Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is hoping to prevent Le'Veon Bell from playing like an extra man.
Last week, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, the 14th man on the field right behind head coach Marvin Lewis, kept his cool in the middle of that brouhaha in the final minute of Sunday's victory in Tampa. As he prepares for this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), he may fee l like he's dealing with another extra man in the person of Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell.
Talk about Marshawn Lynch all you want, but the Real Beast lurks in the swamps of the AFC North as the 6-1, 244-pound Bell steams into Paul Brown Stadium off two of the biggest games in the history of his storied franchise.
Last week against New Orleans he rushed for 95 yards and caught 154 more to become the first Steeler ever to have at least 150 yards receiving and 50 yards rushing, and the game before that he ripped the Titans for 204 rushing yards. He's right where you think he'd be. With 1,046 yards, only the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray has more on the ground and only Murray has more yards from scrimmage in the NFL.
"He's a different player than he was a year ago. I give him credit," Guenther said after practice this week. "It looks like he's lost some weight. He's more of a pass threat. They have him on the flank or run him out the backfield. Last year he was more a bigger style back. Now he's more involved in the passing game."
If last week was a chess match for Guenther with the injuries that forced Tampa into a formations stew, then this one is top-of-the-hour-SportsCenter-easy.
"It's going to be a physical type game. We know that," Guenther said. "We know they're going to come in and try and run the ball and take shots down the field. It's no mystery."
This isn't CSI. This is schoolyard. If Bell gets off in the running game, then quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has his way on a very long day of weaving unscathed in and out of the pocket in his infuriating touch football way.
The Bengals have to make sure they have the run defense of the last three games, when they held foes to 3.1 yards per carry and 71 yards per game, rather than the mess of the previous four when then they gave up 145 yards per game.
(Is not one of the low points of the Marvin Lewis Era the last game of that streak when the Browns came into PBS and ran it 52 times?)
The difference? Other than just playing sounder and emphasizing it, the reasons abound from the return of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, the additional snaps for tackle Brandon Thompson, and Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins' improved play after a slow start coming off ACL surgery.
Maualuga missed the Fouled-up Four with a hamstring injury and Thompson was just getting back from a knee injury that took him out for a month. Thompson has played 65 snaps in the last three games, topped off by the 27 he worked last Sunday when nose tackle Domata Peko left with an elbow injury that isn't expected to keep him out of this Sunday's game.
In Bell they'll be facing a patient runner that likes to hug his linemen and peek for the opening.
"You have to come downhill and attack blocks, shed, and get off and make him make the decision quicker than he wants to," Guenther said. "He'll get in behind the line, just wait for the vertical seam to open up and he'll hit it. We have to do a good job of that."
That is exactly what Maualuga has given them since he's been back, a down-hill force clogging lanes. But he'll also have to cover Bell in space, too, in the pass game and Maualuga's friends at profootballfocus.com have him rated as the 68th best cover inside backer in the league. This is a good time for Guenther to speak his piece about third party grades.
"He's played fine against the passing game. Everyone thinks since he's such a hammer that he struggles (vs. the pass), but he's fine," Guenther said. "He broke up a big third down for us the other day. He's been playing really good since he's been back off the injury. He's been a big lift to us."
The Bengals outside backers, Emmanuel Lamur (33) and Vincent Rey (38) are in the middle of PFF's coverage rankings, and they'll be getting help against Bell from safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka. Nelson has been one of the Bengals' surest tacklers, but he was flogging himself for missing Tampa Bay running back Bobby Rainey on a screen on the last drive that went for 29 yards.
"I missed a tackle and that can't happen," Nelson said. "I definitely don't want to let the guys down around me and I felt like let them down and could have gave the game away. That's just an individual act, I just have to tackle better period."
Nelson has been the closer against the Steelers, securing the last two wins over Pittsburgh with late interceptions. Last week it took a little extra after the Bucs seemingly beat the Bengals with a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Louis Murphy to set them up for a winning field goal with 12 seconds left.
Even before the game when Guenther saw the Bucs inactive sheet included their tight ends, he knew something was up.
"I didn't know what they were going to run," Guenther said. "The big tight ends? Four receivers? So I told the coaches before the game, 'This is going to be a thinking man's game. We've got to figure out what they're trying to do and make adjustments.'"
They did, but when it turned into a 12-yard game in the last minute to prevent the winning field goal, things got harried as the Bucs kept changing personnel with each situation. It was compounded by them moving in and out of field-goal range with penalties.
"When they get a penalty and they're out of field-goal range , now they put four receivers on the field and it's a pass," Guenther said. "When they're in field-goal range, they put big guys in. Now you have to defend the run. There were a lot of moving parts there the last 10 plays of the game where situationally, the guys have to understand what we're defending."
Everyone passed with flying colors. Both players and coaches realized what happened on that pass. Lamur ended up on Murphy, which never would have happened in 11 on 11.
"The big guy never got off the field. So they had four receivers and a big tight end, and when I called the next coverage, it was a matchup underneath coverage," Guenther said. "We were matched up man-on-man on the two deep safeties. And when I saw our linebacker covering the receiver I knew something was wrong."
Lewis and Guenther knew they had to stop the game so the Bucs couldn't spike the ball, burying the officials' mistake forever. They were out in the flat and Bucs quarterback Josh McCown was looking at Guenther like he was insane.
"The quarterback was looking at me like 'What are you talking about?' I was halfway up by the numbers," Guenther said. "It was crazy. With the whole thing and how it all shook out at the end of the game, it was a pretty crazy scenario with those 10 plays."
But Sunday shouldn't be as crazy. As long as Bell doesn't play like the Steelers have 12 men out there.