Updated: 3:10 p.m.
Make no mistake about it.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis knows his pass rushers have to get better. After going the last 130 minutes without a sack, the six Bengals sacks are fewer than what 10 individual players have already accomplished in the NFL. And the fact their only full sack from a defensive lineman came 40 days ago from Frostee Rucker in the third game is stunning.
But, in a way, Lewis and his old friends on the Steelers defensive staff of the early and mid '90s, are to blame. And with his old boss on that staff, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, still manning things on Monday night, Lewis provided a helpful history lesson after Friday's practice as he talked about his team's sack woes.
"We're seeing a lot of seven- and eight-man protections. Miami didn't throw one pass last week without putting seven guys in protection, which is shocking," Lewis said. "If you look at it across the NFL, sack numbers are down. More people are protecting the quarterback. It's probably a good idea. You see a lot of exotic zone blitzes, a lot of Cover 2 shell blitzes. (Offenses) don't want to get the quarterback stuck with the ball in his hand and free guys coming at him. You're seeing a little bit of adjustment in protections. It's a little bit of a trend."
It's a trend, he says, because LeBeau's zone blitz keeps getting more popular and popular. Turn on any college game and here comes the fire zone. LeBeau, freshly fired as the Bengals defensive coordinator, joined Bill Cowher's first Steelers staff in 1992 as the secondary coach when Lewis arrived as the linebackers coach and he would eventually replace Dom Capers as coordinator. Lewis learned it from the ground up as LeBeau went over how he came up with the zone blitz in Cincinnati to compensate for small, skinny linemen.
"There were some things Bill and Dom had picked up in their spots at Kansas City and New Orleans, respectively, and it kind of came together," Lewis said. "That's what we're seeing now. It's made another transition through … I can remember the first time we made the adjustments in it. It's hilarious how you read a magazine or an article and they're calling it the names that we came up with back there in the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium."
Lewis has also noticed the defensive coordinators that had last year off, such as Romeo Crennel in Kansas City, have come back boned up on the zone blitz.
"You're seeing a little more 3-4 defenses. You're seeing a lot of different rushers coming from different spots," he said. "So on base downs and base personnel, people have adjusted their protections to button things up. That makes a big difference."
But it's no excuse. With his two top sackers from last season pretty much hurt and out all this year in ends Antwan Odom and Jon Fanene, Lewis has to get something from his kids at end, second-year right end Michael Johnson and rookie left end Carlos Dunlap. With Fanene and Odom out, left end Robert Geathers has slid to tackle in nickel to make room for Dunlap, the second-rounder from Florida.
"He's (coming off) his second game," Lewis said. "He didn't have a redshirt. Hopefully he'll continue to grow a little bit and get better and give us quality snaps. He has all the ability we expect of him. Right now he's had more practice than play. He's got to learn how to prepare and practice in the National Football League in order to play good on Sundays.
"We've got to become better pass rushers. When we get there, we've got to get the quarterback down. We've been snakebit once we get there. We have to keep working at it."
WHIT WISDOM: In the heat of the final moments of the Bengals 18-12 win in Pittsburgh last season, Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison gave left tackle Andrew Whitworth a right cross to the facemask to pick up a huge 15-yard penalty. A year later, Harrison is still picking up penalties for hits, a total of $100,000 in NFL fines as he tries to adjust to the helmet-hit crackdowns.
And he's got an unexpected supporter.
"Anytime there's a change in the rules there's always going to be those people in the in-between," Whitworth said of Harrison on Friday. "He happened to be the guy who got the hit of 'is it really that or this.' He's taking the rap for it, I think that's the part that's the unfair. There's a lot of things that happen, those hits that have been going on, he just happens to have done it right in the middle of all this changing, so, that's the unfair part.
"You've got to learn how to stop it if you are getting fined that much. I am sure that's tough. Especially for a guy like him, also, he's a shorter player. Him not being a big tall guy, he is going to have more helmet-to-helmet blows naturally. It's got to be a tough situation for him; I'm sure it's frustrating."
Whitworth has nothing against Harrison. Harrison claimed before that late flag in Pittsburgh that Whitworth pushed him in the back, but it appears all's fair in love and war.
"Love to get after each other, that's football," Whitworth said. "That's a great rusher and great football player, myself wanting to be a great football player, just going at it. That's the fun of the game."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Defensive lineman Tank Johnson (knee) and linebackerRoddrick Muckelroy (ankle) again didn't practice Friday while Rucker (knee) and WILL linebacker Keith Rivers (foot) were again limited.
» As the Bengals went out to practiceFriday morning on the game field, the TV trucks had already invaded Paul Brown Stadium in preparation for Monday night's ESPN game against the Steelers. Six trucks from the worldwide leader were in place, as well as two from NFL Network. The network is treating the game as a full-fledged dry run for its first Thursday night telecast.
» A pair of white Bengal tigers, 310-pound "Akere" and 250-pound "Popsy" are prepping for Monday Night Football, according to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. The 14-year old tigers get a treat at 10:30 Monday morning when a 55-gallon barrel, wrapped with the Steelers logo, is to be filled with some of their favorite snacks and placed in their outdoor exhibit.