Big-play showdown

Mirror, mirror on the wall.

The Bengals.com Media Forum is looking like the Big Brother Machine of Punditry that buried the Bengals before the season with the doomsday scenario that ranked them last in everything from power rankings to mouthwash.

In Sunday's AFC North showdown at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium with the Steelers (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), The Forum makes the Bengals slight underdogs to the hot arm of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the cagey brain of Steelers defensive coordinator Charles Richard LeBeau.

But that is precisely why this Bengals team has such a better shot at beating the Steelers than their cousins of the recent past. These Bengals revel in being the underdog instead of railing about it.

The lone dissenter on this Board of Are You Sure You Want To Trust Us? is Joe Reedy, the inexhaustible Bengals beat man of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Reedy put down his phone long enough to risk the homer tag by observing, "This sets up well for the Bengals. The Steelers are banged up, don't get a bye week until next Sunday, they're coming off a tough stretch with the Pats and Ravens, and the Bengals are playing in front of their first sellout at home and that can only add to their growing confidence."

Reedy is backed up by this: Injuries have forced the Steelers to use eight different starting lineups on defense. Two weeks ago they played the Pats without linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison and last week they played the Ravens without Farrior and LaMarr Woodley. Only Woodley is going to be missing against the Bengals.

The locals immediately halved the hole.

Gerry Dulac, one member of the brilliant double-play combo covering the Steelers for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with Ed Bouchette, likes the visitors because of how easily Roethlisberger is putting up points. Dulac, whose hole-in-one at Latrobe was reported to the clubhouse by Arnold Palmer himself, doesn't think it's going to be a tap-in. But while the Bengals have just adopted the resilient tag, Dulac has watched the Steelers use it to reach three Super Bowls in the past six seasons.

Don Banks of Sports Illustrated, the man who played Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, thinks the Bengals are no longer undercover. He's a big believer in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Dalton made his first Rose Bowl trip a memory. But he also thinks this fellow LeBeau is going to enforce his brand of law on the kid in a Steelers victory.

Who thought back on Sept. 13 that Bengals-Steelers would attract a national media contingent? The New York Times, S.I., and three guys from ESPN are on the way, as well as Jim Corbett of USA Today. The man from the nation's paper is playing the numbers. LeBeau is 11-1 against rookie QBs, Ben is 6-1 at PBS, and he can't see the Steelers falling to 0-3 in the division.

Let's go around the table:

BANKS

I vote for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and right now I would vote for Dalton. He's got the wins. I went to the Rose Bowl and he was on the money on every third-down throw. When I saw how poised he was in that environment that was two-thirds Wisconsin fans, I knew I had to keep an eye on this guy and he's been very good.

The Bengals are a dangerous team. They have an awful lot of talented players and have a lot to build on. Zimmer has done a great job with their defense. Very impressive that they haven't allowed an offensive touchdown in the last two games in Pittsburgh.

LeBeau came in for some criticism playing bump-and run on that last drive against Baltimore when the corners really got exposed and the safeties didn't take proper angles, so I think the Steelers are really going to concentrate on that because the Bengals have some talented receivers that can stretch the field.

THE EDGE: Steelers, 23-20. LeBeau is going to give Dalton some looks he hasn't seen before. I would say he'll see some untraditional sets.

REEDY

It sets up well. It helps the Bengals that this division stretch is coming in the second half of the season and not like in '09 when it was at the beginning of the season. Their youth would have hurt them there.

They're playing with confidence and even if the crowd is going to be 70-30 or 60-40, it's going to help them. If they get down 10 Sunday, it won't be over. They've come back on the road and were down 10 in Tennessee at the half last week. Nothing seems to faze them.

One of the big matchups is the Bengals corners on Steelers receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. I can't think of two receivers the Steelers have had together with that much speed. Dare I say Swann and Stallworth? Everybody talks about Wallace, but Brown can stretch it, too. I remember that playoff game last year with Baltimore when he made the big deep catch late in the game.

And tight end Heath Miller is a dangerous threat, but I think the Bengals linebacking corps is a lot better to go up against Miller.

And then there's LeBeau vs. (new Bengals offensive coordinator) Jay Gruden. I think Jay ought to be looking at the same game plan he used against Indy. He ran it just enough (31 carries for 94 yards) and used a lot short passes and screens. Quick drops, three-step drops so that Dalton can get rid of it quickly and the offensive line proved they could block it and protect the passer.

I think another big thing is going to be special teams. Last year when the Steelers beat the Bengals here (27-21), the Bengals gave up 13 points on special teams when Bernard Scott fumbled the opening kickoff, the Steelers blocked a punt, and Mike Nugent missed a field goal that turned into a score at the end of the half.

This year special teams have been one of the Bengals' big strengths. Plus, the Steelers punter just got hurt again (Daniel Sepulveda's season-ending knee injury) and even though Jeremy Kapinos punted for them in the postseason he just got there eight days ago and he hasn't punted here. The only time kicker Shaun Suisham was here was in '08 with Washington and while Heinz Field is a tough place to kick, this place has challenges, too, with the wind.

THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-17. They're playing with confidence, they're at home, and the Steelers are banged up coming off a tough stretch.

DULAC

This is as tough a three-game stretch in the regular season as the (Steelers) have had since I can remember. The 5-1 Patriots, the 5-2 Ravens, and the 6-2 Bengals. And it's as glum as I've ever seen them. They're 0-2 in the division, they've already lost the tiebreaker to Baltimore, and they know it's a long way back. They aren't happy.

They've got some issues, but the one thing about this team is that they're resilient. Being down in games or in a season doesn't faze them, so this is just another bump in a road for the guys that have been here before and that's most of them. It's a veteran team that isn't going to panic.

One thing they can do is score. Ben has been rolling it up and he showed you what he can do against the Patriots. They gave the Steelers the short pass and he took it and went right down the field on them.

They've got more quick throws in there than in the past. Three-, five-step drops and it's helped them protect the passer in the last three weeks. (The Steelers are 23rd in allowing sacks per pass). In the first six weeks they had six different offensive line combinations, they've settled down the last three weeks with the same guys. (They've allowed eight sacks in the last three games after 18 in the first six.)

But they've also got the deep threat with Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown to go with that short passing game, and Ben has got a great rapport with Wallace. Already they've got six passes of 40 yards this season. (Three for TDs).

Interesting matchup. The Steelers right tackle is a rookie from Florida, Marcus Gilbert, and he's been talking about what a good player Carlos Dunlap is, his college teammate. Now they go up against each other.  

The defense has been good. It's funny because they gave up that drive at the end against Baltimore at the end of last week's game, but they had been playing the pass well. Their safeties just got over there late. But they don't play the ball well and they don't pick it off. Only two interceptions all year. They're so regimented in making sure the ball doesn't go over their heads and just keeping the ball in front of them that they don't get interceptions.

One thing to watch, too is that the zone and the stretch running plays had given them some trouble  earlier in the year, the kind of stuff Cedric Benson has run on them in the past, but they've shored that up in the last couple of games.

They don't turn it over, either, which is not like them. They've only forced four turnovers to this point and I saw a graphic somewhere that said it's the fewest in nine games in history.

But they've played well without key guys and they'll have James Harrison and James Farrior back on the field for the first time in a long time. They don't have their other big outside rusher, LaMarr Woodley, but with the bye coming up they want to get him healthy. That will hurt them, but they've been getting pretty good play from Jason Worilds, their second-round pick from '10.

THE EDGE: Steelers, 23-16. It's a tough game, it will be close but this is the kind of game the Steelers veterans have been able to win in this run when they need to have it.

CORBETT

I don't think the Bengals are going away this season, but I don't see them winning Sunday. But it's impressive what Marvin has done. He's got them playing as a team and I read the other day where Whitworth said they don't need captains. That's impressive.

Ben has only lost once in that stadium and is really playing well in the passing game. The Bengals have some weapons with A.J. Green, but they don't have the weapons the Steelers have. They can put 30 on you.

LeBeau has such a great record against rookie quarterbacks with only one loss. Dalton has played well, but he's going to see things that he hasn't seen before. He's played good defenses, but not one as good as this. They changed it up all of a sudden on the Patriots. All of a sudden they went from zone to man and played it beat a great pass offense. That's the kind of thing they can do to you.

The other big thing is that the Steelers are playing desperate. They know they can't go down in the division at 0-3. If they do, it's over so I think you're going to see them pulling out all the stops and they're going to be going all out to make sure they don't so get so far behind in the race.

THE EDGE: Steelers, 24-20. The Steelers are desperate and explosive.    

THE BOTTOM LINE

Lewis still maintains the two most physical games he's experienced on the sidelines are the two games the Bengals beat the Steelers in 2009 to sweep the division. And they need to use the same script, which involves preventing the Steelers from pulling off a big pass or defensive play for a TD. The games are played so tightly with points at a premium between two top four defenses that one big scoring play either way has decided the last four games.

Last year at PBS, the Bengals lost by six with the difference a 39-yard trick TD pass to Wallace from wide receiver Antwan Randle-El. Two years ago at PBS, Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown. The difference in that one? Wallace fried Joseph on a 51-yard pass that should have been a 61-yard TD but he stepped out of bounds and the Steelers had to settle for a field goal and got beat, 23-20.  

In the last two games in Pittsburgh, the Bengals have not allowed the Steelers an offensive touchdown. Cincinnati lost last season because Carson Palmer threw two pick-sixes. In '09 the Bengals won because the biggest play they allowed Roethlisberger was a 21-yard pass and they got their explosive play from Bernard Scott's kick return for a TD for the game's only score.

In the last two years, it hasn't been who scores last, but who scores biggest.

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