BENGALS Cs KYLE COOK AND TREVOR ROBINSON vs. STEELERS NT CASEY HAMPTON
The last time we saw this matchup came with five minutes left on Oct. 21 at Paul Brown Stadium and the Bengals trying to tie a 24-17 game as they faced a second-and-eight from their 13.
The cagey veteran Hampton blew up the green rookie Robinson and then running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a two-yard loss to set up a third-and-deep incompletion to wide receiver A.J. Green. The Bengals never got the ball back.
"Trevor had one bad block. It was a critical miss. We were going down to win the game. But it was just one bad block," says offensive line coach Paul Alexander, like everyone else in Bengaldom encouraged by the free agent from Notre Dame.
Robinson had been yanked off the bench into prime time in a pinch because of Jeff Faine's aggravated hamstring pull at halftime and since has started the next seven games in an impressive stretch that has coincided with the emergence of the running game.
With the return of veteran Kyle Cook from injured reserve recall two weeks ago after a season-long rehab following ankle surgery, the Bengals may have the best of both worlds in what is always a key matchup against Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in Sunday's Do-Or-Don't Bowl (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are ranked fourth against the run with the 6-1, 325-pound Hampton anchoring first and second down in his 12th season. That opens up LeBeau's mastery of third down with his zone-blitz scheme that, as usual, has the Steelers ranked first against the pass and No. 1 overall on defense.
The 6-5, 305-pound Robinson has played 73 snaps the last two weeks while the 6-3, 315-pound Cook checks in with 71 and Alexander says both are going to play Sunday.
"It's going to be interesting to see how they go," says Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played all five offensive line spots during 10 seasons in Cincinnati.
"If they want they can go with a little quicker, athletic guy in Robinson that gets to the second level or a stronger guy in Cook to battle Hampton at the line of scrimmage. Robinson isn't a weak weeping willow by any means. He's strong, but Kyle has been around longer and has older man's strength and Trevor is going to get stronger with another year in the weight program.
"Kyle is probably stronger at the point of attack but I think Trevor has a bright future and he's really helped the running game. It's going to depend on the game plan and schematics. I don't think it's that big of a deal who they start. But it's how they play."
Alexander says both are playing well and that Cook played better Thursday night in Philadelphia after knocking the rust off during his 2012 debut against Dallas. He compares it to 2009 when Nate Livings and Evan Mathis split time at left guard.
"They're both playing even and if you've got two even guys like Livings and Mathis, you get a more energetic guy," Alexander says.
During a media session Wednesday, Cook, who has started 50 games and gone against the Steelers in six games, said the rotation hasn't affected the line's chemistry.
"I don't buy that. Are you serious? Am I the new guy in town or something? I just come off the street?" Cook asked with a smile. "You don't think I've played with these guys before? The protection calls are the same. Unless guys are blowing up the middle I would say sure it has something to do with it. You go look at it and there are similar breakdowns no matter who is in there. We just have to eliminate them no matter what it is.
"(The rotation's) not affecting me at all. We're all taught the same things. I don't do a certain block different from how Trevor does it. We all step with the same foot. We all slide how we're supposed to slide and all protect the same way."
Alexander and Cook agree that a rotation keeps people fresh.
"If anything you should be better because you are getting a break," Cook said.
Alexander says neither center had a hand in the season-high six sacks racked up by the Eagles last Thursday night, a performance he believes is "an aberration."
"It hasn't happened in many years like that," Alexander says. "I think we were a little sluggish in our pass sets and protections. Right when you think you think you're invincible, you find out the league is humbling. We weren't the first team to experience that, but it's been a long time."
Robinson, playing center for the first time, has gone to school on his experiences back on Oct. 21.
"I had about 30 plays and said that night after the game it's those couple two or three bad plays that stick out in your mind," he says. "It feels good to be able to look back and see where I was and watch the more recent games and be able to say I've made the progress I needed to make."
After that night, Green-Ellis was averaging 3.3 yards per carry. It's been 4.7 since and Robinson has been a factor in The Law Firm's four 100-yard games in the last five weeks. Against the beefy fronts of Oakland and San Diego, Green-Ellis found room for 129 and 118 yards, respectively.
Of course, the Steelers don't hand out 100-yard games. This year Pittsburgh has held 10 teams to less than 100 yards rushing and the last Bengal do it individually was Rudi Johnson way back in Ben Roethlisberger's first start against the Bengals on Oct. 3, 2004 in a Steelers win at Heinz.
A big reason is Hampton.
"You have to be fundamentally sound," Robinson says. "That's kind of what I found out last time. If you are overextended, if you lean, if you have a narrow base he's a big strong guy that's been around for a long time and is going to feel that and make you pay for it. It is all about using your technique and having a good base. Obviously he's a big, strong guy so you just have to play with good leverage.
"I've learned it's more about what I do (in the matchups). If I can work the techniques that Coach Alexander teaches and do the things I'm supposed to do it tends to work out how it is supposed to."
Cook's first two starts against the Steelers in '09 were Bengals wins, but the last two outings at Heinz have been tough on the ground: 138 yards on 38 carries.
"He's big, strong, smart, veteran," Cook says of Hampton. "He does a lot of things right to be in the league for 12 years."
When Cook is on the field Sunday, the Bengals know they have their own heady veteran familiar with LeBeau.
"He is who he is. He doesn't change for a lot of people. That's his defense," Cook says. "Playing it and being around it you know some things, kind of like he knows some things about us. It goes both ways but playing against it that many times not only in scheme but in personnel."
Talk about knowing LeBeau. Alexander, in his 19th year with the Bengals and 18th as the line coach, says this is his 45th game against Pittsburgh. But LeBeau can still catch offenses even though they pretty much have an idea what he's all about.
"I think they execute so well and play so hard and play so sound and are coached so well," Alexander says. "They take pride in their defense. That's what they're going to play. They're not going to play a wide tackle 6."
Hampton won't always be on the field. He played 51 percent of the snaps last week in Dallas and Lapham says, "I didn't see Hampton disrupt Dallas that much. I thought their center did a good job. There are ways you can get him off the field by formation or going up-tempo. You don't have to just throw out of no-huddle.
"Hampton is hard to move. He takes up space and is strong. That's what he does."
The Bengals formations are going to be a bit of a mystery. They don't have their lead fullback, Chris Pressley, gone to injured reserve. He played 28 percent of the snaps back on Oct. 21, and that sounds like it may be too much for the newly-signed John Conner's first week with the offense.
"After how the Bengals had trouble with those super stunts against the Eagles last week, they have to make sure they get that right," Lapham says. "That looked like it was a Twister party and if they think that was problem at Philadelphia, Dick LeBeau is going to extend that problem. He'll be twisting everybody, linebackers, you name it."
But Lapham also thinks the Bengals have two good centers for this upcoming chess match.
"I thought Kyle played a better game at Philadelphia; he had his legs under him," Lapham says. "He's coming off a really tough injury. And I think the fact the game at Philadelphia and this one in Pittsburgh are both on grass really helps coming off an injury like that."