OK. We’ve heard from the Cincinnati Kids about Bengals-Steelers that takes place for the 98th time on Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12; click here for tickets) at Paul Brown Stadium. And just imagine if Game 100 is a Wild Card Game.
Yes, rookie defensive lineman Sam Hubbard went to a Bengals-Steelers game even before he attended Moeller High School when he went to the infamous Carson Palmer knee game. Sure, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, in his second week with the Bengals, wasn’t there but he remembers watching “Troy Polamalu,” crash into Palmer’s knee. It wasn’t Polamalu, of course. It was Kimo von Oelhoffen. But you get the idea. The kids know and, absolutely, Northwest High School’s Preston Brown, who never went to a Bengals-Steelers game, knows he’s in one now.
“The one that everybody remembers -- I'm not going to talk about it,” said Brown, who could have been talking about the Palmer Knee Game or The Fumble Game, since both were wild Wild Card Games with Pittsburgh. “I'm not going to say nothing about it, we all know the play-off game and what happened. But hopefully we can go out and get this win on Sunday.”
But how about a Bengal that actually pronounces Steelers like the natives? “Stillers.” How about a Bengals wide receiver that grew up idolizing arch-villain Hines Ward instead of Chad Johnson or had the chance to pick Antonio Brown’s brain before he got to the cortex of A.J. Green?
“I can already see the tension going on there,” said wide receiver Tyler Boyd before Wednesday’s practice. “I can see what is going on in locker rooms or what’s going on at jobs or schools. People are talking a lot of stuff. That’s when there is the most talking that goes on is when the Bengals play the Steelers. I can already tell the juice and energy that they’re going to bring, so we’re going to match it.”
Boyd grew up blue collar in the town of Clairton, 20 gritty miles from Heinz Field and while he didn’t immerse himself in the Stillers (San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson was his favorite player), most everyone else did. It’s hard to get away from them. His high school coach offered the snippets of Ward.
“Coaches would just put on the clips and even when the ball wasn’t coming to him he was all over the tape,” Boyd said. “So explosive a guy. Do everything for his team. He wasn’t selfish. Perfect example of being a great receiver.”
So he gets it the other way. They’re all about it just like in Bengaldom.
“I think a lot of people there put too much pressure on the Steelers,” Boyd said. “They talk so much. Because I’ve been there. You hear it non-stop. They’ll talk about the game until we play them. Everywhere you go. Who’s going to win? Bengals or Steelers?”
Boyd was all-world at Clairton, Pa. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who grew up about 30 miles away in McDonald, Pa., says he once told Boyd that his father would talk about watching him play in high school. No, he may not have immersed himself in the Stillers like some kids. But he tuned in the big ones.
“Bengals or Ravens. I just tried to catch those games,” Boyd said. “The atmosphere in those games are the most intense. It’s for the conference. That’s what it really comes down to. Who is big in the conference? Especially at the end of the year to watch those games. See who pulls it off.”
The rivalry is riddled with unbridled nastiness. Stretching from Palmer’s mangled knee to the shocking failure of the NFL to discipline Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak’s appalling pull of Bengals safety Reggie Nelson’s dreadlocks, take your pick. You can go all the way back 35 years and Steelers defensive lineman Keith Gary nearly paralyzing Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson with one of history’s most vicious hits.
But it turns out one of Boyd’s best friends is Steelers running back James Conner, his former teammate at the University of Pittsburgh, and one of the guys that helped Conner beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma while he was at Pitt by “helping make him laugh.”
They also dreamed and schemed together and now look at this Bengals-Steelers game. Boyd leads the Bengals with 30 catches and is on pace for a Hines Ward-like 1,297 yards. Conner has single-handedly turned the Le’Veon Bell fiasco from a 24-7 docu drama into a crossword puzzle with an NFL-best two 100-yard games and 4.1-yards per rush to go with 22 catches out of the backfield.
Bob Bicknell, the Bengals’ New England straight-shooter receivers coach in his first season in town, has loved Boyd’s promise and work ethic ever since he arrived.
“He understands the offense and how to execute things in different looks,” Bicknell said. And then with a smile he said, “He’ll tell you I’ll never call him smart, but he knows the game. He’s got a good feel for what happens around him. He’s doing a really nice job for us.”
Boyd has been thinking about this moment for many moments. Some of them with Conner.
“When we were freshman we always talked about how hard we worked and how good each other was,” Boyd said. “We watched each other’s film and saw we had the potential to go to the next level. We had talked, what if we were on the same team? What if we’re playing against each other? We talked about little scenarios. Now that we’re huge factors in our offenses, it makes it even more fun and then to compete against each other and see who does better is even more fun.”
They just spoke Tuesday and no one is going to be surprised if they talk every day this week.
“Just chopping it up at first and then we started talking about what we’re going to do to the other team,” Boyd said. “I told him, ‘We’ve got to beat y’all this game. I’m not losing any more to y’all.’ When the game comes and we line up, ain’t no friends until after the game. Can’t be out there trying to play soft. If that’s your best friend, you’ve got to hit him. At the end of the day, Dre (Kirkpatrick), you’ve got to line up against AB. Got to fight him. And I know AB is going to give 100 percent.”
Boyd is also cool with another Bengal killer other than Ward that also plays wide receiver. Boyd isn’t tight with Antonio Brown like Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. But Boyd has known the future Hall-of-Famer longer because Pitt usually practices after the Steelers do at Heinz Field and players can run into each other.
“I talked to him this summer. That was probably the last time I spoke to him. We sat down and chopped it up. We don’t stay in contact like me and James. We’re cool. Everything is on a friendly level with us,” Boyd said. “We had several talks. We’d go to practice when they were leaving practice and I would try to see how I could win against certain coverages because they used to double team me in college and I would see how he would maneuver through it. I know they still do that with him. Just football talk.”
If there’s ever a guy ready to play a leading role in a Bengals-Steeler game, it’s Boyd. In his first one as a rookie and second game of his NFL career, his career high of 78 yards at Heinz held until last season’s finale. He played in the last one and saw the two roughing penalties for the Steelers as well as the taunting flag on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster after his illegal blind-side block knocked out Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. And the roughing the passer on the Bengals’ Geno Atkins as well as the roughing call on Bengals safety George Iloka.
“Every game I've been in against the Steelers, there's been some type of aggressive hits or something dirty going on, but at the end of the day, it's football,” Boyd said. “You can't go out and play scared. You can't go play frightened. You've just got to go out and hit. It's hit or be hit. We know these games are going to be hard-fought, and those are the games we have to bring it to get the wins because it's a conference game. Not to say we don't come out and bring it against every team we play but it's just something about the Steelers and the Raven, those types of games, we've got to be super locked in, super prepared and super focused.”
If the Cincy Kids are ready for their Bengals-Steelers, so is the Clairton Comet.
“I haven't beaten them once, so that would mean everything to me,” Boyd said. “Just all my friends and family and fans coming to watch, I can start bragging a little and talk a little noise and stuff.”