Andrew Whitworth, the de facto Bengals offensive captain, turned 32 Thursday, and the best birthday gift for him is a bunch of running plays Sunday (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in Pittsburgh. Whitworth's move from left tackle to left guard the past two games has spurred a revival of sorts for the run game. The Bengals have run it 73 times at 4.4 yards per clip and in a five-game stretch they've run it at least 31 times.
It's a number that seems to work. The Bengals are 2-0 with Whitworth at left guard, 3-2 in the last five games and 19-3 with quarterback Andy Dalton when they run it at least 30 times.
But in the 22 games Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has faced the Steelers, the Bengals have never run it 30 times. That's in part because Pittsburgh has always had top 5 defenses from coordinator Dick LeBeau that are absolutely miserable to run against. As late as last Dec. 23 the Bengals could only manage 14 yards on 16 tries.
Here's a weird one. The last time the Bengals rushed more than 30 times against the Steelers, LeBeau was the Bengals head coach in a 48-28 loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 26, 2000.
But this is not the usual for LeBeau. Gone is nose tackle Casey Hampton, inside backer Larry Foote is on injured reserve, and Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu is playing a lot of linebacker. Now the Steelers are an unheard-of 24th against the run and it will be interesting to see if the Bengals approach the run game with more carries than they have in the past because of the success they've had and the problems the Steelers have had.
"It will be important again this week to run the ball effectively. It always is against those guys. You almost have to be able to run the ball against them because they just do such a great job of mixing things up on the back end and bringing pressure in the pass game," Whitworth said. "You have to run the ball effectively to take some heat off of being able to throw the ball."
Whitworth has made no bones about his desire and that of the offensive line to flex the muscles with more runs. Lewis said the Bengals used the Nov. 24 bye to look at getting more balanced and Dalton is now tied for ninth in attempts in the NFL after leading the league at one point last month. Whitworth wouldn't exactly call himself a lobbyist, but he's happy with the direction of the offense.
"I think it's more about lobbying to keep it as part of what you do. You've seen it from the great offenses. The Saints, when they're offense is rolling they're running the football well," Whitworth said. "I mean, sure, they have a couple games where they light people up through the air, but when they keep sustained offense it's running the football effectively. The Patriots. Over time Tom Brady has transitioned to running the ball really effectively and then being really efficient when throwing. Aaron Rodgers this year. When Green Bay's offense was rolling earlier in the year, it was because teams were so worried about him throwing it that they were running it really effectively. Running the ball effectively is the ultimate thing. It takes momentum and energy out of the game for the other team. It will always be that way."
Of course, 30 rushes and a 100-yard game aren't always guarantees against Pittsburgh. The Bengals have had just two 100-yard rushers against the Steelers in this century, Corey Dillon in 2000 and Rudi Johnson in 2004, and they lost both games. Since Johnson went for 100, the Bengals have won six games against Pittsburgh but Whitworth knows it's a lot easier to keep LeBeau's zone blitzes at bay with some runs.
"Being able to run it will always change the game and will always put a team in a situation to win. When you can do it successfully, you create a confidence where week in and week out you're teeing off more, you're being more aggressive," he said. "You almost start to run the ball better and better the more you can do it successfully. You've seen it with Houston; you've seen it with other teams that have bought in and had stretches where they just ran the ball like crazy. That's really the key. You have to put your down and commit to it and be."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» There is a bug going around the locker room and it knocked three starters out of practice Thursday in the University of Cincinnati bubble. But it's not expected to lay them low for the game: WILL backer Vontaze Burfict, SAM backer James Harrison and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Green-Ellis, who also missed Wednesday, had suited up and was at Thursday's walkthrough, but had to go back to PBS before practice.
» More evidence cornerback Terence Newman (knee) won't go. The Bengals promoted Chris Lewis-Harris from the practice squad and cut safety Tony Dye. Over the past two seasons, Lewis-Harris has played in five games, three this season. Dye, who figures to re-sign on the practice squad, has an impressive one NFL game played. He ran in a blocked punt against Cleveland on Nov. 17 for a touchdown.
» The early forecast is for 24 degrees Sunday night in Pittsburgh. Punter Kevin Huber and kicker Mike Nugent kicked outside Wednesday and will do it again Friday.
» Think it's going to come down to a punt or a kick or both? Check out the last four years of the rivalry. Bengals running back Bernard Scott scored the only TD of the War of 18-12 in 2009, then fumbled away the opening kickoff the next time the teams played in 2010. The Bengals gave up a TD in that one and lost by six. In the Steelers win in Pittsburgh in 2011, wide receiver Antonio Brown scored the last punt return TD against the Bengals. Last season, Josh Brown kicked the winning field goal with four seconds left, and Huber and punt cover tilted the game with a 48.3-yard net on six punts.
» Matchup? Huber is fifth in the league with a 41.6 net. Mat McBriar doesn't have enough attempts, but his 35.6 would be third from the bottom.
» Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the 10-year vet, says he's never been on a losing team. At 5-8, the next loss guarantees it: "We've got three games to get to .500," he said Thursday.