BENGALS C JEFF FAINE VS. STEELERS NT CASEY HAMPTON
It's an old-school reunion for these two Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium (8:20 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) when Faine, playing for his fourth different team in a battle that began when he was a first-round draft pick for the Browns in 2003, faces Hampton.
By then Hampton was in his third season at Pittsburgh, a first-rounder himself. And while the James Harrisons and Jason Gildons and Troy Polamalus and Joey Porters and LaMarr Woodleys have come and gone and come again to get the sacks and glory, Hampton has quietly been such a constant in a constant top five defense.
When people talk about the Steelers dense aging, they're talking about guys like the 6-1, 325-pound Hampton. He's 35 and coming off an ACL injury, but the Steelers are still hanging with him after giving up 91 yards to Chris Johnson in Tennessee last week and 113 to Oakland's Darren McFadden last month. But he's still making it hard on people to run the ball on Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 10th against the run even though they've had their front seven together for just one quarter this season. That changes Sunday with Woodley and Harrison back in full flower.
"He's the perfect-type player for that defense and what they do; he's done a great job over the years," says Faine, four years younger than Hampton at 31. "He plays with great technique. Physically he's very powerful. He's got good size, he's very instinctive. He plays that position very well and he's got the perfect body type for it. He does a fantastic job of controlling the gaps."
Hampton isn't going to be disrupting any running plays with penetration, but by clogging up the middle with his steel-belted two-gapping he lets inside backers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote do it. If the Bengals are going to get to those backers, they've got to handle Hampton first.
Hampton does his business on first and second down and that's when the Bengals have dug themselves a hole in the running game that finds them dead last in the NFL converting third downs. In the past four games their failure to move the sticks on first and second down running the ball has played a large part in a numbing 12-for-48 on third down. Last Sunday in Cleveland running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 11 carries for three yards or less.
If the Bengals think they're struggling on third down now, wait until Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gets a hold of them if they're looking at third-and-long. His defenses have made a living off those kinds of snaps for a decade and if the Bengals don't want quarterback Andy Dalton looking at a bevy of creative and destructive zone blitzes, this is one game they can't be third-and-eight all day, so they have to get something in the early downs.
The one nice thing is that Faine has broken down LeBeau playing for the Browns, Saints and Buccaneers during his career, so the Steelers aren't a mystery to him and he can help guards Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler as they see the Steelers for the first time. Faine last played against Hampton while at Tampa Bay two years ago and it was a typical tractor pull with the Bucs rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries in a Pittsburgh win.
"Listen, that defense is extremely well coached and they've been together for a long time," Faine says. "It's been the same thing every week for us (in the running game). It's been one guy here, one guy there either missing a block or not finishing. It's something we're focusing on."
Faine won't make his late arrival an excuse. The Bengals seem to be paying a price for needing to sign him 10 days before the opener in the wake of regular center Kyle Cook's ankle injury. He doesn't buy the notion that the offense has had a lack of timing in the running game because of two new guards, a new back that didn't play most of the preseason, and new center thrust into the middle of it all after the preseason finale.
"The familiarity thing, that's not an issue," Faine says. "I think that goes out the door the first or second game. The biggest thing is continuing to work together as a team and get it going and hopefully we figure it out pretty soon. Keep chopping wood."
The young guards, Zeitler on the right and Boling on the left, praise Faine for how smoothly he has coordinated the communication up front.
"We're just trying to get everyone working as one," Boling says.
The Bengals raised some eyebrows when they replaced Faine with rookie Trevor Robinson for a series early last Sunday. Whether that suggests they're unhappy with Faine or they see Cook still in a boot and using a crutch is anyone's guess, but Faine has made his mark as a team player and he continues to be. He accepts the explanation the Bengals are trying to get Robinson some experience just in case.
"It's not ideally what you want. You want to be in there every play helping your team win," Faine says. "But I understand the situation and the fact they want to get him ready in case something happens to me. It was a good opportunity to give him a shot. He did a fantastic job when he was in there."