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Midnight strikes for Bengals, Big Ben

Robert Geathers

Marvin Lewis arrived as the Bengals head coach in 2003 and Mike Tomlin succeeded Lewis's high-school rival and former boss Bill Cowher as Steelers head coach in 2007.

But the current form of the Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry that plays its biggest regular-season game Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) at Heinz Field was born in 2004 when the Bengals turned to Carson Palmer as their franchise quarterback, the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger as their franchise quarterback, and former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau signed up for his second term as the Steelers defensive coordinator.

The Bengals have won just four times since. But for the only Bengal left from that '04 season, left end Robert Geathers, Sunday may as well be Game 1 instead of Game 19 against Pittsburgh.

"I like playing the Steelers. I wish I had more wins against them. It's going to be a fun game. Physical," Geathers said this week. "I wouldn't have it any other way. We win and we're in. It is what it is."

If there is any Bengal who knows how to sack the unsackable Roethlisberger—all 6-5, 240 pounds of him—it is the 6-3, 280-pound Geathers. Although, back when Geathers was 265 pounds in his rookie year it almost seemed like Roethlisberger was just as big.

"We've got to do it as a group. You've got to stay in your rush lanes and have a coordinated rush," Geathers said. "He thrives off extended plays. You've just got to keep him nestled in the pocket. That's all we talk about."

The Bengals front four has no mental blocks against Roethlisberger and has some big sacks and pressures against him that meant wins, particularly Geathers. He's sacked Roethlisberger 6.5 times and in three of the four wins he's nabbed him.

(And when was the last time the Bengals came into a Steelers game leading the NFL in sacks and the hosts were 23rd in sacks per pass?)

Right end Michael Johnson has 3.5 sacks of Ben, but he didn't get one on his biggest pressure in the series in his rookie season in '09. On fourth down and the Bengals protecting a six-point lead at Heinz from the Pittsburgh 33 in the last minute, Johnson was draped on Roethlisberger's last throw.

"Oh yeah," Geathers said when asked if Roethlisberger is his toughest quarterback to bring down. "And he's got that padding around his ribs that make him thicker."

Geathers's first two sacks of Big Ben came in Cincinnati's 28-20 win at Heinz in '06, but he had two even bigger ones in the '09 sweep.

With 5:26 left in the game at PBS and the Steelers leading, 20-15, Roethlisberger eyed the kill with a third-and-six from the Steelers 42. But Geathers and tackle Pat Sims split a sack to force a punt and the Bengals kept the ball for the winning touchdown with 14 seconds left.

Then on Nov. 15, 2009 at Heinz in the War of 18-12 in which no touchdown was scored from scrimmage, Geathers came up huge at the end of the half. With Roethlisberger looking at first down from the Bengals 8, Geathers sacked him for a nine-yard loss with 27 seconds left and the Steelers had to kick a field goal.

"Most quarterbacks when they get out of pocket, they're looking to check it down," Geathers said. "He's looking downfield for the home run. I just know he's still hard to get down like he was (in '04). He's always had a good pump-fake. He's a backyard player."

The 6-7 Johnson comes into Sunday with 17 career passes defensed. He'd like to get a couple more at the line of scrimmage this week as the Bengals prepare for the dreaded pump-fake.

"Stay on our feet but in this case we want to get the foul," Johnson said of the almost basketballish matchup. "Thankfully this will be like my eighth time facing him so it's something that I expect and hopefully stay focused in and not go for it. You're moving so fast during a game you're not thinking. It's second nature. See a pump-fake, you want to sprint to the ball. Well, you have to reconfigure that and say I'm going to touch him before I go get the ball. Just trying to focus on getting to him.

"He's very nifty. It's almost like he's back there playing backyard ball, scrambling around, making all kinds of unorthodox moves. That's what makes him so good."     

But as good as Roethlisberger is, the Bengals know it comes back to stopping the running back. Fast Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, and last time Jonathan Dwyer in his first NFL start, have all bloodied the Bengals and made Ben Bigger.

"Stopping the run first and getting after the quarterback," Johnson said. "That's been the model. They ran the yardage up on us last time, which was very upsetting especially at home on a Sunday night. We still got a bad taste in our mouth about that and we want to go out there and right some wrongs from the last time we played. So we have to stop the run and get after Big Ben.

"Defensive line, we want to stop the run. They had an enormous amount of yards on us the last time (167 on the ground). That's what hurt us the last time. It wasn't him moving around. Where they did their most damage was on the ground and get them off the field on third downs whether it is sacking him or getting interceptions. However that plays out is how it is going to play out."

Geathers is thinking about defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer devising coverages knowing that Roethlisberger's strength is something you can't draw on the board. How do you program "improvisation" in an iPad?

"We don't want to put Zim in a situation where he has to put an extra guy in the box (to stop the run)," Geathers said. "Not when those guys have to cover him. So up front we have to get it done."

Geathers says Roethlisberger chats it up out there from time to time. But not like the cranky Philip Rivers who has been known to spew some occasional trash.

"He keeps it in good spirits," Geathers said.

But he's hoping experience brings him down in more ways than one.

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