BENGALS DEFENSIVE LINE VS. STEELERS OFFENSIVE LINE
Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is preparing for Sunday's ninth career game against the Steelers and first as a Bengal (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) and even though he sees new numbers on film he's still wary of the Pittsburgh offensive line.
"Different O-line, but same Steelers," says Ogunjobi, noting that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, making his 234th start, is still very much there. "You still have to bring the same mentality. It's still the Steel City … It goes through the big guy."
But it's hard to remember in the Big Ben Era when the Bengals defensive line has gone into Pittsburgh allowing just 3.4 yards per carry and facing such a new look line and new look line play that is averaging just 3.3 yards per shot with a new offensive coordinator.
Typical Steeler Week. For six days the discussion revolves around Ben's mastery of the Bengals (26-8), but on Sunday we may end up talking about how Pittsburgh dominated up front in the run game. In the 36 games they've played since Big Ben's rookie year in 2004, the Bengals have allowed the Steelers to rush for 100 yards in 24 of them and the Bengals have won three times. In four of the games, Pitttsburgh has carried fewer than 20 times and the Bengals are 3-1.
Now, the Bengals defensive line is hot after starting the season shutting down two of the league's best running backs, holding Minnesota's Dalvin Cook and Chicago's David Montgomery to 61 yards each. Steelers first-round pick Najee Harris is a scary 230-pounder and is destined for great things, but the Bengals hope they can catch him before gets going behind an O-line that no longer has Pro Bowlers Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro at guard and Alejandro Villaneuva at tackle.
Four of the Steelers offensive linemen starting on Sunday are making their first Pittsburgh start against the Bengals, including rookie center Kendrick Green, a third-rounder, and left tackle Dan Moore, Jr., a fourth-rounder. Left guard Kevin Dotson is making his seventh NFL start. NFL vet Trai Turner is in his first season with the Steelers at right guard and right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, the lone returner, is back at right tackle after it didn't work out at left tackle and makes his 22nd NFL start.
The fallout of the revamped line is that Roethlisberger is getting hit without the consistent run game. In the previous five seasons, he took fewer sacks than any starting quarterback with 77 over a span guys like Russell Wilson went down 230 times and Matt Ryan 192. Even Tom Brady got sacked 119 from 2016-2020. But Roethlisberger got hit 10 times last week by the Raiders and is nursing a left pectoral injury.
"They've always had good backs," Ogunjobi says. "But it's their offensive line that's been together for a long time. They knew how to play with each other. Pouncey, DeCastro, Villaneuva. They had some young troops and they had to rotate when they lost Ramon (Foster), but you had guys that had been in the league a long time. One of the best things you can have is experience. And it still runs through (Ben)."
But now the Bengals have Ogunjobi and nose tackle D.J. Reader playing in the rivalry for the first time, as well as rookie Cam Sample and new pickup B.J. Hill. Along with vet Josh Tupou, these guys have been interior immense. Not only against the run, but they're pushing the pocket for six sacks (after just 17 all last year) and 15 pressures.
"I just think how active they've been both on first and second down in the run game and then pressuring that pocket in the pass game," says defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo of his line. "We're getting TFLs (tackles for loss), which we haven't in the past couple of years, and we're also creating quarterbacks having to throw out of a tight pocket, which is so important on getting those sacks. You can't put a premium on that. We're very excited what those guys have done. Coach Marion Hobby has done a great job with that group."
While Ogunjobi and Reader and right end Trey Hendrickson get their first taste of the rivalry, left end Sam Hubbard, the Cincinnati Kid, knows all about Bengals-Steelers in his 26tth year of life and fourth in the league. He agrees it's the best they've played the run since he's been here.
"We're a physical front. We play the run well because we take pride in stopping the run, swarming to the ball," Hubbard said. "You'll see guys make the first contact and the runner not always go down, but there's three more guys coming, swarming. It's why we take pride in not allowing big plays, stuff like that. It's just stuff we talked about for a long time finally showing up on film. We've got keep going."
But they know the Steelers are still the Stillers. New names. New numbers. A new back. But there is Heinz Field and Ben, Renegade and Mike Tomlin.
"No matter who we're playing it starts up front with those guys, and they've done a good job so far," Anarumo says. "We have great respect for the guys that are playing for the Steelers. We think they're a good line. They've got some young players, but they're athletic, they're big, they're strong. They're going through a transition period from the guys who have been playing there forever, and so there will be some learning curve for them, but they're going to be good players. We have great respect for those guys."
The wild card is Harris, the 230-pound beast already commanding a lethal stiff arm. Last week in Las Vegas he threw away 205-pound safety Jonathan Abram on the sideline like he was a candy wrapper after a swing pass and later broke a tackle for a touchdown. The Bengals know he's going to be good and he's already got three runs of at least 14 yards. The only thing their run game lacks is consistency.
Big Ben has handed off to six different 100-yard rushers against the Bengals, from Jerome Bettis to James Conner and Jonathan Dwyer to Mewelde Moore and Willie Parker and Le'Veon Bell in between. They're leery of Harris joining that group.
"The first thing that stands out is his size," Hubbard says. "He's probably 230. He's a really big back. You see the strong stiff arm. Guys like that, you've really got to be physical, get a lot of bodies on him. We faced two good backs already. This is another great back."
Hubbard has had mixed results against stiff arms.
"I had a pretty bad one last year. Tyrod Taylor got me pretty big," Hubbard says. "That one definitely sticks out in my mind. That just comes down to when you see it, you've got to wipe it down and go. I've also had some pretty good ones. I had a good one on Russell Wilson, who tried to stiff-arm me. Hopefully you got some guys in the back end running to help you out."
The Bengals do work on attacking it.
"There are stiff-arm drills we work as a tackling circuit," Hubbard says. "Wiping down, lifting up going for the waist. There's different techniques, but some of it's just we're playing football. You've just got to grab something, hold on, wrap and roll. You just never want to be that guy on a highlight reel like that."
Steelers Week and they know their run game has been the highlight.