The way to approach this weekend’s epic struggle in Pittsburgh is to ask yourself: “Why won’t the Bengals win?”
If your response consisted of: a) because they’re the Bengals, b) because it’s the Steelers, or c) because it’s a big game on the road, please leave now. Cincinnati has spent this season dispelling exactly that kind of hogwash, and it doesn’t lend itself to very interesting conversation anyway.
Of course there are legitimate concerns for the Bengals heading into their biggest game in three years.
The defense is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Three starters (Antwan Odom, Roy Williams and now Keith Rivers) are out and plenty of others are sore and hurting. Pittsburgh once again seems comfortable with its running game now that Rashard Mendenhall has emerged as another one of those squat, tough runners possesing both wheels and power. The Steelers’ run-blocking is in a commanding rhythm after consecutively bullying two tough defenses in Minnesota and Denver. A battered Bengals unit could have problems stopping a young, fresh tailback running behind a rugged and confident line like Pittsburgh’s.
Another area of concern for the Bengals defense is covering rookie receiver, Mike Wallace. This sleek cruise-missile in the slot position has become a serious deep threat, averaging over 17 yards a catch, and is the perfect complement to Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to scramble and improvise. Wallace already had over 100 yards against the Bengals in Week 3, blazing past our own speedster, Johnathan Joseph, on one memorable long ball in the first half. The Steelers like to use Wallace on deep crossing routes that open up once Big Ben starts to rumble out of the pocket. Our own rookie, conerback Morgan Trent, will likely be tested on these kinds of plays and the Bengal safeties will have to lend extra support against deeper patterns.
If Pittsburgh can effectively run the ball, the Steelers’ offense will roll to a big day; if they’re forced to pass, Mike Zimmer can send extra pressure and force Roethlisberger into making wild decisions on the fly. The key to stopping any NFL offense is to force them into throwing downs and preying on the predictability of the pass. Cincinnati is ranked second at stopping the run, but this will be one of their stiffer challenges of the season.
On offense, losing Chris Henry is certainly unfortunate but not ruinous. There are two high-profile draft picks in Jerome Simpson and Chase Coffman just hanging out on the sidelines, ready to catch passes. Practice-squad guy Maurice Purify has impressed those who watch him in practice everyday and may be another Marvin gem, but it would be nice to see the other kids get a chance, especially Coffman. I can see Simpson not being prepared for the NFL—he played at Coastal Carolina—but Coffman set records in the Big 12 with Missouri and shouldn’t be shell shocked by the pros.
Either way, the real reason that losing Henry won’t make much of a difference is because the Bengals are now a running team. Cedric Benson is our own Boxer the Draft-Horse, pulling the offensive sled behind him and racking up crucial yards along the way.
We’ve all witnessed the philosophical shift away from relying on Carson Palmer’s arm, and the game-plan will not change against the Steelers just because they’re tops at stopping the run. The new script says that Benson gets it 30 times a game until he drops, and Palmer wins on third down. The theory ignores its inherent predictability and emphasizes the long-term effects it has on opponents. The Bengals perform better later in the game, echoing Marvin Lewis’ recent mantra of “make your last play better than your first play.” In the fourth quarter, the offense has consistently appear to be the physically tougher team, gashing opponents with chunks of rushing yardage and finishing with wins.
Both of these teams know what’s coming on Sunday; it’s unlikely that either will be caught off guard. No one is looking past this game because it’s the game. It’s going to be a bloodthirsty cage match; Mad Marvin and the Thunder Dome. Only the most bad-assed will survive such a familiar and intimate fight. It comes down to discipline, will-power and toughness. So ask yourself one more question before you go: Who has demonstrated more toughness this season than the Bengals?
Bengals 21, Steelers 13