This hasn't happened very often in the Big Ben era. Roethlisberger brings the Steelers into the state he has dominated as a pro and like everyone else the Bengals.com media roundtable gives a sweeping endorsement of the home team Monday (8:40 p.m.-ESPN, Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Paul Brown Stadium.
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden won't give anyone the edge, but he wonders how the revamped Steelers offensive line is going to deal with the estimable Bengals front in the hometown din.
Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham predicts another "slobber-knocker" like the 13-10 Bengals victory in Pittsburgh in December even though the names have changed. He goes with the Bengals again, not because of the defensive line matchup but because of how the Bengals should be able to attack a limping Steelers defense at backer and in the secondary as first-rounder Jarvis Jones makes his first NFL start at right outside linebacker.
Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on the angst from Steelerland revolving around the glacial state of the Pittsburgh offense. With no running game to speak of and an offensive line suspect in pass protection, Dulac doesn't see the Steelers being able to score much.
Clark Judge of CBSSports.com sees much the same outcome. He doesn't know how a team that scored nine points at home against a suspect Tennessee club is going to generate enough juice to beat the Bengals defense.
Let's go around the table:
I hate to pick against the Steelers after they got beat in their opener because they're known for bouncing back so well, but I just don't see it and they've had so much success in Cincinnati. Not after losing to a Tennessee team at home that's not forecast to do very well and not scoring an offensive touchdown for 58 minutes.
Pittsburgh has the same problems as last year. They can't protect Ben Roethlisberger and they can't run the ball. Roethlisberger is a great player, but I wonder how many hits he has left in him. He took a lot of shots last year and a lot of shots last Sunday. The biggest losses for them weren't on the scoreboard, but in the lineup when they lost center Maurkice Pouncey and inside linebacker Larry Foote.
The Bengals losing to the Bears in Chicago last week doesn't bother me, although I guess the way they had the lead and then lost it is concerning. But they've got a good defense and they really helped themselves on offense drafting tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard. I think they're the best team in that division.
It's going to come down to Andy Dalton. He didn't play very well down the stretch last year and he has to get over the hump of beating the Steelers at home by having a big-time game against a team that really brings pressure.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-20. They're at home and their defensive line can really give the Steelers offensive line problems. It was already a weakness for Pittsburgh, but now that they're missing their center the problem is really magnified. The Steelers talk about getting back to the running game and that's great, but they weren't able to do it last year and they haven't been able to do it this year. They'll have a hard time against that pass rush.
This is going to be an old-fashioned slobber-knocker, just like it was in Pittsburgh last year. I think both teams are going to come out like cornered, wounded animals and they're going to play with the same desperation. Last year the loser was out of the playoffs and neither one of them wants to start 0-2 and I think it's going to be played at a very high level. Last year it was amazing how guys gave everything on every snap.
Pittsburgh is still Pittsburgh. Defensively, Dick LeBeau runs a very uncomplicated system by NFL standards. They do what they do. They run to landmarks in the running game, they fire-zone blitz. But what they do they do well. They'll be different than they were last year, but I don't know if they'll be better. It's like baseball. You've got to be strong up the middle and they've lost their catcher in nose tackle Casey Hampton and their shortstop in Foote. And their centerfielder, Troy Polamalu, isn't as explosive as he once was.
Offensively I know they're banged up but they were last year when they came in here. They lost Pouncey during the game and the running back they'll use, Jonathan Dwyer, killed them. That's what Pittsburgh does. They put a guy in and move on. They've got a high standard.
The Bengals are different on offense than they were in the last game in Pittsburgh and I think they're better. They've got more weapons and I think this is a game where that diversity can be helpful. With two tight ends and Bernard, you don't have to sub and since the Steelers play such sound defense, it's a chance for the Bengals to get them off balance. They can stress the secondary and linebackers with certain matchups and put them in nickel situations where you can run the ball. It will be interesting to see what Dick does. If he feels like he can stay out of nickel and still cover guys.
THE EDGE: Bengals in a tight one. I thought they moved the ball well in Chicago, but you can't turn it over. Especially against the Steelers. Every centimeter in this game is precious real estate. It's going to come down to who takes care of the ball and a couple of explosive plays. The teams are different, but not the mentality of the coaches or the division.
Both teams are good enough to make corrections from the first week and I think both teams will play better. It's going to be a very physical game and come down to turnover ratio. It's never really a high-scoring game.
The Bengals have more weapons on offense, but the Steelers have weapons on defense. They're still the No. 1 defense in the world. They were No. 1 last year and they didn't give up much last week. If people are saying (they're not as good), they're not watching tape. Nobody runs on them. They get you behind in down and distance and you don't know where the blitz is coming from.
Ike Taylor is one of the best shutdown corners no one talks about. If there's a Revis Island, there's Taylor Island. He plays zero coverage all by himself. I expect Taylor and A.J. Green to be a fun matchup, but other receivers are going to have to step up. I think Eifert is going to be an interesting guy for the Steelers to cover.
The Steelers offensive line has it hands full with the Bengals front. A new center on the road, communication could be a problem. If I'm Coach Lewis, I'm out there right now leading cheers getting the crowd loud. I expect the Bengals to challenge the pass protections and blocking patterns of the Steelers offensive line. Without Heath Miller, the Steelers don't have a tight end that can block the edge.
I'm interested to see how the Bengals use James Harrison. He didn't rush very much at all last week. A couple of times in the base. Here's my question. When they go nickel, Michael Johnson is the right end and Carlos Dunlap is the left end. The last time I checked Michael Johnson is the franchise player making ($11) million and they just gave Dunlap $40 million. Do you take one of those guys off the field for Harrison, or do you move one of them inside with Geno?
THE EDGE: I don't give edges. Play and get the edge in the game. You have to make plays. Like Cincinnati last week. Get off the field on third-and-17. Make a stop in the last four minutes. That's what this one will be. Defense. Field position. Turnovers. Decided late.
It's a game of four matchups for the Steelers and even if they don't win them they have to negate them.
They have no proven tight end against James Harrison if the Bengals choose to line him up on that side. Cornerback Ike Taylor has had success against A.J. Green and that has to continue. And how do the Steelers defend the two tight ends when you have A.J. on the outside? They don't have a linebacker that can cover those guys and I don't think they'll rely on Jarvis Jones to do it. Not on the edge. It comes down to those four matchups and I'm not sure those are matchups they can win. A.J. has 18 catches against them and 10 came against them last time when Taylor didn't play, so Ike has done a good job on him.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-12. I'm going with this score because I just don't think the Steelers offense has been very good. I don't think they can get into a high-scoring game, but I think Cincinnati can. I think the Steelers try and keep it from getting that way. Unless they do a dramatic reversal on offense, and I'm not saying they're going to stink, but unless they do a dramatic reversal they can't play a 27-24 game. Or 30-27.
It's nice to want to be balanced, but when you're like the Steelers you can't be balanced when part of your team is just average. You've got to put the ball in your star's hands and that means No. 7. It's nice that you want to run, but when you don't have the line or the guys to run it, you can't force-feed it. Ben has hurt the Bengals going deep and I expect him to try it again. But I'm not sure they can win a lot of the key matchups on defense.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Bengals have a chance to put a boot on the throat of their biggest division rival. They're at home, their pass rush is poised against the reeling and young Steelers offensive line, and their bevvy of offensive weapons finally gives X-and-O guru Dick LeBeau pause.
If the Bengals played it close to the vest last Sunday in the opener, the stars would seem to be aligned to let it loose under the Monday night sky at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals rolled out their double tight-end set 71 percent of the time last week and Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert responded with a combined 10 catches, but they can really give LeBeau fits if they start lining up wide. So can running back Giovani Bernard, but offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is walking the line of developing the rookies Eifert and Bernard while also giving them snaps. As Mike Johnson says in the commercial, "This is our time."
Everyone thought the Bengals would run roughshod over a Bears offensive line with two rookies, but quarterback Jay Cutler flayed them on third down and they got no sacks. Now with Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey shelved for the year and the Steelers playing a guy they picked up a week ago (Fernando Velasco started 13 games for the Titans at center last year), the Bengals must take advantage of a line that also starts two second-year tackles and a second-year guard. Plus, without tight end Heath Miller the Steelers have to give help with either 265-pound David Johnson or 303-pound offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins had a good enough day against Steelers rookie right guard David DeCastro the last time that he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. Dulac believes Velasco is going to help the Steelers protect Roethlisberger after looking at a Pro Football Focus report that has him with a better pass blocking efficiency rating than Pouncey last year.
This may be the time to take the wraps off Harrison. One former Steeler told Dulac how surprised he was that Harrison rushed only three times by his count.
The Bengals will certainly have to do a better job containing the QB. They turned Cutler into Big Ben on three big plays out of the pocket and they just won't be able to survive it again. It's Pittsburgh's only escape hatch with their two top running backs shelved. The Bengals let running back Jonathan Dwyer have the game of his life last year and since Pittsburgh just picked him back up off the street he figures to get worked into a rotation with Isaac Redman and Felix Jones, a guy the Bengals brought in during the spring and didn't sign.
Big Ben has a history of going Big against the Bengals. He's got seven passes of at least 40 yards in his 19 games against them and he averages 7.5 yards per pass. The big ball has bailed him out of a lot of jams at PBS and it's the only play that hurt the Bengals in the last game in Pittsburgh when he hit a 60-yard bomb to wide receiver Antonio Brown just before the half.
One thing about defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's DBs. The game after a week when the pass coverage hasn't been as tight as he demands, they are usuually all over it.
As beat up as the Steelers are up front, their secondary is quietly struggling. One starting cornerback, Cortez Allen, is out and the third corner, Curtis Brown, is doubtful. They're really feeling the departure of Keenan Lewis and they could be faced with playing Syracuse rookie safety Shamarko Thomas in the nickel. With their three receivers, two tight ends and Bernard, the Bengals have the people to stretch the Steelers into one-on-one hell.
But it will be all up to quarterback Andy Dalton to deliver the ball. He did beautifully in Chicago on 78 percent passing, but he faces a much different challenge Monday night. LeBeau has had success pushing the middle of the pocket on him and getting people in his face, putting the onus on Dalton to eat the ball or make a play out of the pocket, and Ben has had him beat in that category.
Still, Dalton has never had this many weapons against LeBeau and if he continues to get the ball out quickly, he'll be lethal. But he'll need time from his line and precision from his receivers working against the Steelers man-to-man techniques as opposed to the spaces of the Bears zone.
In such a tight, physical game these two always play, special teams always decides it in some form (just note the 58-yard field goal set up by the 15-yard penalty in Chicago), and it will here. Antonio Brown is one of the top punt returners in the game, but Bengals gunner Jeromy Miles probably won't play and wide receiver Marvin Jones is going to have to get some run there. It will be interesting to see how special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons substitutes on those pass routes Jones runs on third down.
Typical Bengals-Steelers. If Pittsburgh can run it, you can't beat Big Ben. And if the Bengals force LeBeau into nickel, they should be able to run all day. The difference in this one is the Bengals may finally have more pieces than LeBeau has answers.