The Steelers are coming to town Monday with Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his defensive scheme that is both 1950s rock-ribbed and 1980s offbeat and continues to flourish in the second decade of the 21st century.
1950s because LeBeau never strays far from its fundamentals and 1980s because that's when he devised the zone blitz on an airplane napkin as a Bengals assistant coach.
But if anyone knows the formula for breaking the code to the perennial top five Steelers defense it is Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. Hired by LeBeau when he was the head coach in Cincinnati after Bratkowski coached the Steelers receivers for two years, Bratkowski has been working against the scheme since 1999.
Both LeBeau and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer arrived to the rivalry in 2004 and while LeBeau has the upper hand at 6-4 in the games Palmer has played him (the two snaps in the '05 Wild Card game don't count), the Bengals have done things to the Steelers defense not many have.
The Bengals rung the Steelers for 38 points in 2005, the most points LeBeau has allowed at Heinz Field in the seven seasons of his second tour in Pittsburgh. Palmer threw four touchdown passes at Heinz in 2006 against the defending Super Bowl champs that had allowed just 15 TD throws the previous season. In their season sweep of the Steelers last season, the Bengals didn't turn the ball over against a defense that currently leads the NFL in turnovers with 19 and turnover margin with eight.
That's where Bratkowski starts his game plan for Monday night. In Palmer's four wins against the Steelers, the Bengals are plus-eight in turnovers and didn't turn it over at all in three of the wins. In the six losses Palmer has also been very good at not turning it over, but plus-four hasn't been enough.
"The turnovers against them kill you," Bratkowski says, but there is another common thread running through the four wins.
With LeBeau blanketing wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (he doesn't have a 100-yard game against LeBeau), the Bengals have gotten at least one touchdown of at least 20 yards from someone else. Palmer found wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh for touchdowns of 30 and 43 yards, respectively, in the wins in '05 and '06, running back Cedric Benson popped a 23-yard touchdown run against Pittsburgh at home lost year, and running back Bernard Scott beat the Steelers with a kick return at Heinz.
(And it should be recalled in the '06 finale that the Bengals lost on a last-second Shayne Graham field-goal miss, wide receiver Chris Henry caught a 66-yard touchdown pass and drew a 40-plus yard pass interference penalty in the fourth-quarter comeback.)
It may be urban legend, but it started when Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna threw for 411 yards against the Steelers in Bratkowski's first season in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh went 13-3 that year in allowing just 74 yards rushing per game, and a 6-10 Bengals team was able to beat them through the air.
Bratkowski doesn't buy that as the formula, but some in the Pittsburgh media do and they only have to look to a couple of nights ago when Saints quarterback Drew Brees chucked it 44 times in beating Pittsburgh.
The boilerplate read on the Steelers defense has always been that their scheme is so confident in their front seven hitting the quarterback that they allow their DBs to sit on receivers, making them vulnerable to the deep ball if the quarterback is protected.
So with Bratkowski and LeBeau set to play chess again on the Paul Brown Stadium greensward, does Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens become the king? Does he become the Houshmandzadeh-Henry piece? With three TD catches of at least 37 yards, Owens is Palmer's best deep threat since Henry.
"There's going to be some attention paid to him, I'm sure of that," Bratkowski said.
But will Owens change the way LeBeau has covered The Ocho?
"They have a certain way they like to play Chad; the Steelers always have," Owens said of the way LeBeau has bracketed him with at least two defenders.
"It's hard to do something to both of them and not weaken yourself in the middle of the field where either the run game gets you or the slot receiver gets you," Bratkowski said. "You'll see some things that are set up for T.O. but they're not on a constant basis."
Bratkowski doesn't think the Steelers are any different than any other team that has faced Ochocinco. With Browns coach Eric Mangini vowing not to let The Ocho beat him, Owens nearly did with last month's monster 222-yard game that included a Henry-esque 78-yard touchdown bomb.
"I think that probably the people that have played us a number of times have a way of playing Chad, and they do that," Bratkowski said. "And sometimes it's hard for them to do it another way. They can do it, but they kind of know what they want to do with him. And so it does leave T.O. a little better opportunity at times."
Bratkowski still sees coverages rolling to The Ocho and has yet to see a major shift to Owens.
"It's just an ebb and flow. There will probably be a stretch of games where it'll flip over as the year goes through," Bratkowski said. "It's just sometimes coincidence and what the coverages say and what happens when we call a play and who gets the favorable coverage … it's not like (Owens is) getting easy coverages. But he's capitalizing on the opportunities he gets."
When it comes to the Steelers, you can still talk about 2005 and 2006 because even though the names have changed down through the years, you can still relate it because the two constants are LeBeau's scheme and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, Palmer's USC housemate.
"They do a couple of things differently, but for the most part they play the way they play," Palmer said Wednesday. "They pressure the quarterback, they give you different looks pre-snap to post-snap and as the game changes, the season changes or the opponent changes, he adds little wrinkles in and out of the game plan.
"They play the way they play."
Whether it is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis as a linebackers coach under LeBeau in the mid-90s with Greg Lloyd as the resident beast, or an NFL Defensive Player of the Year in James Harrison getting called into commissioner Roger Goodell's office earlier this week to talk about his mayhem. The parts move in and out, but the scheme always survives.
"They run to the ball really well, which I admire," Benson said. "And they're physical. They've got an attitude out there that they're not going to let you make a big play on them. I like that ... they play really good as a unit. They've got a couple of standouts, like Troy. He's all over the field and kind of making that closing tackle on a lot of plays. He's always in the right spot."
The Steelers used to bludgeon the Bengals twice a year but the Bengals began to assert themselves physically when Lewis arrived in 2003 and last year's sweep showed they could dish it out in the trenches.
"It's Pittsburgh; that's one thing they do," said right guard Bobbie Williams. "They play physical up front and they put a lot of pressure on their guys up front and their linebackers also. But I mean that's why we have guys like myself and (left tackle Andrew) Whitworth and other guys up front, so that we're physical too. Our job is to push their line back. That's what we're going to do."
But if the Steelers can bludgeon offenses, they can also kill softly with Polamalu lurking anywhere and everywhere. He's so good and smart that he fouls up the run and the pass. Palmer is 2-5 against the Steelers when Polamalu plays, 2-1 when he doesn't and that includes last year's game at Heinz when he left early with a season-ending knee injury.
"They're much different (without him)," Palmer said. "It's a good defense, a top-five defense without him like they were last year, but with him he brings so much confidence to the guys around him, just knowing that they have him on the field. He makes so many plays. He's all over the place. He's so much faster and plays at such a different speed than just about everybody on the field."
So make that two chess matches Monday night: Bratkowski vs. LeBeau and Palmer vs. Polamalu.
"There's not many guys that can close on the ball as quickly as he can, or close on the run, or are as heady as he is," Palmer said. "He understands schemes that offenses are trying to do. He's probably the best defensive player in the game right now."
Let the moves begin.