If this is December and this is Pittsburgh, it must mean everything is on the line for the Bengals on Sunday (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in what promises to be another Old School Classic at Heinz Field. A win and a Baltimore loss in Detroit on Monday night and the Bengals are AFC North champions for a third time under head coach Marvin Lewis.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to try and modern it up with his no-huddle and high-flying passing game that's going to take aim on the Bengals injuries at cornerback, but Cincinnati's best defense may be to throw it back to a 1980s running game that has given the Bengals a bounce in their step down the stretch and has allowed them to possess the ball and give their defense a break at key times while allowing special teams to finish it off.
We formed an Old School Bengals.com Media Roundtable to get a handle on this one and except for one tossup, it's a landslide in predicting a Cincinnati victory.
Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Lynn Swann and John Stallworth of the NFL media corps, have been around as long as the forward pass and they both give the nod to the Bengals. Bouchette, a native Bostonian who almost never wears any athletic apparel, has been seen wearing a Red Sox hat lately and, like his Bosox, he thinks the Bengals are hot and the Steelers are not. Dulac, who has been around long enough that his hole-in-one at Latrobe was reported by Arnold Palmer himself, says the Steelers will give up too many big plays against the varied Bengals weapons.
Joe Reedy is on the verge of doing what no Cincinnati Enquirer Bengals scribe has ever done and could end up chronicling four playoff seasons in five years. He says the Bengals will take one step closer with the help of the running game.
John Clayton, "The Professor" of ESPN fame, started covering the Steelers as a part-time stringer 42 years ago at age 17. After watching the Bengals beat the Colts last week, he says they should win Sunday on paper, but calls it a tossup because of the rivalry factor.
Let's go around The Table:
The Steelers have so many problems in their back end, I think the Bengals have so many weapons that they can set them up underneath and attack them over the top. In the previous two years combined the Steelers allowed four passes of 40 yards or longer. This year they've already allowed 12. Seven of those are 50 yards or longer. That's most in the league. There are a number of different reasons.
Stupid plays. Mental breakdowns. Scheme. Whatever it is, they're allowing big plays. And it's not just passes, it's runs, too. They've allowed four runs of 50 yards or more. That's 11 plays of 50 yards or more, most in the league and it's just not like them.
They haven't had a lot of great pressure. But that being said, their two best players right now the last month or so are right end Cam Heyward and left outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Heyward has been night and day. He's really good. If I told you at the beginning of the year they were going to be their two best players, nobody would believe it. Worilds has taken over for LaMarr Woodley on the left side with two sacks in each of the last two games and three two-sack games in the last five. Lots of tackles, lots of pressures. To the point when Woodley came back last week after missing three games they moved him to the right side because Worilds has been so productive on the left side. That's where he played in college and even though he says it doesn't make a difference, it's apparent he plays better on the left side.
They've been using more of this dime package with six defensive backs. They bring in Will Allen as a safety, Cortez Allen is their nickel back, and they play safety Troy Polamalu as a linebacker. And they're getting hurt with it. Both the long runs against the Dolphins last week, 48 and 55 yards, were effectively with Polamalu out of position. It's not his fault. They're asking him to do way too much. I'm not blaming him, but that's what happens. They haven't been able to stop anybody.
When I say cornerback Ike Taylor has struggled—Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon in back-to-back games combined for more than 400 receiving yards—he hasn't had a lot of help. Ike was responsible for about 360, but a couple of times—a deep ball to Calvin Johnson was blown coverage because he was supposed to have help—safety Ryan Clark bit on the underneath route. These are things that are happening.
They really miss nose tackle Casey Hampton. They let him go and it's not the fault of Steve McLendon, but he's just not a fit for them and they're getting killed on inside runs. They miss inside backer Larry Foote, on IR. They miss his eyes and vision and setting the defense. Lawrence Timmons has to do it and while Timmons is a good player and it's a new thing for him and they don't get set properly all the time. Again, not his fault, but it takes time, but he sets the defensive front and they get out of position.
Offensively they've been pretty good. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round pick last year, has been pretty solid. Not a wall over there, but solid. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is the only lineman that has started every game. Right guard David DeCastro has played well since he had his worst game of the year in Cincinnati. He had problems with Geno Atkins.
Running back Le'Veon Bell's numbers may not look good, but he gets a lot of touches. They involve him in the offense throwing it as well as running it. He didn't play in Cincinnati and that's a big difference in what they do. The only guys that touch the ball more are Ben and the center. They'll go empty in the backfield and put Bell out there to throw it to him. They're different and they're fairly good. They use more no-huddle. Ben's on track for a career year and the same with wide receiver Antonio Brown. His last three TDs have been all with his feet. He's turned seven- and eight-yard passes into 43-, 47- and 38-yard TDs. He's run 30, 38 and 35 yards after the catch. He's not beating you over the top necessarily, but with his feet on crossing routes. He needs 23 catches to break Hines Ward's team record.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 31-21. The Steelers defense allows too many big plays and the Bengals have too much variety of weapons to handle all of them. The tight end, the running back, the wideouts, I think it's going to cause Pittsburgh problems.
The Steelers are better offensively than they were in Cincinnati with tight end Heath Miller back, too. The Bengals are reduced defensively, but I look at character, fortitude, resiliency and the Steelers have shown flashes of it, but just not enough of it. And having chances in the last two games against Baltimore and Miami, teams you needed to beat, certainly one of the two, and you don't finish it out … they just don't close out games when they have the chance. They were down 17-7 vs. Miami, came back to take the lead, 28-24, and couldn't close it out. Again, a big play, a big run, 55 yards.
The Steelers haven't been able to run the ball. They haven't been able to stop the run. That's going to be an issue. Cincinnati has just too much talent and is on a roll and the Steelers are not. I don't see it as competitive as their first meeting.
The Steelers are inconsistent and they've given up way too many big plays on defense. I know cornerback Ike Taylor has held down Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green in the past. But I just think the Bengals have too many playmakers for what has become an ordinary defense. When they played here last year, Pittsburgh was No. 1 in the fewest yards allowed and No. 1 against the pass, but they weren't No. 1 getting to the quarterback or producing turnovers. That has been a continuing problem, although they've done better lately on both accounts.
They've got some young guys getting to the passer who weren't playing much the last time they played in Cincinnati, defensive end Cam Heyward and left outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Right now, they're probably two of their best defensive players. I wrote Friday that at one time earlier this year some people might have called them disappointments. Now they're two bright hopes for the future if they can keep Jason Worilds.
Both of them are very active in the pass rush. Worilds has really taken over for LaMarr Woodley at left outside and has pushed Woodley to the right side. Heyward beat out Ziggy Hood at left end and when Brett Keisel missed the last month, Heyward went to the right and I think that's where he'll be Sunday. The outside backers are the prime pass rushers for them, but Heyward has four sacks and a lot of pressures. They don't get a lot of sacks from their 3-4 ends.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-24. The Steelers passing offense has gotten a lot better, but I'm going with the Bengals weapons against the Steelers defense. I think the Steelers will be trying to catch up and they'll be throwing the ball a lot and you'll see a few points.
At the beginning of the year I picked Pittsburgh to win this on the Bengals road to 11-5. But the more I see it, I like the way the Bengals running game is going. I think this team has done a good job of making Pittsburgh one-dimensional. I think Bell has gotten better, but the way this run defense has played … Antonio Brown is usually good for a play or two, but they've found ways to contain that. I just think with the focus this team has and there is still a lot to play for even with a two-game lead that the Bengals have the edge.
I think the second half against Pittsburgh back in September showing that they could grind the ball was important. Gio looked good. Benny was able to grind it. I think the other receivers played better. Tight end Tyler Eifert had a big reception against some coverage breakdowns. The true X-factor for me is Polamalu at linebacker. That's something this team has never seen. How do you account for him that way? That will be interesting.
The Bengals haven't played well on prime time. If you want to show a national audience that this is a team that can be taken seriously, you have to have a good showing on national TV, especially the way the Miami game went. I don't think Andy Dalton is going to be too hyped up for this game. I think he was in the first game against Pittsburgh in Week 2, but I think he does realize it is important to put their best foot forward. Let's face it. It's the first time in 23 years the Bengals can get three straight wins over the Steelers. If you want to show a true shift in tide in the division, psychologically a sweep over the Steelers would be huge.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 20-16. I think the running game and the way this defense has been playing gives them the edge. They've also shown a tendency that they can get Roethlisberger down in the past three or four games. I think Tony Dungy brought up a good point. If you can cut Ben's right side off, because that's the side he runs to, if you can get him toward the middle of the pocket or make him go to his left, you've got a better shot. And I think left end Carlos Dunlap does a very good of shutting that lane off so that right end Michael Johnson and those guys can come in and take him down.
I think they can cover for cornerback Terence Newman not being there, but it makes it easier for him to get into a rhythm. The Bengals can't let the Steelers get too much confidence. You know there is going to be a lot of bitterness in the game. Go back to the game a few years ago (2005) when the Bengals won the division and celebrated with the Terrible Towels and then Week 16 last year when they came into Pittsburgh and clinched a playoff spot. You've got a proud team like the Steelers that isn't paying for much other than just pride. So you don't want to give them too much pride.
The positive thing for the Bengals is the revised running game. Andrew Whitworth has been done a phenomenal job moving from guard to tackle where I thought he was having a Pro Bowl year. Now he's opening up some bigger lanes in the middle for Giovani Bernard and The Law Firm.
Overall, it should be a good, physical game, but what has to happen is the Bengals can't get too wrapped up in the rivalry. Just pay a flawless game. The thing I thought all season is that they're the deepest team for talent in the conference. You know their defense is deep enough, particularly on the defensive line. I think they've got great depth at the cornerback position and they've probably got the best pass-catching group in football along with a decent running game. I thought last week was a solid effort. What you can see is it is much better and more confident when it plays at home. It is still is trying to learn how to be a good team on the road, there's some inconsistency there. But overall, with Denver losing there's a chance to get a No. 2 seed and even a No. 1 seed. It's not out of the question.
I would think if they have any kind of problems matching up at the wide receiver position that is going to make it tough for the Bengals on Sunday. You don't want Antonio Brown to go crazy and go for 140 yards or something. You don't want the Steelers to get a consistent running game going. Even though he hasn't got much attention, they've got a pretty good rookie running back, too, in Le'Veon Bell that is pretty effective. He's kind of like their Matt Forte: a guy that can catch the ball and run it very well. You don't want Ben Roethlisberger to get any kind of rhythm with the no-huddle. One of the things they started doing a couple of weeks ago to get a lead is go no-huddle the first two possessions, get a lead, and then try to pound the ball running. Don't let them get off to the good start, particularly if they go no-huddle.
THE EDGE: None. A tossup. I know it's going to go into the fourth quarter of a pretty close game. The question is can the Bengals pull it out? On paper they should, but this is a rivalry. Anything can happen.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The shift the forecasters called for in the AFC North in preseason toward Cincinnati has started to tilt and the Bengals are trying to finish it off in the next two weeks. They got over the 20-year Steelers hump in their last two games against Pittsburgh by securing a playoff berth a year ago at Heinz in a do-or-die game for both and then following it up with a win at home on Monday Night Football in Week 2 of this season.
Now on Sunday Night the Bengals can put the heat on the other piece of the AFC North puzzle, the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens. Although they're 5-8, the Steelers won't go easy. This is a much better offense than the one that scored just 10 points at Paul Brown Stadium back on Sept. 16 and this time the Bengals don't have three of their best players in defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Terence Newman.
The Bengals are going to have to contend with Roethlisberger's no-huddle offense as well as one new weapon at running back in the rugged Bell and one old standby at tight end in Miller. The Bengals nickel is going to be tested by the 6-1, 244-pound Bell's ability to catch and run.
Throw in Roethlisberger's uncanny ability to scramble and the Bengals are going to have to tackle on a 20-degree night. The Bengals have excelled at that this season, except for two lapses last week against the Colts that turned into two TDs on nearly 80 yards after catch.
All eyes are going to be on SAM backer James Harrison's return to Pittsburgh and his elevated role in the absence of Atkins. At times he's rushed standing up from the edge and at times standing up in the middle, but he's seemed to be more effective when he's blitzing. He has just two sacks, but has given the defense a lift on the pass rush and is going to be a test for a line that is next to last in the run game. The Steelers may protect Roethlisberger pretty well, but they're working on their third center and second left tackle. If they're already one-dimensional, that plays into defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's strength in the blitz game. For instance, when the Steelers go empty in the backfield when they split out Bell, that's going to be a challenge for Ben.
The Bengals are riding a streak of three straight games without allowing a sack and they'll be tested. Worldis is doing his best James Harrison imitation with four sacks in the last two games and he'll draw right tackle Andre Smith. Pro Football Focus has Smith rated as the 25th-best pass-blocking tackle in the NFL with six sacks allowed, but he's obviously played better the last few weeks and offensive line coach Paul Alexander thought he's had some of his best games of late.
Whitworth gets his second start at left guard and it's an intriguing one with Heyward now working on the Steelers right side. The numbers favor the Bengals. The Steelers are 24th against the run and 26th in generating sacks per pass and there is a sense the Bengals are going to have to do a lot more with the ball than they did the last time at Heinz, when they rushed for 14 yards and had no touchdowns.
Ben, no doubt, has his eyes on the Bengals backup corners, particularly Dre Kirkpatrick, in Kirkpatrick's first NFL start. The tight coverage from the starters down through the years has ruffled Big Ben. Johnathan Joseph turned the 2009 game at home with a pick-six on the first series of the second half and Hall scored Cincinnati's only TD at Heinz last year on a pick-six.
Zimmer's corners have helped him keep Ben relatively in check since he arrived as coordinator in 2008. In 11 games, Roethlisberger has only thrown eight TDs, to go with seven picks, against the Bengals in the last six years. Compare that to his total AFC North take of 70 TDs and 44 picks. The Bengals need a typical Zimmer outing against Ben and we'll see if he gets it with his new corner.