The Bengals are quite possibly headed to the Steel City with a quarterback making his 10th NFL start protected by a rookie left tackle making his first NFL start lined up against the leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year in Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison.
But as the Bengals prepare for one of their shortest weeks after their longest game ever, head coach Marvin Lewis is showing plenty of confidence in fourth-rounder Anthony Collins, an athletic 315-pounder out of Kansas with whom they were pleasantly pleased during the preseason games.
"What Anthony has done for us this year, I've been very impressed with," Lewis said at his Monday news conference. "I took the liberty yesterday to have a backup center for the first time in a while, so that's why Anthony was inactive and (Andrew) Crummey was up."
But with left tackle Levi Jones (leg) and his replacement, left guard Andrew Whitworth (high ankle sprain) not looking good, Collins will quite definitely be active Thursday and may be a lot more than that. Collins is a snapshot of the future. Jones' health is a major concern and his ability to keep up with speed rushers is going to be a major topic in the offseason, and Whitworth's size and style of play may make him more cut out as a right tackle.
Lewis even invoked the name Monday of "Wally Pipp," the ageless symbol of change in sports. It was Pipp who was the Yankees starting but slumping first basemen in 1925 when his replacement for a day went on to play the next 2,130 straight.
"Guys make debuts all the time," said Lewis when asked about the prospect of Collins teeing it up against Harrison. "There's no better debut than against the best, and I think they're still leading the league in defense. So, there's no better time to do it than the present. If Anthony's our guy come Thursday night, he'll be up and ready to go and excited about it. You can't pick and choose who you debut against."
Boy, if that ever sounded like a welcome to the NFL, that's it. If Whitworth can't go, too, Collins would be helped by veteran Scott Kooistra at left guard, a backup who is in his sixth season and has been around the horn.
But the Bengals will probably have to provide more help than Jones and Whitworth got early in the game Sunday against Eagles beast Trent Cole. Cole couldn't be blocked one-on-one whether people were healthy or not as he finished with two sacks, two QB hits, and 10 tackles. The Bengals got help over there later in the game with tight ends and running backs, and suffice to say they won't make the same mistake the Chargers made Sunday against Harrison when his teammates were shocked they put just a tight end on him.
"I don't know how they do their scouting report," Steelers linebacker James Farrior told the media after the game. "But I haven't seen a whole lot of linemen in this league that can block him. Putting him on a tight end is definitely an odd match. He took advantage of it today."
The 6-0, 242-pound Harrison forced his fourth fumble of the season when his sack of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone gave the Steelers a safety and precious points in their 11-10 victory. He also picked off Rivers in the red zone and his 12 sacks trail only the man he replaced in Pittsburgh, Miami's Joey Porter with 13.5. One of the other forced fumbles produced a touchdown and when was the last time an NFL Defensive Player of the Year also had at least 10 special-teams tackles like Harrison does now?
Back on Oct. 19, Harrison had two of the Steelers' seven sacks of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in a 38-10 Cincinnati loss that until Sunday were the most sacks allowed in the Lewis era. The Bengals are on pace to give up 61, two behind the franchise high set in 1979.
The Bengals gave up eight to the Eagles, their most in a game in 12 years, but Lewis wasn't ready to wholly condemn the protection. He said there were two sacks because guys got beat, plus one because center Eric Ghiaciuc rolled back a shotgun snap. But he also said there were some taken by the quarterback for various reasons,
"It was a combination of things such as field position and not wanting to make the bad throw, and we got bumped off the protection," Lewis said. "We got beat twice, and we had the fumbled snap, which led to one. So there really was a combination of things. I think a couple of times Ryan pulled the ball down a little early and ran up in there, and it cost us a one-yard sack."
There is no doubt in his mind what has to happen against a Steelers team that has rung up the second most sacks in the NFL per pass and not only boasts Harrison, but LaMarr Woodley and his 9.5 sacks on the other side.
"We'll have to make some adjustments. Some guys will have to step up and play," Lewis said. "Some of our other players who are healthy have to play great. That's important, that they pick up the slack."