Smash or dash

Posted Nov 7, 2010



NOVEMBER 8, 2010


The Bengals and Steelers are supposed to turn the glitz of this Monday night prime-time, red-carpet matchup (ESPN, Cincinnati’s Channel 12, 8:30 p.m.) into the grinding goo of a midday soap opera muddled in reality rushes and defensive shenanigans with the Bengals defending desperate lives in their house.

A replay of last year’s War of 18-12, right?

In the name of Howard Cosell, not so fast, Danderoo.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back flinging, nobody is running on his defense, and Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterback Carson Palmer have a history of throwing on the Steelers. The roundtable predicts the Steelers won’t mothball the long ball just because they’re at Paul Brown Stadium and while the majority favors Pittsburgh, all three agree the Bengals usually play the Steelers well enough to have a shot.

The Eye, an NFL scout familiar with the AFC North, gives the 2-5 Bengals the edge because the 5-2 Steelers are coming off a loss in New Orleans and are at the end of a three-game road trip against a Bengals team that is playing its second straight at home and got over the hump against Pittsburgh last year with a sweep. Our two former players, The Sage and Big Bird, who both played in the NFL for a decade, think the Steelers win by 13 or 14 points because they are still riding the momentum of Big Ben’s return.

But it is out of the old men’s hands. The Bengals kids are suddenly faced with critical roles.

Rookie left end Carlos Dunlap and second-year right end Michael Johnson have to make sure they get Roethlisberger to the ground on third downs. In his fourth NFL start, right tackle Andre Smith is charged with fending off one of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s feared pass rushers in LaMarr Woodley. Rookie slot receiver Jordan Shipley has to be available when LeBeau gets pressure on Palmer. And rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham is going to have to help Smith and others in pass protection.

“It’s tough to pick the Bengals because you’re never sure which team is going to show,” Big Bird says. “They put together their offense and defense on the same day and they’re hard to beat. But you know how the Steelers are playing and they’ve got a lot of momentum.”

“The Steelers are playing so well on defense and the Bengals don’t seem to have much confidence when they try to execute the passing game,” The Sage says.


The battle of the former USC housemates.

How much does Polamalu mean? Last year when he played hardly at all against Cincinnati, the Bengals swept. In Palmer’s seven full games with Polamalu on the field most of the game, the Steelers are 5-2. Palmer calls his old friend the NFL’s best defensive player because of his impact against both the run and pass.

Exhibit A: He can blitz up the middle to free up guys like ends Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel in the running game.

Exhibit B: He can spring into a backpedal and bait a quarterback into a bad throw for an interception. He can also return it for a touchdown and finish it off by running over the quarterback at the goal line, which he did in his fourth NFL game that sealed a 28-17 win in the fourth quarter of a 2004 game and prevented a winning rally. Polamalu pays, at times, for his constant freewheeling that can allow big plays. But the good has outweighed the bad enough so that he has become one of the most feared players of his time.

“You don’t know where he’s going to line up; no one knows where he’s going to line up,” The Eye says. “He’ll run through any gap on the field. He’ll jump a route even if it’s not his. What he’s good at is peeking at the quarterback before he does it. He either knows by formation where the run is going or he knows where the quarterback’s eyes are going and where he’s going to throw it. The Saints got him a couple of times. You have to not only know where he is, but you have to put him where you want him so you can throw it somewhere else. Look him off with your eyes. He’s going to bait you, you have to bait him.”

Big Bird knows that Palmer and Roethlisberger threw picks in their final throws last week.

“I think Ben is going to have an easier time bouncing back,” Bird says. “He’s got that defense working for him and they’re running the ball and Carson doesn’t look to be playing with a lot of confidence.”

But he does against the Steelers.


The Steelers are No. 1 against the run and Timmons is a big (6-1, 234 pounds) reason why and is gaining a rep as Pittsburgh's best defender next to Polamalu. The Steelers haven’t allowed a run longer than 14 yards or a back to gain more than 48 yards in a game. Benson popped a 23-yarder for a TD in the fourth-quarter comeback last year, the only run of 20 yards the Bengals have had against the Steelers in head coach Marvin Lewis’s 14 regular-season games against Pittsburgh.

“Timmons is a good player. Fast and physical. He’s fast enough that when one of the outside rushers gets hurt, he goes in for them,” The Eye says.


Smith makes his first appearance against the Steelers in just his fourth NFL start. The 6-2, 265-pound Woodley is in his fourth season, is averaging a dozen sacks over the last two, and already has 3.5 this season. Smith is behind when it comes to pro technique, offensive line coach Paul Alexander says, and he’ll have to learn on the job here in the passing game.

“That right side has to be one of the big matchups of the game, if not the biggest,” Bird says. “They play so fast that it’s going to be a big adjustment for a young guy like Andre and he’s been giving up some pressures.”

The Eye doesn’t want to sell Smith short.

“The Bengals are built for a game like this. They draft big, strong guys up front,” The Eye says. “That’s why they took Smith. He was the biggest and most powerful tackle. The Steelers can get him off balance, but he can hold his ground with them.”


Yes, Harrison has as many sacks as the Bengals this season with six. But he leads everybody in NFL fines with the recent crackdown on helmet shots. And that could turn this matchup into a mental one, too. It already was since Harrison popped Whitworth with a right cross to the helmet in the final moments of the second game last year.

“Whit did a good job against Harrison last year,” says The Sage about the two games Harrison had two sacks that both weren’t charged to Whitworth. “Whit has the size on him (he’s seven inches taller) and that’s tough even for a guy like Harrison to leverage.”


LeBeau has been brilliant in taking away The Ocho with safeties over the top and linebackers bracketing under. Sometimes both. Will he still pay attention to the Ocho? Or will he focus on Cincinnati's hottest receiver, Owens with five TDs in the last four games and three of at least 37 yards? Back in the day, Palmer was able to exploit the Steelers’ vulnerability to the deep ball with Ocho taken away on bombs to wide receivers Chris Henry and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

And the Steelers are 25th against the pass.

“I’m just not sure about their passing game,” The Sage says. “It always seems like they have a mistake in timing or they run bad route or they drop a ball. Those are things you really can’t do against the Steelers.”


The Steelers have retooled the coverage unit that Scott burned for what proved to be the only TD in the Battle of 18-12. While the Bengals have failed to get off the dime (Scott is 36th in the NFL with less than 20 yards a return), the Steelers have risen to eighth covering kicks.

Sanders is a speedy rookie who is sixth in the league with a 27.5-yard average. He’s got no TDs, but a long of 48. Yet he has coughed up the ball twice in the last couple of games.


The last time we saw Roethlisberger, Johnson was draped on him and he was chucking his 40th pass of the day, an incompletion that ended the 18-12 game. In his fourth game back from suspension, Roethlisberger doesn’t figure to put it up that many times but our former players are split on what Pittsburgh will do.

“This is still Ben’s team,” The Sage says. “They’re still going to throw it. He’s the guy that makes the plays. They’re a passing team.”

“They always try to run it in Cincinnati,” Big Bird says. “This is going to be a smashmouth game and the Steelers are going to do what they always do and try to run it on them”

What’s probably going to happen is the Steelers will do what they did under Bill Cowher. They’ll try to throw to get ahead and run to win with the lead.

One thing is for sure: in Roethlisberger’s three games back, the Steelers have thrown the ball more than they did without him with a run-pass ratio that is almost even. And his eyes have to be lighting up at the weak Bengals pass rush that continually allows the quarterback to get out of the pocket. If they get there.

And, of course, that’s how Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls. He did it smashmouth (’05) and pass-happy (’08), but in both cases he made his biggest plays with defenders hanging on him and scrambling until the coverage breaks down. The Bengals have to be nervous about that because that’s how Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman kept the trying TD drive alive.

“Get him to the ground. Get him to the ground. You can’t miss him,” The Sage says.

With Antwan Odom (suspension) and Jon Fanene (hamstring) out, the Bengals have slid left end Robert Geathers inside on passing downs and replaced him at left end with Dunlap, the second-rounder from Florida. Dunlap draws the huge Flozell Adams playing in his 13th season and at 6-7 he’s just hard to get around. Adams is beat up and playing on the right side for the first time in his career. He had his ankle rolled up the last couple of games and the Bengals are hoping that Dunlap provides some fresh legs.

“Every time you look up, there are people hanging on Ben,” The Eye says. “After all is said and done, they put the ball in his hands to win the game. Ever since he’s come back, the third receiver keeps sneaking out there more and more.”

"The Steelers don’t have great tackles, but they’re big and it takes a long time to get around them,” The Sage says. “The thing that scares you is they just don’t have anybody that can make a one-on-one move and get by somebody to get any kind of pressure. They’re just not playing with the same edge they had last year.”


The Steelers don’t have a true fullback but they’ve been getting plenty of mileage out of David Johnson, a 6-2, 260-pound tight end. He’s been lining up in front of running back Rashard Mendenhall and pounding people. Mendenhall has scored three of his six touchdowns on the same play, a 50-yarder, a 38-yarder, and an 11-yarder on which Johnson blocks either the middle linebacker or SAM.

The Bengals have had a penchant this year for giving up long runs (eight of at least 20) and Johnson and Mendenhall provide another challenge. They know that the 5-10, 225-pound Mendenhall is the Steelers’ first back since Bettis that can get the meaningful yards inside the tackles.

“But he’s also a big-play guy,” Big Bird says. “He’s not like Willie Parker that just sticks his foot in the ground and is gone. But he’s still a home-run hitter and he’s more physical. I think if you look at how the Bengals defense is playing, the Steelers are going to say to themselves that they ought to be able to run it.”


The speedster Wallace has run by everybody this year but the Saints last week. He’s averaging 23.4 yards on his 17 catches and has TD balls of 53, 46 and 29 yards. Run by everybody but a Saints scheme that did a good job keeping extra people over him.

Joseph knows full well. Wallace got by him for a 51-yard play last year in the first game that would have beat the Bengals if he hadn’t bobbled it out of bounds at the 10. He had no one near him for a TD and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal. But Joseph came back to spark the victory when he picked off Roethlisberger on the first series of the second half for a 30-yard touchdown return when Roethlisberger and wide receiver Santonio Holmes went different ways on a hot read against the blitz.

Joseph returns for the first time since he a) suffered a high ankle sprain in the Oct. 10 game against Tampa Bay and b) he gave up the tying TD that day on a 20-yard jump ball to rookie Mike Williams.

“They’ll take their shots against him because he’s just coming back and off the injury,” Bird says.

Joseph ranks Wallace’s speed right there with anybody he’s ever faced and that includes the fleet Alvis Whitted from his rookie year.


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