BENGALS FS JESSIE BATES III AND SS VONN BELL VS. STEELERS QB BEN ROETHLISBERGER
When the Bengals beat Roethlisberger, there's a pretty good chance a safety makes a big play or two. In fact, the last time they beat him, the safeties accounted for three interceptions. So with Bates and Bell their two best defensive players this season heading into Monday night's game (8:15-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 5) at Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals would like history to repeat.
And if it's not a safety, then it's a linebacker. Go back to 2005 and their first clocking of Big Ben and the picks by linebackers Brian Simmons and Odell Thurman highlighted their success defending him in the middle of the field.
Sure, that was four presidents ago. But even if his passes are shorter and quicker, it is still the same guy. Ben, future first ballot Hall-of-Famer and, according to Bengals safeties coach Robert Livingston, lethally brilliant. Livingston, who joined the Bengals personnel department in 2012, the year safety Reggie Nelson's mid-field interception of Ben with 14 seconds left put the Bengals in the postseason, doesn't see much difference in his game despite the lack of a running attack and aspects of the pass game extending the run.
"I don't know that he's different. The people around him have changed," Livingston says. "But you're looking at one of the smartest quarterbacks who probably ever played the game when you watch him pick matchups. Last game they went no huddle on us and he was out there directing traffic with guy that's seen about every look. You're not going to surprise him."
Livingston was also here when Nelson had a pick in the Bengals' last Monday Night win over the Steelers and he was on the defensive staff when Nelson and safety Shawn Williams turned Ben over three times in a 2015 victory.
But Livingston says it has never been like, "What kind of throw was that?" The picks were more off contested plays and that's why Bates and Bell have to come up big.
Bates is profootballfocus.com's highest-rated safety and a Pro Bowl candidate while Bell already has a career-high 96 tackles, he's approaching other career-highs and is ranked PFF's second most efficient tackler among safeties with at least 800 snaps.
That may be exactly what's needed Monday. With the Steelers running game noticeably absent (a very un-Steeler-like 45 yards per game in the last six out of seven on less than three yards per carry) and Ben taking about an average of two seconds to get rid of it, safeties have been creeping up in the box. More to defend Pittsburgh's yards after catch, than the run. The Steelers are still eighth in yards after catch, but it's not long ago they were leading the league, and in the last three games their combined 16 drops have prevented anything after the catch.
"They still run their offense. They're still who they are. They always have weapons outside with the receivers. And the run game. They have the run game going," Bell insists. "But now it's really not existent right now. They're kind of abandoning it, passing it more and really just getting it out in space, running quick game, picking up three yards, thinking it's like a good run equivalent to them. Just really picking up dinking and dunking guys down the field.
"But to beat Ben, you have to rattle him, make him uncomfortable in the pocket, do great disguising. Making him figure it out on the snap and really just getting after him. When they're in a slump like this, dropping passes, timing's off, you just have to make them pay when the ball is in the air and really capitalize on the opportunities."
Bell backs down from no one and that always helps in a bitter game like this one. He's played in only one of these nasty affairs, but so has Bengals defensive tackle Mike Daniels and he observed before Friday's practice, "The rivalry was just as heated as I expected it to be. It felt the way it looked on TV. It was very chippy. It was all the things you really look forward to when you're playing a rivalry game. It kind of takes me back to college a little bit. I really just enjoy this contest a whole lot."
So Bell had this vintage Bengals-Steelers response when asked about the antics of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster dancing on foes' logos. Smith-Schuster leads Pittsburgh with 79 catches (for 8.3 yards per) and raised hackles.
"He's still young minded. He loves the game. He loves going out there (and) playing," Bell says. "But it's kind of disrespectful at the end of the day. But they're on top right now so you can't really say nothing right now. We just have to go out there, between the lines, go out there and hit him and let him know where he stands."
You can always blitz Ben, but that's never really worked (go back to that Bengals' zero blitz with ten seconds left in 2018) and, besides, it's not like the old days when the blitzers bounce off him like bullets off Superman. He gets rid of it, but, according to PFF he has poor numbers against pressure with three touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 62.9.
But Bell knows numbers can sneak up on you like safeties.
"If you do (blitz), you just have get your hands up because he's getting the ball out quick," Bell says. "That's what we did when we first played them this year, got a lot of batted balls at the line of scrimmage. Just get your hands up because he's throwing quick game and it's going to in the B-gap window. Just get your hands up and bat the ball down. You've got to be thinking about it if you go though. And that's what makes it tough."
The Bengals have intercepted Roethlisberger more than any other team with 29 and nearly half of them (13) are from safeties with Nelson leading the way with six. Shawn Williams has two, the only current DB who owns an interception against Big Ben.