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Bengals Notebook: Bell Rings In Steeler Week; New-Look Bengals Defense For Ben; Zac Hopes To Get Back Some Of The Injured

Vonn Bell gets ready for his first Bengals-Steelers game.
Vonn Bell gets ready for his first Bengals-Steelers game.

Vonn Bell, the Bengals' new strong safety, says he doesn't know much about the Bengals-Steelers rivalry that has a go at it again Sunday (4:25 p.m.-Cincinnati's Fox 19) at Heinz Field.

But he's got as good a grasp as anyone who has played for the Bengals of what Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger means to the Steelers and what has been the difference in this rivalry since Big Ben left Oxford, Ohio in 2004.

"He won the Super Bowl. He has experience, he's been in the playoffs, and he's seen a lot of great ball and a lot of ballplayers," Bell said in Tuesday's home media Zoom. "That's what makes him him. He's a competitor, and he's standing up there, you're not going to get much movement but he's going to take a hit and complete the pass and he'll keep on going.

"That's what the mentality that they have and that franchise is. Just bloody nose, punch you in the mouth and they're going to keep on going. You've got to bring the same mentality, and I can't wait to do it." 

Bell has been introduced to Steeler Week while walking his dog. Last year, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor got welcomed to the intensity of the rivalry by the greetings at his daily coffee stop.  Cincinnati makes it emphatic. The Steelers are right there with death and taxes.

"My neighbor is saying like, 'This is a big game.' I was like, 'Yeah, I know,'" Bell said. "He was like, 'It's different being with the Bengals.' I was like, 'What are you talking about?' He's like, 'No, it's different. We hate these guys.' I just felt like it from him, man this is intense. I love it."

BELL VS. BEN: Bengals safeties have played a big role in the rivalry of late because if it's one thing Roethlisberger can do besides beat you, it is throw it to you in the heat of the moment.

Six of former safety Reggie Nelson's 23 Bengals interceptions (sixth on the club's all-time list) were off Roethlisberger and one with 14 seconds left set up the field goal that put Cincinnati in the 2012 playoffs and knocked out the Steelers. In 2015, the Bengals secured their first 7-0 start when safety Shawn Williams' acrobatic side-line interception with 5:34 left in the game turned a 10-6 deficit into a 13-10 victory.

Bell and Jessie Bates III, Pro Football Focus' third-ranked safety, are looking for their first Ben pick. Roethlisberger may be 25-7 against the Bengals in his career. But not these Bengals. Bell is one of eight new starters expected on defense since Ben last faced them in the 2018 finale, but he's well acquainted.

When Bell's Saints fended off the Steelers during a 31-28 victory in New Orleans in 2018, Roethlisberger pitched 380 yards with 185 going to wide receiver Antonio Brown and 115 to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in a game Bell had 10 tackles. That's how long ago the Bengals last played Roethlisberger. Brown was his go-to-guy and that was four teams ago.

"What makes him Big Ben is that he's getting tackles by D-ends and D-tackles and he's completing the passes still," Bell said. "You've got to grab his arm. He's very strong. He's seen a lot, and you can't fool him in this league. He's got that timing, and coach (Mike) Tomlin really trusts him and knows what kind of player he is."

As we welcome the Bengals rookie quarterback-wide receiver duo Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins to the rivalry, so to Steelers rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool.

"They play as a unit. They trust the plan, they really feed off each other," Bell said. "Big plays, especially Claypool, JuJu, (James) Washington. (John) Connor is the work horse on the ground. Him and the group of backs, and the O-Line, they're huge. They buy time for Ben to make the right reads and the right throws, and they're just clicking on all cylinders right now."

And he didn't even mention tight end Eric Ebron and his three touchdowns.

"What a challenge for this group and what a challenge for the team. That's what we breathe for, to be competitors," Bell said. "That's what we do it for, for games like this."

ZERO BLITZ: Is it just two years ago the Bengals were a zero blitz away against a win over the Steelers and a 5-1 start? It's OK if it seems like 22 years ago, but, yes go back to Oct. 14, 2018 at Paul Brown Stadium and the Bengals had just taken a 21-20 lead with 78 seconds left on running back Joe Mixon's four-yard run behind right guard Alex Redmond and right tackle Bobby Hart.

Roethlisberger stormed back and with 15 seconds left from the Bengals 31, flipped a pass to Brown on a rub route that was the perfect call against an all-out blitz with no one in the middle of the field and Brown wasn't touched.

Of the Bengals that lined up on that play, only four are still here: Bates, cornerback William Jackson III, tackle Geno Atkins and end Carl Lawson. Bell is one of those ushering in a new day.

"They come in undefeated, coming off a tough win against Dallas, and why not us? Why not make the play?" Bell asked.

"Everyone is going to doubt us and put our backs against the wall, but when it's your chance to make that play, go up there when your number is called. Go hit it out of the park. That's what you want, and that's the guys here in the locker room. I can't wait to see the guys go out there this Sunday."

Defensive end Sam Hubbard, who was a rookie then and played only 37 percent of the snaps that day, is looking to make his mark in the rivalry. He'll play a lot more than that Sunday if his return to practice on Wednesday goes off without a hitch. He's missed the last three games on injured reserve with an elbow issue.

"High motor and energy. He's a workhorse. He can make the big play, the splash play," Bell said. "Get the sack strip. He's always working to the quarterback and always working in the run game. You just know he's one of those guys… He's accountable. He's going to give you all he's got. He's the type of player you need and want to play for. I'm very happy to have him back and healthy and full on go. And ready to go out there and go to war with him."

COVID/INJURY UPDATE: According to reports the Bengals are dealing with five players on the Covid list and they're trying to figure out if they can play Sunday.

Plus, Taylor has been reticent to make a call on injured players that missed the last game, the Nov. 1 win over Tennessee. Running back Joe Mixon (foot) looked to be running on the side last week and left tackle Jonah Williams appeared to be getting some work in.

Bell, as well as tight end Drew Sample, spoke to the media from home Tuesday as a bow to Covid. That was before they came into PBS to dress in the locker room for a brief 15 minutes and then going out on the field for a walkthrough before being dismissed again.

With the Covid protocols amped up, they have to meet virtually. They're allowed the same time for practice, lifting and walkthroughs, but they're trying to get them out of the facility for anything beyond that.

"It's all about adjustments. Life happens. Things happen," Bell said, "and so we just got to move on and try to find a way, and that's going be a bit of a change this week since we're not going to be together as a unit and it's going to be meeting virtually, and guys have to really hone in and be a pro and really lock into their assignments and adjustments to win this game."