PITTSBURGH - Despite the same old story against the Steelers here Thursday night —a 27-10 loss in which the Steelers beat it out of the Bengals in and around a Chad controversy—new faces like Anthony Collins, Andre Caldwell and Chris Crocker looked to be a major part of a changing of the guard for a Bengals team now clearly in transition.
Whether Marvin Lewis and Chad Ocho Cinco are part of the change is another question as the two central figures in the latest Bengaldrama watched the Bengals find their left tackle of the future (Collins), at least maybe their No. 3 receiver of the future (Caldwell), and maybe their next heavy hitter in the secondary in Crocker.
Crocker, a six-year vet freshly arrived three weeks ago, knocked Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes cold in the second half with one of his eight tackles in just his third game with the team and while one of the famous Bengals of the past (Chris Collinsworth) declared on the NFL Network, "He has brought a presence to the safety position the Bengals haven't had in awhile," all thoughts were about the blow the Bengals took Wednesday night when Lewis sent home the most well-known current Bengal in Ocho Cinco for the violation of a team rule that various published reports say was insubordination during the offensive meeting.
The move was announced Thursday morning, the same day Lewis appeared in an NFL.com story saying there were going to have to be changes if he came back to coach next year, the fourth season of his five-year deal.
In his postgame news conference, Lewis moved to say the statement had nothing to do with management.
"Well, yeah. We need to change how we're getting things done," Lewis said. "Playing. I'm not talking about anything other than that. I didn't mean anything other than that context. We need to make sure that we continue to develop our guys and do a good job of coaching and playing. The frustration is me. (The reporter) is talking about me. Change is me too."
Asked if he's thought about not coming back next year, Lewis said, "No. I have not."
But now coupled with The Ocho incident, Lewis has let loose the Pandora's Box of speculation he hates. He said The Ocho will be back Friday and that he'll be ready to go and that he'll get treatment for a knee injury he apparently suffered Tuesday in practice.
But Ocho Cinco's teammates were cautious to see if he and they would put it behind them.
"I don't know. Why wouldn't he? We'll find out," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
"I think so, but we'll see, though" said cornerback Leon Hall. "It was good. Sometimes you have to put your foot down. You may not like some of the things that happen, but you have to live with it and roll with the punches."
"It's between him and the organization," said right guard Bobbie Williams. "Who knows? We just take one day at a time. We'll see. My opinion doesn't make two cents."
Williams echoed the prevailing opinion in the locker room that the incident and Ocho Cinco's absence didn't have much impact. In fact, running back Cedric Benson observed, "When I saw it, I just forgot about it because I knew this party had to go on."
"You can not cancel the game," Williams said. "It didn't affect me. The way our young guys played on the (offensive line), it looked like it didn't affect them. They played like solid veterans. The main thing is they listen to the veterans when they try to explain things and share knowledge; they listen to them instead of being unruly. I knew they were going to be all right."
Collins and left guard Nate Livings were more than all right in their first NFL starts against the league's top defense. The Steelers also lead the league in sacks and had seven against the Bengals 31 days before. But Pittsburgh could only dent the Bengals O-line for one - by inside linebacker LaMarr Woodley off quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's scramble countering a cornerback blitz.
In his showdown with Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison's 12 sacks, Collins blanked the Pro Bowler despite playing just six regular-season snaps before Thursday.
"It felt real good. They drafted me for a reason. They knew I could play," Collins said. "I just went out there and did what I was told, and played ball. I did what I did, and I had fun doing it, but the outcome was bad, and it feels terrible right now."
Collins came off the field thoroughly impressed that Harrison knew all about him. Even his nickname "AC."
"I stopped him, but he's a great player," Collins said. " He talked to me after the game. He said, 'Just keep on working, AC.' He knew my nickname. You can tell he did the research on me. All week the veterans were just telling me what to do, and to work on it and watch film, and I got better like I was a seven-year veteran. They just stressed to me to watch film, watch film, and I watched film and it helped me out a lot. "
Yes, the Bengals helped him by chipping Harrison with Benson and the other running backs, as well as tight end Reggie Kelly. But Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham said it didn't matter.
"I think they found somebody that can play," Lapham said. "The really impressive thing is with the crowd noise there were no false starts or jumping. Collins has really quick feet. Really quick feet. Good hand placement. And he played with confidence and it's going to grow."
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick signed off on the protection, saying it was so much better than it was against the October surprise.
"I thought AC did a great job today and Nate Livings as well. Pretty much the whole game I stayed clean," he said. "That's a testament to those guys up front and the way they pass blocked. It's not an easy thing. We learned that the last time we played these guys with all the sacks.
"We helped a little bit, chipped in with tight ends and backs but for the most part he did an unbelievable job. I can't even think of an instance where I was pressured from his guy. AC in particular. We'll look at the film but it was impressive for him to step in his first time."
Houshmandzadeh, The Ocho's closest friend on the team, wouldn't divulge much about the meeting. He did dispute reports that Ocho Cinco fell asleep and that he stalked out when challenged to straighten up in his chair.
"I think he was going to talk to (Lewis)," said Houshmandzadeh, but he was more definitive about what he saw on the field.
"I found out there is a reason Anthony Collins is very confident," Houshmandzadeh said. "Andre Caldwell showed it wasn't too big for him and that he can make some plays and not get flustered. Hopefully the young guys can build on that."
Caldwell, rotating with Glenn Holt in the X position, caught his first three NFL balls for 26 yards and his 15-yard catch on third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter broke a skein of eight straight failed third-down conversions. It was Fitzpatrick's longest pass to a wide receiver Thursday night.
"He had the right look in his eye out there," Fitzpatrick said. "The game is definitely not too big for him. I think part of it is probably coming from Florida and playing on a big stage but he was out there. He wasn't shy. He wanted the ball. He wanted to catch the ball. He wanted to make plays and he did that on a few occasions. That was something that it was good to see out of him. "
But the offense was horribly dormant again. The running game was non-existent at 2.2 yards per 20 carries and, just like it has been when The Ocho has been in there, the vertical passing game is flat-lined.
"It's the tale of the season," Houshmandzadeh said. "The defense plays great and the offense sucks."
Clearly changes loom on offense, where a touchdown a week has become the norm.
"I'm sure he would have helped," Houshmandzadeh said of Ocho Cinco. "We've lost eight games with him, so I don't know how much, but of course he would have helped. Why wouldn't he? Chad's a good player."
But, like Houshmandzadeh said, "Obviously he didn't act right. That's why he's not here." Defensive tackle John Thornton observed, "I know he's done worse. I think this was just a statement from Coach with this kind of season that we're having. He needs everybody on the same page. He suspended him, and he told us about it and we all moved on. I don't think it had a big effect on the game today. It is what it is. It's something you'll have to ask Coach."
Coach wasn't saying much.
Collinsworth supported him on the air saying that Lewis is capable of looking at "all 31 other teams and let's figure out what we want to be and let's come up with a singular plan."
With two years left on his deal, Thornton believes Lewis is going to be back.
"If he says he'll be back, he'll be back," Thornton said. "He still has control of the team. Guys still respect him. I would think he would be back."
And they still played hard for him even though some guys were displeased he had them on the practice field for about 90 minutes or so the day before a game on a short week. But Lewis hasn't let up this year on that front.
Yet change seems to be in the air, starting with how Lewis handled Ocho, an area where Lewis has been criticized in the past for being too lax. The question is, is it the first policy statement of '09 or one of the last acts of an era?
"I was shocked. You were, too," Houshmandzadeh said. "It hasn't happened before."