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Perfect in prime time

Jeff Blake

Move over Tom Browning, the Reds Mr. Perfect. The last Bengal to beat the Steelers in prime time also pitched a perfect game.

Quarterback Jeff Blake dished out a perfect passer rating that Thursday night on TNT in 1995 to lead the Bengals to a stunning 27-9 road win over a Steelers team that wouldn't lose another game that mattered until the Super Bowl. The three touchdowns, no picks, and 275 yards in an 18-for-22 open heart surgery computed to 158.3333 and what Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis calls "Black Friday" in Pittsburgh.

Lewis is still waiting to use those Friday night theater tickets with wife Peggy. Lewis, then the Steelers linebackers coach, never made it because head coach Bill Cowher was on the war path even though their next game was nine days away.

"They didn't like losing to the Bengals," says John Jackson, the left tackle who played for both teams in a 14-year NFL career that had its beginnings at Cincinnati's Woodward High School. "It was a very nasty week. Everything Blake did that night, he could do no wrong."

Blake brought darkness from the October sky (the 19th to be exact) with his harvest moon ball that seemed to scrape the heavens and come down with stardust. He started the scoring with a 47-yard bomb to wide receiver Darnay Scott and iced the game with a 41-yard missile to wide receiver Carl Pickens through a secondary missing Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson.

All the while, TNT analyst Pat Haden raved about this unique deep ball that no one had quite seen before because it went so high.

"I learned it early, I think as early as college," says Blake 15 years later. "The more air you put under it, the more time that gives the receiver to outrun the DB. When you throw it 42, 43 yards, the DB is still running with him, but once that gets to 55 he's outrunning him and the ball is so high the DB can't find the ball and all he can do is put his hands up in the receiver's face."

Blake says his old team can follow the same long-ball formula Monday night on ESPN at Paul Brown Stadium against the same defensive coordinator and that same Steelers scheme. And these latter-day Bengals can take a page from those Steelers, too. Left for dead at 3-4, the Bengals gathered themselves to win the next eight and the AFC Central title.

Their next loss came in the finale at Green Bay, where Cowher made sure the Steelers had their playoff position for sure by giving Lewis the added duty of watching the scoreboard.

For the first time since he retired in 2005, Blake comes to Cincinnati as a private citizen for Monday's ESPN Chalk Talk luncheon at Music Hall. Less than a month shy of 40, Blake lives in Austin, Texas, and is still making connections.

"I'm a consultant. I try to connect people who need to be connected," he says. "Plus, I train young football players. And I'm keeping up with my kids."

Remember the three-year-old kid that walked off the Riverfront Stadium field hand-in-hand with his father after Dad nearly knocked off the Super Bowl-champion Cowboys in his first NFL start? Emory Blake is a sophomore wide receiver at Auburn, where he's also "a hell of a special teams player" his father says. Tory is a 5-9 high school junior volleyball player carrying a 4.0 and has already been offered a scholarship at her dad's alma mater of East Carolina. Trey, the youngest, is the quarterback, a 6-1, 170-pound freshman.

"He threw three touchdowns and ran for 55 yards (Thursday) night," says Blake of the baby who was born a few weeks after the perfect game. "He's got good size."

At 6-0, Blake's height always got him in Dutch with personnel guys. Compare it to Monday's matchup between NBA shooting guards Carson Palmer of the Bengals and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers. But his arm gave opposing coaches the cold sweats, starting with Cowher that night in '95. Ever since then, no matter who he was playing for, Cowher would always glare at Blake after he got a deep one on him, and Blake would make sure he was looking.

"It all comes down to protection when you play the Steelers," Blake says. "Bruce (Coslet) did a good job with the protections. We had seven-man protections all game with two backs and three receivers. Sometimes we put (tight end) Tony McGee out there. If you pick up that SAM-safety blitz and get the ball downfield, you can make some plays."

Forgive the Steelers for being floored. Off an appearance in the AFC title game, the Steelers found their Super Bowl hopes in tatters at the hands of the relatively unknown Blake, a waiver wire pickup in his 16th NFL start and two weeks removed from a four-year extension.

Like Blake, the win came out of nowhere and put the suddenly relevant Bengals even with the Steelers at 3-4. In the 55th game of head coach Dave Shula's ill-fated tenure, the Bengals won for just the 14th time overall and fourth time in the division. It would turn out to be the first of Shula's three AFC Central road wins before he was removed in the middle of the next season in favor of Coslet, the offensive coordinator that brought Blake with him from the Jets in 1994.

Blake's bombs tore through the Steelers locker room with such force that their season teetered on the brink. Four players got cut the next day, Lewis recalls, and cornerback Alvoid Mays, two weeks removed from a huge interception return for a TD, couldn't cover Scott, Pickens or the cab fare to Three Rivers.

Even 15 years later, Jackson doesn't want to break the sanctity of the players-only meeting that took place a few days after Blake's blitz. But he'll allow it was needed and if the Bengals need it now, he would advise it.

"It was a nasty, nasty week," Jackson says. "To this day I won't divulge what went on. But we had a lot of things to get off our chests. I will tell you we came pretty close to beating the crap out of each other. I think we needed it. You can see we went on a run. Sometimes, that's what you have to do."

What Blake had to do was bob and weave long enough against defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone blitz to let Pickens and Scott find the deep holes in the zone. He did what Palmer has to do to Monday: Find the strong safety. Now it is No. 43, Troy Polamalu. Then it was No. 37, Carnell Lake.

"We had the tight end (McGee) picking up the SAM backer and the fullback (Jeff Cothran) picking up Lake and the running back (Harold Green or Eric Bieniemy) chipping on Greg Lloyd," says Blake of the feared linebacker. "There are three routes that are going to be there: A shallow cross, a dig, (intermediate middle) and deep post. And anything on the weak side. That's why Pick had so many big games against the Steelers. I'd get it to him quick as long as it was on the weak side."

Pickens finished the night with eight catches for 108 yards and his TD, and Blake added a 12-yard touchdown to McGee on what he remembers as a sideline fade.

"He was in a zone," Jackson says. "Every ball he threw was right there. We blitzed. They picked it up. And they were wide open. I remember them telling the defense that week, 'Don't let him run it. Let him throw it, but don't let him run the ball.' That was wrong."

Jackson, who lives back in Cincinnati and is executive vice president of KMG Sports Management, remembers it wasn't exactly a day at the beach against the Bengals defense. The Steelers rolled up 468 yards but only got three field goals, and he ended up limping to the end with a knee that he would have to get scoped and it cost him the next five games.

"The frustrating thing was the way we did it," Jackson says. "We were running it and couldn't punch it in."

But it was the Steelers who were the 3-4 team that went on the run. The old Browns provided the metaphor 10 days later when they knocked Blake out at Riverfront and won in overtime. Then a month to the day of the perfect game, Blake pumped out a 126.4 against Pittsburgh in Cincinnati with three more touchdowns as the Bengals built leads of 21-3 and 31-13. But an unbelievable 36 unanswered points ended all that.

"We didn't have the good players the Bengals have had for the last five years or so," says Blake, who would play 10 more seasons for five more teams as everything from a starter to spot starter to stopgap. "We never really had a defense in Cincinnati. Just think how easy it would have been. I remember my last year in Chicago (2005) and Kyle Orton won 10 games throwing nine touchdown passes."

The long balls after the perfect game became few and far between when they were swallowed by Cover 2 defenses.

"What are you supposed to be able to do against Cover 2?" Blake asks.

Run it. But he never had a 100-yard rushing performance until his 44th start. In his 66 Bengals starts, the Bengals were 4-2 when he had a 100-yard game. Blake may be almost 40, but he's still got that fiery confidence he had even when he was No. 3 behind David Klingler and Donald Hollas.

"I retired in my prime," he says. "I mean I was in my Xs and Os prime as far as understanding the game. I was 34, but I should have just stopped playing. I could have played until 38. I wasn't as quick, but I was at the top of my game when it came to knowing defenses."

Blake says he doesn't follow teams, he follows guys he knows. He checks in on the Bengals since the only guy he played with is wide receiver Terrell Owens in Philadelphia. If he's met Chad Ochocinco, he doesn't remember, and he's never met Palmer.

"I consider myself a Bengal; it's the team I played with the most," says Blake, his remaining 34 career starts out of 100 scattered through reference. "There are people that don't know that I ever played for the Saints (11 starts), Ravens (10) or Arizona (13)."

And on one night in prime time, he was perfect against a team that bounced back to play almost perfectly.

"I won't go to the game," Jackson says. "I'll go out to watch it and smoke a cigar."

The 2010 Bengals could take a little bit from both.

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