Matching up with Iron Mike

Posted: 1:10 a.m.

The Bengals' biggest and richest rivalry of the decade underwent a major shift in the continental plates when Steelers coach Bill Cowher stuck his chin out at Cincinnati for the last time, taking his 22 victories against the Bengals and stepping aside in favor of 35-year-old Mike Tomlin.

Cowher's resignation and the most extensive overhaul of the Pittsburgh offensive line since even before the 35-year-old Cowher took over in 1992 markedly changes the two most effective elements of the Steelers' recent matchups with Cincinnati.

In Bengals.com's last look at the AFC North Division's newest matchups, the best place to start is at the top.

BENGALS COACHING VS. STEELERS COACHING

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Lewis

Bengals' Marvin Lewis vs. Steelers' Mike Tomlin: Say what you want about the sometime impolitic and smug yet always intense and entertaining Cowher, but he always seemed to get the last word in when it came to the Bengals. From bastardizing the "Who Dey" chant in the Bengals' own building after the heartbreaking playoff loss basically stripped Cincinnati of the 2005 AFC North title it had won the month before, to knocking the Bengals out the playoffs in overtime of last season's finale.

His 22-9 record against four different Bengals head coaches is proof enough: 6-3 against Lewis, 5-1 against Dick LeBeau, 4-4 against Bruce Coslet, and 7-1 against Dave Shula.

Now that Cowher is gone, Tomlin is as mystifying as Cowher was when he replaced Chuck Noll even though they have the same pedigree. They each arrived in Pittsburgh with a defensive mindset honed anonymously under successful and high-profile head coaches, Cowher with Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland and Kansas City and Tomlin with Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay.

But Tomlin has made it clear the Steelers will continue to be defensive-minded, fundamentally sound, and physical, messages delivered when he retained the 3-4 defense and as defensive coordinator LeBeau, a member of Cowher's staff for eight of the 15 seasons.

Cowher Power has yielded to Iron Mike.

Tomlin made news in the spring camps by devising, "The News," a no-holds-barred-day-after-practice critique of players that even reached Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward when he spiked the ball after a catch, an act that is now a penalty.

Tomlin also showed no qualms taking on Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca during a salary dispute early in the offseason and the initial decision to bypass the 'Burg-bred Russ Grimm doesn't seem to have the same jolt on the players when it first happened.

The huge question, of course, is Tomlin's lack of experience. He had one year as an NFL defensive coordinator (Minnesota finished eighth last season) after five years as a secondary coach in Tampa Bay.

By the time Lewis arrived in Cincinnati in 2003, he had spent four seasons as the Steelers linebackers coach and the previous seven seasons as a coordinator for two different teams.

Lewis' Bengals have a 7-1 record against clubs with first-year coaches, the only loss to Mike Mularkey's Bills in 2004. But that same year, Lewis bested NFC East bigwigs Joe Gibbs and Tom Coughlin, and last season the Bengals went on the road to take out Herman Edwards in his first game with the Chiefs and eventual NFL Coach of the Year Sean Payton in New Orleans.

The biggest stat going for Cincinnati?

Tomlin is 0-0 against the Bengals.

BENGALS DEFENSE VS. STEELERS OFFENSE

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Peko

Bengals DTs Domata Peko and John Thornton vs. Steelers C Willie Colon and RG Chris Kemoeatu: Besides Cowher's chin music, the Steelers offensive line supplied the beat of the rivalry with its incessant pounding of the ball in the running game.

Six different Steelers backs logged 21 100-yard games in Cowher's 31 games against the Bengals and the Pittsburgh won 17 of them.

But not since the last belches of the Noll era has the Pittsburgh offensive line had so many question marks. Write down at left guard Faneca, the superb Pro Bowler, and at left tackle Marvel Smith, and those are the only givens. The other three spots are being left to a seven-man scrum.

The 6-3, 315-pound Colon, who played well against the Bengals as a rookie sub at right tackle in the '06 finale (Cincinnati had only one sack), could end up starting at right guard, tackle or center. The 6-3, 350-pound Kemoeatu, a sixth-rounder in '05, is a mountain that just happens to have a mean streak nearly as tall. These two kids are pushing old standbys Kendall Simmons at guard and Max Starks at tackle.

But it's not like the Steelers were miserable running the ball last year, since they finished 10th in the league and running back Willie Parker gashed the Bengals for 133 and 134 yards in the two games last season.

Still, the Steelers are looking for the consistency they had with running back Jerome Bettis, the line has to adjust to life without the popular Grimm, and the retirement of Hartings takes a big, Richie Braham-like piece out of the puzzle.

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Brooks

Bengals MLB Ahmad Brooks vs. Steelers RB Willie Parker: Fast Willie has become a Bengals-killer with three 100-yard games in five outings against Cincinnati. His two last year came when Brooks didn't line up as the starter. In fact, Brooks has yet to make a tackle against the Steelers.

His ability to make sideline-to-sideline tackles may be sorely needed against Pittsburgh more than ever now that Bruce Arians is the Steelers offensive coordinator.

In AFC North circles, Arians is best known for jacking the ball in the air 552 times as the Browns offensive coordinator in 2002, including 43 from Kelly Holcomb in the memorable shootout loss in the playoffs to, of course, these very Steelers.

Don't look for Arians to AFL-it in Pittsburgh with Parker and the NFL's returning No. 9 defense, two things he decidedly didn't have in Cleveland.

But everyone expects the Steelers to be more multiple than they were under Cowher with more three- and four-receiver sets and one-back formations.

The knock on the Steelers running game has always been its predictability. If you could find the fullback, the tailback was sure to follow with direct orders to hit the hole no matter what humanity was in it.

It remains to be seen if the Steelers will let Parker freelance more, but with a 4.4 yard per carry average last season and nearly 1,500 yards stemming from his quick move to the outside, it wouldn't be a great surprise.

Brooks' size and speed would be a nice counter. In three of his five starts last season, foes rushed for fewer than four yards per carry.

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Hall

Bengals CB Leon Hall vs. Steelers WR Santonio Holmes: Is Holmes still running away with the Bengals playoff berth on that 67-yard touchdown stroll through the glacial Cincinnati secondary on the last play of last season?

OK, OK, take away that play and no Steelers receiver had more than 57 yards receiving in that game, and Parker averaged just 3.6 yards per his 37 carries.

But it happened, and the Steelers held the ball for nearly 41 minutes because they made the big second and third efforts after the catch and/or hit.

Hall was drafted as much for his ability to tackle as he was for his cover skills, and never is the want-to to wrap up and hit more needed or valuable than in a game against the Steelers. The slant to Holmes, at best, should have been an 11-yard pickup.

BENGALS OFFENSE VS. STEELERS DEFENSE

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Anderson

Steelers OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley vs. Bengals Ts Willie Anderson and Levi Jones: Oh, how did the Bengals covet the 6-2, 265-pound Woodley in the second round of the last draft, only to see the Steelers grab him three slots in front of them.

Woodley won't start ahead of Clark Haggans, but what looks to already be a departure from some Cowherisms, Tomlin plans to rotate the pass rushers more often.

In fact, with indications that Tomlin is going to give more brainstorming rights to his assistants, we might see LeBeau unplugged and that has to have offenses uneasy.

There is some talk that LeBeau, who has already jumbled more Xs and Os than any of the AFC North coaches combined, may look more like Baltimore than New England and start lining up one and two guys in stances and then let the offense figure out what other four to seven guys are rushing the passer.

Harrison is seen as the replacement for Joey Porter, even though he's got just four sacks in four seasons. But he's a strong, versatile athlete who can play all three downs and offer some effective coverage skills.

When you think Woodley, you're thinking the classic 3-4 Cowher backer in the mold of Haggans, Kevin Greene, Jason Gildon. Add Woodley to a mix that already has Haggans, as well as James Farrior and Larry Foote inside, and it's scary, because, remember, all the guys that sacked Carson Palmer six times last September are back.

But, the thing is Palmer still beat the Steelers with four touchdown passes that day despite the hellacious thrashing, and the Bengals' recent history is that they don't get beat by the Steelers' top pass rushers.

In the season's last game, the Bengals went through Jones and then rookie Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and didn't allow a sack.

And in '05, when the Bengals allowed just seven sacks in three games against the Steelers, Haggans and Porter combined for just two of them.

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Watson

Steelers OLB Lawrence Timmons vs. Bengals RBs Kenny Watson and Kenny Irons: If Woodley is the classic Cowher rush backer, Timmons, the Steelers first-round pick, is more like Derrick Brooks, the Pro Bowler Tomlin saw work in Tampa Bay.

Given that Timmons has basically one season of experience of college ball and has had difficulty getting on the field because of nagging injuries, along with the complexities of the position, the Steelers figure to bring him along slowly and will use him on specialty situations off the bench.

Timmons can slide into the middle, cover backs, and blitz. So the Bengals third-down backs will see plenty of him and the matchup with Irons is an intriguing rookie confrontation. Watson is extremely adept at picking up the blitz, which is a big reason why he's probably got a big edge on Irons when it comes to playing in the third-down package.

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