BY GEOFF HOBSON
Some pregame thoughts:
Game No. 26 just may be the best game so far to gauge how far Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' rehab project has progressed in reaching competitiveness in the AFC North.
There have been two offseasons of acquisitions and an offseason of adjustments in forming the club's most balanced brew of youth and age in the post free-agency era. First-year quarterback Carson Palmer has nine games and three division battles under his belt. The opponent is the Steelers, arguably the NFL's best team, but more importantly, the division foe that provides the standard of excellence the Bengals seek from their record right down to their smash-mouth, aggressive style.
The Bengals are still playing short with several injuries, but even Lewis seems to think Sunday's game is going to give him some kind of idea.
Asked this week how far the Bengals have closed the gap with the division elite, Lewis said, "We'll find out."
Steelers coach Bill Cowher has noticed that the four North teams have combined for 21 victories, best in the NFL. He senses that people are going to start dropping what he calls a stigma of the division, and give some credit to a group that very well could have three .500 teams by the end of Sunday.
Remember when the old NFC Central was the Black-and-Blue Division? We may be looking at the Rough-and-Ready Division.
With the Bengals already down 0-3 in the North, it would seem they have to sweep the three remaining North games to have any shot at the playoffs given that record in the division is a first priority for tiebreakers.
Cincinnati's players seem to even have a better respect for their own division after a month of going 3-1 outside. They feel like there is a special brand of physical play and emphasis on the running game and defense.
"That's the North," said running back Rudi Johnson, one of the division's hard-nosed symbols. "You know you're always going to be in a physical game. A tough game that's going to go four quarters. That's why I like playing these games. You know what to expect.
"We took Washington by surprise," said Johnson of last week's game in which the Bengals jumped on the NFC East Redskins, 17-0, in the first 23 minutes. "They didn't know what hit them. They had to come back in the second half and put in a linebacker and take out a safety. They didn't expect it."
Right tackle Willie Anderson alluded to the same concept after the Bengals nicked the Skins' No. 1 defense with Johnson's 102 rushing yards. Yes, they came on 31 carries, but he also got 63 of them quickly on 16 first-half attempts that set the tempo for the day and opened up some passing lanes.
"We know they don't know how the teams in our division play. Our division is a smash-mouth football division," Anderson said. "Even though they were the top-ranked defense, they hadn't faced an offense that does what we do."
The Redskins had played the Ravens, but Baltimore doesn't possess Cincinnati's long-range passing game even though the Bengals are without the injured Peter Warrick. Washington finds out all about balanced offenses when they travel to Pittsburgh next week.
The Bengals know they can't go anywhere until they start winning in the division. In Lewis' 25 games, the Bengals are 3-6 in the North, 9-7 outside.
"In order for us to have any shot," Anderson said, "we've got to win in the division. I don't know whose next. All I know is its Pittsburgh this week."
The last two division games, of course, are the two next Sundays with the Browns coming to Paul Brown Stadium on Nov. 28 and then the Bengals going to Baltimore Dec. 5 ...
Rookie middle linebacker Landon Johnson has a nice setup. In the locker to his left is his good friend and fellow third-round pick and middle backer, Caleb Miller. In the locker to his right is right outside linebacker Brian Simmons, the dean of the defense who arrived in the 1998 draft. Right next to Simmons is left outside linebacker Kevin Hardy, the nine-year veteran who came via free agency before the '03 season.
"All the linebackers pretty much hang together," Johnson said. "(Simmons) has been a big help, and Kevin, too. They talk to us and try to help us."
Simmons doesn't consider it going out of his way to help the kids "because it shouldn't be going out of the way. It should be what you do as a team." But he admits that he may think about doing it more because of how he broke into the league in '98.
Except for James Francis, the Cincinnati linebackers were rookies. One eight-year veteran, Jerry Olsavsky, was hurt in training camp, and three-year man Tom Tumulty went down with career-ending knee injury in September. And then Francis was gone the next year.
"When you don't have anybody who's really been through it, I think it makes it a little tougher on young players," Simmons said. "In the time I've been here, I don't think we've ever been too old. But now we've got a good combination of guys. Kevin's a nine-year guy, I'm seven, Nate (Webster) is five, so these guys are able to play with guys with experience."
The secondary also suffered the same fate in the late '90s. Remember, the Bengals started the 1999 season with cornerbacks drafted in the last two second rounds. Now, their two second-round defensive backs, corner Keiwan Ratliff and safety Madieu Williams, were able to sit behind 22 NFL seasons in corners Deltha O'Neal and Tory James and safety Kim Herring.
Williams wasn't able to sit much because of injuries, and this week he got moved ahead of Herring on the depth chart.
Ratliff could make his first NFL start Sunday against the Steelers if O'Neal (elbow) can't. But he feels he's better prepared than if he had to do it on Opening Day. He has been talking to his old Florida teammate about such things, Eagles cornerback Lito Shepphard.
"He sat behind Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor for two years and learned just by watching them, and he was ready to step in this year," Ratliff said. "I couldn't imagine playing right away. I feel like I'm learning a lot with Deltha and Tory playing so well." ...
With former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau returning Sunday as coordinator of the Steelers' No. 1 defense, the big question this week has been, "Why Didn't He Have The Same Success With The Bengals?"
The answer is obviously personnel, and he's doing it now with a 3-4 defense, which is much more versatile and flexible for his zone blitzes than the 4-3 defense he employed his last three and a half seasons in Cincinnati.
People talk about the mistake in drafting quarterback Akili Smith in 1999 and how it set the franchise back years. But the drafting of Florida State defensive end Reinard Wilson with the No. 1 pick in 1997 might have been just as devastating.
It was LeBeau's first year back from Pittsburgh and he was looking for a Greg Lloyd-type linebacker who could both blitz and drop into coverage in the position that makes the 3-4 so flexible, and he thought he had him in Wilson. Then they made two more linebackers – Simmons and Takeo Spikes – their top picks the next year in an all out embrace of the 3-4.
But Wilson couldn't drop. He could only rush, and the Bengals had to get out of the 3-4 late in the 1999 season because they couldn't stop the run.
"Who's to say what would have happened?" Simmons asked. "And, really, does it matter? Time to move on. That was so long ago."