If anyone knows just how brutal Sunday's AFC (North) title game is going to be between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, just check in with Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski.
Although he's had more success than most against the division iron, all four games this year against the top-rated Steelers defense and the second-ranked Ravens made the bottom 11 of the worst offensive outputs in Marvin Lewis' 97 games as head coach of the Bengals.
But maybe the way to beat them is to join them. Bratkowski knows that Lewis is calling for "a way different" offense as the club tries to get back into the division competition next season.
"We've got some issues to deal with but any time you've got a guy like Carson Palmer at quarterback you can turn it around very quickly."
Bratkowski said discussions with Lewis indicated there could be different schemes when it comes to running the ball, but he's looking more at philosophical changes than system changes.
"From my conversations with him, we're not throwing everything out. It's more adding in some new things," Bratkowski said. "When you're talking about a system, you're talking terminology, protections, run scheme and those things that can be adjusted.
"We've discussed it and we still haven't finalized it. I know what direction he wants to go: run it so we can play-action it and throw the ball downfield. That's the direction he wants to go."
It is the direction Bratkowski would advise Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to go on Sunday.
"You can't turn it over. You need big chunk plays," Bratkowski said. "You have to search around for runs to take pressure off the pass game. You have to avoid the sacks and interceptions and at the end of the day you have to have those explosive pass plays down the field."
Which is, of course, how the Bengals would routinely score on these two when their offense was up and running. Once upon a time (and it wasn't all that long ago), the Steelers and Ravens dreaded facing the Bengals offense.
In 2006, when the Ravens were ranked first in defense, the Bengals beat them on a 40-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh in a 13-7 win. In the game Cincinnati lost to Baltimore that season, 26-20, wide receiver Chris Henry caught a 71-yarder, and in both games the Bengals gained more yardage (275 and 294) than the Ravens defense allowed on average that year.
And in that same '06 season, when the Bengals needed a win against the No. 9 Steelers defense in the season finale to make the playoffs, they nearly hit the 300-yard mark on a defense giving up 266 a game and got a 66-yard touchdown reception by Henry in the fourth quarter as well as a 47-yarder at the end of regulation in a game the Bengals lost in overtime.
In the last two games in Pittsburgh, the Bengals have scored total of 20 points. In the previous two games, it was 66 with three of Palmer's seven touchdown passes coming from at least 16 yards.
In 2004 in Baltimore against the Ravens' sixth-ranked defense, Palmer passed for more than 200 yards in the fourth quarter alone of a 27-26 win and the Bengals once put up 42 points on the Ravens' No. 5 defense in '05.
Bratkowski has familiarity with both defensive coordinators. When he was the head coach of Bengals in 2001, the Steelers' Dick LeBeau hired Bratkowski in 2001. Bratkowski has been in the AFC North as long as Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan with both arriving in 1999.
While Lewis is related in this game through the Baltimore defense he once coordinated with Ryan as his line coach, so is Bratkowski on the Steelers offense. He coached the Pittsburgh receivers in '99 and '00 before replacing current Steelers quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson as the Bengals offensive coordinator in '01, a job for which LeBeau also interviewed Arians.
"There are some similarities and differences in what they do," Bratkowski said of the defenses. "The differences are more technical and with alignments. Baltimore has a 3-4 defense, but they also have different looks and Rex has been known to completely change what he's doing when he devises a game plan. The Steelers are pretty much a 3-4 defense and while Dick changes it up, he probably is only going to fine tune it."
Bratkowski says any Raven could end up coming on a blitz in Ryan's relentless bid for matchups against running backs and tight ends, ranging from 340-pound nose tackle Haloti Ngata to 200-pound safety Ed Reed.
"Rex likes to get that extreme matchup," Bratkowski said, "while I think the Steelers say, 'We're going to put any one of our linebackers on your running backs.' Baltimore is going to take it to the next level. You've got to watch (OLB) Terrell Suggs, but you've also got be careful of (Reed). The quarterback has to be careful with his eyes because No. 20 will be all around it."
As for the Steeler an offense absolutely has to block, Bratkowski says outside linebacker James Harrison.
"He's had a great year, but the minute you focus on one of those backers, another one is going to get an opening, so you have to be careful," he said. "The best thing to do is to try and beat them to the best matchup and it comes down to get getting the ball down the field. Keep looking to get that one-on-one with the corner or safety. A defensive back's best friend is the pass rush, so if you get some time for the passer he can make something happen."
Palmer's injury this season prevented the Bengals from making big plays against anybody. But it didn't matter who they had out there. Palmer started the opener against Baltimore and they managed the fewest yards ever for a Lewis team with 154. When Ryan Fitzpatrick got the nod on Nov. 30, he only got one more yard.
Bratkowski knows the heat is on the Bengals to find that offensive touch after a last-place NFL ranking included an average of 182 yards in the four games against the two teams playing for the conference title.
"We've got to get settled along the offensive line and at fullback and I think we've got to know what we've got for sure at wide receiver," said Bratkowski, where Houshmandzadeh is a free agent and Chad Ocho Cinco lobbied for a trade last year.
Bratkowski says the Bengals are looking at a completely different offense than the one that even just two years ago could move on the Ravens and Steelers. And the numbers say it. In Palmer's first four seasons, the Bengals had 40 passes of at least 40 yards. In '08, they had just two and none until the last day of November.
With two Pro Bowl-caliber tackles in Willie Anderson and Levi Jones either gone or injured and a new center looming, Bratkowski says the offensive line is the most important position to address, but fullback and wide receiver aren't far behind.
"We have to adapt. We don't have the same personnel we did. We have to look at ways to use what we have," Bratkowski said. "I think we can get there pretty quickly. Getting Carson back is going to be the key, obviously. We've got a lot of holes to fill. But once we find out who we've got at those spots, we can maximize their strengths and figure out how to best use them."