You can get a good debate on whether the Steelers have truly gone back to their roots and are now practicing smashmouth again. But one thing is quite certain: The Bengals won't get that same offense they saw last time, when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw it 40 times, they ran it 18, and all they got were four field goals in the Battle of 18-12 at Heinz Field 355 days ago.
Forget this year's stats, which say the Pittsburgh running backs have run it more (184) than the quarterbacks have thrown it (163). Or that the Steelers are 11th in the NFL running the ball. Or that their new star, running back Rashard Mendenhall, has touchdown runs of 50 and 38 yards and is averaging four yards per carry.
Forget all that.
It's just the texture of the rivalry. In the 14 regular-season games Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has gone up against the Steelers, four different backs have rushed for 100 yards: Willie Parker (four), Mewelde Moore (one), Jerome Bettis (one), Duce Staley (one).
"Usually when they come to our house," says Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko, "they always try and run the ball. It's going to be a smashmouth game."
But this was supposed to be a new era. The focal point of new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's rebuilding job in 2008 was to stop the run at any cost. After six straight seasons the Bengals allowed at least 4.2 yards per carry, they have held foes to less than four yards per run the past two years under Zimmer. But now they are giving up 4.5, the biggest chunks since Lewis' first season in 2003.
And why not run it if you're the Steelers on the road and still trying to ease Roethlisberger out of exile and Lewis is telling his Bengals to go back and find their intensity and drive on last year's Pittsburgh's tape instead of last week's Miami tape?
If time of possession is the major reason the Bengals are 2-5, the run defense is the major fallout of the lack of ball control. In their first 12 games last season, the Bengals allowed foes to rush for 100 yards just twice. This season they've held a team under 100 only once. Last year they allowed just two 100-yard rushers in Cleveland's James Harrison and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles. In the Bengals four-game losing streak Cleveland's Peyton Hills and Atlanta's Michael Turner have already nicked them. The team that allowed the fewest runs in the NFL of 20 yards or more with five last season has already allowed eight.
"Just look at how we played," said safety Chris Crocker of last season's sweep of the Steelers. "How physical and relentless we were. Extra guys going to the ball. Just our second effort. It's not going to end up how it's drawn up on the board. There are going to be things that happen that shouldn't happen. But you get the second and third guy to the ball. That's how we made a lot of our plays in general last year. That's the thing we talked about this week: Get to the ball and something good will happen."
That's the problem. Things can be going good and then…
"It seems like we'll play the run pretty well and then all of a sudden we're giving up a big run," Peko said. "That comes from mental errors and not fitting right and little mistakes here and there. That's what kills a defense ... it's not just the guys, it's the whole group, the eight-man front. If one guy doesn't fit right, they're going to find a hole. Good running backs can do that."
And the Steelers always seem to have one. Good running backs. From Hall of Famers like Bettis to waiver-wire pickups like Parker to a solid first-round pick in the 5-10, 225-pound Mendenhall. Crocker has played against them all, first with the Browns from 2003-2005, and now with the Bengals starting in 2008.
"They feel confident they have a running back that can get tough yards," Crocker said of Mendenhall. "I can't say they're smashmouth. They haven't been smashmouth since Jerome Bettis played. They're capable, but they're throwing the ball over the field. Look at Roethlisberger throwing for 300 yards. They can do a lot of different things.
"They haven't had a back that can get tough yards. Willie Parker was more of a scat back, an open-field guy. Not great in between the tackles, but now they have a bigger, thicker guy that can run and break tackles. He's a little bit of a (home-run) threat. There'll never be another Bettis. He's 'The Bus.' He looked hard to tackle."
With Roethlisberger slowly getting back into the fold, the Steelers haven't come out gunning like the last couple of years, but they are obviously throwing it more than they did during his four-game suspension at the beginning of the season. In his three games back, the ratio is 82 passes to 83 runs.
"I think they're more balanced," Peko said. "Remember last year when they threw it all over? (Mendenhall) is quick like Parker. He's thick, but he can also break away. He's a physical running back. It takes two guys to bring him down."
Peko says the Bengals are seeing a lot more zone cutback runs this year that are forcing the defense to move sideways. But they'll see plenty of power runs from the Steelers. Crocker says Zimmer hasn't changed anything in the scheme that would make it softer against the run.
"We haven't gotten away from it; we've just allowed it," Crocker said. "He makes the calls. We have to execute it. It comes down to us not letting a team score running the ball. We're the same, we just haven't executed."