cincinnati means nothing
Pittsburgh has won five in a row against Cincinnati and eight of the last nine in the series, and Marvin Lewis is 2-14 against the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium; however, Tomlin doesn’t look at the series cumulatively, he said.
“This is a big game,” Tomlin said. “It’s an AFC North game as we get into December. It’s Monday Night Football. That could probably describe a lot of our visits over there. There is a lot to be excited about and playing for. It’s always a big game when we play over there.”
3. Bengals have better identity this time around
Tomlin said when these teams met in Week 7, it was clear Cincinnati was still trying to sort out its personnel. A lot has changed, especially on offense.
“They have a more defined division of labor,” Tomlin said. “The last time we were playing them, we were getting ready for the three different tailbacks. It feels like (Joe) Mixon is their guy now. There was a three-tackle rotation last time we played those guys. They’ve solidified those positions.”
4. Continuity on defense infused with young talent
The Bengals have been more established on defense with veterans in key places, and Tomlin gave a nod to the continuity of that “time-tested group.” But he also noted how young talent — like linebacker Carl Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III — brings some extra energy.
“They get nice contributions from some young guys,” Tomlin said. “We all know about Jackson, he played well the first time we played them but I like what I’m seeing from (Chris) Smith, 94, the rotational rush man — evolution there. Obviously, Lawson had made plays prior to our first performance but he’s continued to grow and make more plays. I think about the infusion of young talent, particularly up front, when I think about anything different this time around with those guys.”
5. Respect for Burfict
When asked about what he thinks about Vontaze Burfict (whose been especially controversial in this series), Tomlin offered nothing but praise.
“I think he’s an awesome player,” he said. “I’m sure they agree. That’s why he is their captain and leader. That guy makes a lot of football plays. When he is on the grass, you better be ready to account for him. I don’t think he’s given enough credit as a pass defender. What he does in the pass game is awesome.”
A follow-up question about if all that gets overshadowed because of the controversy surrounding Burfict, Tomlin said he wasn’t “going to comment on that stuff.”