9-22-03, 1:40 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Doesn't it always come down to the running game with these two?
In the four games Bengals running back Corey Dillon has carried the ball at least 20 times against Pittsburgh, the Bengals are 3-1. In the games he has carried less than 20, the Steelers are 6-0.
In the games Steelers running back Jerome Bettis carries at least 16 times, Pittsburgh is 9-3 against Cincinnati. In his 10 100-yard days against the Bengals, the Rams and Steelers are 7-3.
So once you know that Dillon left Sunday's game when he strained his groin on his seventh carry gaining his 26th yard with 9:22 left in the first half and Bettis came off the bench with 6:45 left in the third quarter to carry 16 times and the clock, you can deduce Pittsburgh won, 17-10.
"Of course not having Corey was big," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "It cut down our chances to run. Brandon Bennett is a great back, but he had to play special teams today, too. He showed a lot of heart."
Last week it was a hyperextended knee that knocked Dillon out of most of the second half in Oakland. This week, it was a groin injury that Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis termed day-to-day. Dillon's agent, David Dunn, said he traded phone messages with his client Sunday night and was waiting to hear the extent of the injury.
While Bengaldom flogs itself Monday wondering if the wear and tear of seven seasons in the NFL is catching up to its franchise back, the Bengals have to figure out how to stay in a game long enough to use him once he's healthy. Dillon hasn't carried the ball more than 23 times in the last dozen games, and only 20 or more four times, and none this year. With 144 yards this season, he's on pace for his first sub 1,000-yard year of his career at 768.
The only long-term answer when Dillon goes down, Rudi Johnson, was himself inactive for the third straight week as he recovers from a bruised thigh.
The Bengals could never get an edge on the Steelers, starting with the deactivation sheet. Pittsburgh caught them napping on a fake field goal and surprised them on offense by calling off the blitz for the most part and jamming the passing lanes. On defense, well, defensive tackle John Thornton said. "They passed when we thought they were going to run and ran when we though they would pass."
But if they lost the battle of the Xs and Os, there's nothing they could do with personnel when Dillon went down again.
"It is a significant loss, just like it was last week for us. But when we do not have Corey, we are prepared to spread the defense out a little more and find some cracks," Lewis said. "Corey was running very well at the end of the first half, as we saw. When we don't have him, we have to do other things. We did adjust. In the second half, we didn't get off to a good start offensively. We have to start better. We have to protect better, and with four sacks in the game, it's going to be difficult. We can't give up that much yardage."
While the Bengals hunted and pecked for a running game, Steelers head coach Bill Cowher toyed with two studs in his backfield. After benching the 255-pound Bettis in the preseason in favor of the quick-footed 205-pound Amos Zereoue and giving him just eight carries in the first two
games, Cowher turned to him to re-establish the club's running identity
Bengals defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, Bettis' good friend, called it earlier in the week. He said Cowher would try to make Bettis a factor and he was never bigger than when the Bengals needed to get the ball back in the final 5:54 and never did. Bettis bulled six times for 19 yards in a drive middle linebacker Kevin Hardy said, "They ran the football down our throat."
"I was surprised they waited so long," Gibson said of the move to Bettis. "Zereoue was all right, but we were getting off the field. Jerome just kept grinding it. It was a change-of-pace kind of deal. It really changed the tempo of the game. We were just one touchdown away and we knew he was going to get the ball. But Jerome just kept chugging away, chopping wood."
Outside linebacker Brian Simmons talked about how the biggest disappointment of the game was failing to get the ball back in the final 5:54. Thornton talked about getting better play in a gap-oriented defense. Hardy thought the tricks of Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey were a nice setup for Bettis.
"I think a couple of plays they ran got us off balance, like their screen," Hardy said. "We did a good job on the reverses, but those plays tend to take you out of their main attack and to stop the basics."
There was nothing more basic than Bettis carrying the last six plays of the second touchdown drive, or mashing seven times on that last 11-play drive that killed the clock and gave the Steelers the ball for more than 37 minutes.
"I'm really not sure. We were making calls in an effort to stop the run, but we just weren't getting it done," Hardy said. "It's really hard to say right now without being able to study the film. They just took it to us — that's plain and simple."
Even Zereoue had to salute Bettis.
"When Jerome gets his engine going, it's hard to stop him," he said. "I thought, hey, he was getting it done, so Coach Cowher and I both decided: Let's let him go. And he went in there and got the job done."
Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins acknowledged that putting Bettis in there late in the game is a huge advantage.
"Sure, he's got the fresh legs," Hawkins said. "You've already been out there three quarters and now here he comes and he's going to play just a quarter and a half. That makes some difference."
While Bettis made all the right moves, so did defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. With Bengals No. 3 receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh not dressed for the third straight week and tight end Matt Schobel re-aggravating last week's hamstring injury and gone by the second quarter, the Bengals had trouble spreading things out with Dillon also out.
Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna saw a whole new concept from the Steelers as they geared it to take away wide receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick. Johnson caught four balls for 77 yards, and Warrick had a touchdown for one of his four for 21 yards.
"They hadn't done any of that," Kitna said of the coverages. "They'd play inside Chad and follow the safety over the top. That takes him out of the game. Then they had two guys in and out on Peter. On crucial third down plays, they'd take them away. They did a great job scheming that way.
"We prepared all week for a certain kind of blitz that is unique to them and we didn't see it one time," Kitna said. "They didn't do what we're used to them doing. They dropped more guys into coverage than they normally do. They dropped eight guys at times and that is against their character."
Still, the Steelers were able to pressure Kitna enough to get four sacks, three of which Steeler observers assigned to the left side of the line. Two came against inside linebacker Kendrell Bell, and one against outside linebacker Joey Porter.
Porter didn't have big numbers and he admitted that former Bengals defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen did the dirty work for him on the sack when left tackle Levi Jones leaned to von Oelhoffen and gave Porter a shot at Kitna. But he Porter was active, played more than anyone thought he would, and the Pro Bowler gave his team a big lift.
"It was very emotional. I think you saw what we were doing — we kept rotating because he wanted to get his feet wet," Bell said. "He got his first sack, and that's basically what we wanted to do. We wanted Joey to come in, and you really didn't know where he was."
For Porter, it was better than being a kid in a candy store.
"It felt like it was Christmas Day for me. Not being able to go out there and play football in a couple of weeks ... to go out there and just play football again and have a chance to put all the stuff behind me — it was a great feeling for me," Porter said. "" The adrenaline was going to make me get through the fatigue part, because I was so fired up to be out there, I wasn't even thinking about being tired. It ended up costing us a time out because I was out there when I wasn't supposed to be. They kept shuffling me in and out, and I'm used to being an every-down player and it kind of caught me off guard a little bit."
Kitna admitted the big play was the fake field goal, "but just as big was us going down the field in the first half and getting inside the 40 and not getting any points."
Kitna threw his second red-zone interception in as many weeks on the game's first drive, but he chalked it up to a great play by Pittsburgh outside linebacker Jason Gildon at the Steeler 8. That's where he plucked the ball off the ground after cornerback Chad Scott tipped away a high pass from the well-covered Warrick in a perfect example of Cover 2.
"It was a great play by Chad Scott, that's all," Warrick said. "He was following Chad (Johnson) and just fell off him and came up on me."
The Bengals had two other drives that reached the Steeler 36 and 33, respectively. The one to the 36 ended on a third-and-two when Kitna tried to hit an isolated Chad Johnson down the left sideline one-on-one. Kitna went short and Johnson went long, but Kitna said, "I got pressure. My fault."
Then on the next drive, Kitna had a second-and-nine from the Steeler 39, but rookie fullback Jeremi Johnson false started when he saw a blitz starting.
"That would have been a big play," Kitna said, "because they were going to be offsides."
And when Jones appeared to allow a sack to Bell, that was another red-zone mistake with the team trailing, 7-0. That came early in the third quarter as Kitna faced a third-and-five from the Pittsburgh 20, and they needed a 44-yard field goal to get on the board.
"I didn't play him right," Jones said. "I had a bad game. That's all I can say right now."