Dick LeBeau and his pack of wild attack dogs float down the Ohio River in a weather-beaten, black frigate this weekend looking to pillage and plunder the first football team it comes across. The fair citizens of Cincinnati are alerted to hide away their children and precious metals because this angry, gruff bunch are worse than pirates; they’re Steelers.
In order for the Bengals to stand up against such villainy and protect their dwelling, they must adhere to the annual mantra of aggressive play and withstanding Pittsburgh’s best shot to the face. But more importantly this season, they must be completely prepared for the multiple angles of their attack.
Like the Bengals, this is a new breed of Steelers. In the past few seasons, Pittsburgh moved away from the smash-mouth running style we’ve been victimized so often against. This is partly because of multiple injuries to running backs last season and the maturation of Ben Roethlisberger. They now run an offense that shows multiple formations and little dependency on one style of play. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, has kept enough core players to allow him to vastly expand their playbook over the years, and as a result, they are now essentially a pass-first team.
When Big Ben was younger and more wily, it seemed that keeping him inside the pocket produced better results than flushing him out and allowing him to improvise. For whatever reason, the guy made more plays on the run or while being sacked than he did dropping back and throwing in rhythm.
But Roethlisberger has blossomed into a savvy, well-rounded QB, who still struggles at times with his accuracy, but excels in the ambiguous “intangibles” category. No longer can opponents keep him in the pocket and wait for him to make a bad throw, he’s still as strong and swashbuckling as ever and blitzing him remains a risk in allowing the big play.
With Pittsburgh’s ground game struggling after the first two games, Arians runs wide-receiver bubble screens (the trendiest play-call currently in the NFL), intermediate slants to Hines Ward, and dump-offs to Heath Miller in order to set up the deep crossing route or seam route to Santonio Holmes. Pittsburgh somehow manages to lull defenses to sleep with the pass, rather than with the traditional pounding of the run. Be that as it may, the Steelers have had a 100-yard rusher in each of the past seven wins at Paul Brown Stadium and sometimes tradition has a way of hanging around.
Therefore, the defensive priority for the Bengals should be to stop the run first, then keep all passing plays in front of them and make tackles on short routes, and finally, like always, bring Ben down once they get their hands on him. I wouldn’t expect to see as much linebacker and safety blitzing for fear of giving up the big play that always seems to surface when the Steelers come to Cincinnati. Instead, they should rush their formidable front-four, keep their safeties deep and force punts rather than gamble on turnovers. If Geathers and Odom can produce half the chaos they created against Green Bay, it will make the other defensive assignments that much more manageable and should limit the shape-shifting Pittsburgh offense to a modest day at the office.
The Steelers defense, however, is not all that different. They still have their merciless wizard LeBeau, masterminding the carnage his band of roughnecks leave behind at stadiums every weekend. LeBeau continues to fire off his heat-seeking blitzes at every given chance and still has enough beef up front to limit rushing yards. What he won’t have this time is his bushy-maned psycho of a safety and No. 1 henchman, Troy Polamalu. Even Polamalu’s backup, Tyrone Carter, is banged up and is questionable to play on Sunday. Polamalu has tyrannized this city with devastating tackles and pick-sixes since he’s been drafted; he will not be missed.
The Bengals would like to run on the Steelers, but wouldn’t everybody? It’s one thing to run all over a defense that claims it runs a similar scheme to Pittsburgh, and it’s another to do it against the real thing. If teams could even occasionally run against Dick LeBeau and his goons, they wouldn’t maintain the stigma they’ve earned; they’re the best defense in the league for good reason. While the offensive line has exceeded expectations up to this point, lining up across from this gruff bunch will be the ultimate test.
So that means Cincinnati will have to go to the air, and that puts the onus on the Golden Boy, Carson Palmer. If the Bengals are to pull out a win, Palmer must play great. His performance must be better than his average and he simply cannot make brainless mistakes like his two picks last week.
Typically, Pittsburgh does not give a quarterback much time, which means hot reads and underneath routes could be what moves the ball down-field. If the Bengals pass-protection holds up well or if they find success on shorter gains, then they can try something vertical to Ocho or Henry, but to force it deep would be playing into their hands. It would not be surprising to see a conservative play-calling approach from Bob Bratkowski after all of his failed missions against this team in the past. I would be prepared to see a lot of throws caught short of the marker in hopes that the receiver makes a play, and attempted screen plays on third-and-longish; better to play it safe than to play it wrong.
So as the Steelers wash ashore and fall out of their vessel, laughing and cursing at all of us, and prepare to shove around the Bengals and their fans once again, they should encounter more resistance than normal from Cincinnati. This Bengals team has grown up some and is stronger and more willing to fight these days. But alas, they continue to be their own worst enemy with self-inflicted mistakes, and against a team that feels like a despotic older sibling, that still won’t get it done.
Steelers 24, Bengals 20