It’s never been better to be wrong.
Cincinnati is still elated after a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback against the loathsome Steelers on Sunday in a game that truly typified the attitude of Marvin Lewis’ newest breed of Bengal. His teams of the past lacked the emotional wherewithal and intestinal fortitude to scrape themselves off of the canvas and fight a tough last round against the defending champs, but this bunch rope-a-doped its way to a win by physically outlasting Pittsburgh and staying calm when it mattered the most.
The perennial bully came to town and right away started pushing around the underdog Bengals.
In the first half, the running game was useless; blockers were getting blown off the line and Cedric Benson was not falling forward. Carson Palmer looked frazzled, out of rhythm and twice early on threw into coverage on passes that are typically intercepted. The play-calling of Bratkowski started off conservative as expected, and the offense was hampered on two decent drives by penalties, both of which resulted in punts.
Defensively, the Bengals looked over-matched and even seemed tired by the end of the first quarter. Defenders were manhandled at the line of scrimmage, missing tackles, weren’t running to the ball, seemed a step slow in pass coverage, and worst of all, allowing big plays. The Steelers ran out to an early 13-0 lead after their first three possessions and seasoned Bengal fans prepared for the customary onslaught.
Then, in the locker room down 10 points to their personal nemesis, a certain right of passage happened to this team. Instead of licking their wounds and going through the motions of another decisive loss to the Steelers, the Bengals put on their hard hats and began pushing back.
The comeback was not without it’s fortunate, if not lucky, moments; Ben Roethlisberger had his wires crossed with his receiver on the interception to Johnathan Joseph and Limas Sweed dropped an easy touchdown. But after halftime, the renewed priority on defense became stopping the run rather than putting pressure on Big Ben. Pass blitzing had not worked at all up to that point and it was a smart adjustment by Mike Zimmer to focus instead on slowing Willie Parker and forcing shorter passes underneath.
Also after halftime, the Bengals running game came to life. The offensive line surged into the Steelers’ 3-4 defense and Benson began to fall forward and gain positive yards. For the first time, the Bengals looked like the fresher team.
But the situation worsened in the fourth quarter after Pittsburgh added another touchdown and Graham missed an impossible field goal (some may argue that a 52-yarder should be doable for most NFL kickers, especially the higher paid ones, and I would agree, but that is not the reality with Graham. The Bengals should have either gone for it there or tried to pin them on a short punt. It seemed like a case of a coach having too much faith in his franchise-tagged kicker). The Steelers found themselves in that comfortable armchair of having the ball and a two score lead in the fourth quarter against a team that hasn’t bitten them back in years.
But not this time.
Zimmer’s adjustment paid off as the Bengals forced a three-and-out after two short runs and a minor pass. Cincinnati then drove the field on quick passes that set up a series of quality runs by Benson, capped off by a 23-yard scamper for the score made possible by excellent blocking and good quickness to the end zone. The Bengal offensive line was in total control in that last quarter and the Steelers defense looked tired and sluggish.
Pittsburgh tried to run some more on their next two plays and had to punt again after Roethlisberger was sacked by Pat Sims and Robert Geathers. This was another case of the Steelers thinking that they could muscle the Bengals into submission and end the game by running it down their throats. Think again; these aren’t the Bengals Bill Cowher remembers.
Once Palmer had the ball in the game-winning situation, he sharpened to a tack and made some terrific throws. Andre Caldwell has quickly become Palmer’s safety valve by making multiple clutch catches, especially within the red zone. The Bengals effectively moved down field by throwing underneath on comeback and stop routes to Caldwell, Coles and Ochocinco, and Benson contributed two positive runs and a check off pass.
After a questionable spike play and two incompletions, the Bengals were faced with 4&10. Carson maneuvered out of the pocket and found Brian Leonard on a check-off pass in which he lunged for the first down after making the catch. This kind of effort, the sheer grit and determination Leonard and Palmer showed on such a crucial play, is indicative of the kind of character these Bengals are playing with this season.
Two plays later, Palmer found Caldwell for a touchdown pass on a play where Ochocinco and Daniel Coates crossed over the middle, drawing the linebackers to them and clearing the middle of the field. Caldwell stopped short on his route after discovering the open seam in the end zone and Palmer made a perfect throw. The success of the play was due to a combination of good play design and smart improvising by both Caldwell and Palmer—one category our fair quarterback had to improve upon and seems to be making strides in this season.
Even though the players and coaches downplay the victory as strictly a divisional win, we fans know it’s more than that. In one fell swoop, the Bengals have gained credibility as a competitive team, added doubt to Pittsburgh’s divisional supremacy and made football fun again in Cincinnati. Not only has the local villain been vanquished in glorious fashion, but we can now all see for ourselves that this team has a foundation that can hold up under the most intense pressures.
If toughness, maturity and concentration were areas of concern heading into this season for the Bengals, then this landmark win is a clear-cut sign of the positive direction and culture that Marvin Lewis has reworked in Cincinnati.
Just to recap: they took Pittsburgh’s best shot to the mouth, very nearly drowned in ineptitude, fought back and won! Here in the Queen City, that’s something to celebrate all season.