Posted: 4 a.m.
The high-octane Bengals offense always matches up well with the Steelers stingy defense and it better bring Tiger Woods' 'A' game.
The Bengals and Rudi Johnson (with his 4.2 career average against Pittsburgh) are saying they're not worried about his tender hamstring on the Heinz Field quagmire against the NFL's second-best run defense.
Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, who has two 66-yard catches against Pittsburgh in his career, puts his speed on the line against the NFL's No. 1 total defense that hasn't allowed a pass longer than 56 yards this season and hasn't allowed a touchdown pass longer than 21 yards.
Quarterback Carson Palmer, the man that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin says is the key to the Bengals' clean pass protection with his quick reads and quick delivery, comes into the game behind an offensive line giving up the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL per pass against the defense with the fourth-most sacks per pass.
"We've got great continuity in both scheme and personnel," Tomlin said of his defense.
That continuity underlines the difference in the two franchises as the Steelers come into Sunday night's game ranked first in defense against the Bengals fifth-ranked offense. Yet the Bengals are 4-7 and the Steelers are 8-3.
Since Marvin Lewis arrived to coach the Bengals in 2003, the Bengals have finished 13th, 18th, sixth and eighth in NFL offense while the Steelers have never finished higher than ninth in defense. The Bengals are 39-36 in that stretch with one playoff appearance. The Steelers are 48-27 with two playoff appearances and a Super Bowl title.
Asked what comes first, scheme or personnel, Tomlin said, "You have to use both of them. It's a chicken or egg scenario. There has to be a marriage. You draft or acquire a player with a scheme in mind, but you also can't be so rigid that you can't put your guys in position that they do well."
The Bengals, who have to continually deal with them shook their head Wednesday about a defense that just seems to go to Auto Zone to exchange players every few years.
"I remember the year I came out, they moved up to get Troy (Polamalu), which was one of the best picks of the draft. Of any draft, to make a move to get a guy like him. I think with all the linebackers they have, you can't say it's the system. What (James) Harrison did during the Monday night game a couple of weeks ago was phenomenal. They have phenomenal players with great talent. They're well-groomed in the system. It's hard to say it's just the system; they have a lot of talent there, too."
Bengals left tackle Levi Jones is facing his second generation pass rusher now that Joey Porter has passed the baton to Harrison. Harrison, a free agent out of Kent State, has blossomed in his fourth season and first as a starter with 8.5 sacks that included 3.5 against the Ravens a couple of Monday nights ago. Jones talks about Porter ("Some people say the system is why Joey was making his plays") and Harrison ("He's a more natural playmaker") but the concept is the same since Jason Gildon passed the baton to Porter.
Lewis has always said the continuity is what makes the Steelers defense so good. He could walk into Heinz today and start drawing because defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is calling the same plays with the same scheme that was there when Lewis was linebackers coach 12 years ago.
Keisel, the Steelers' second seventh-round pick in '02, has also blossomed at defensive end in his second season as a starter.
Like Jones says, "They come 1,000 miles per hour and they come from all over," a trait Johnson knows all about. The Steelers have allowed three 100-yard rushers in the past 62 games and Johnson started that off with a 123-yarder in 2004. Since then he's also had a 98-yarder (both in Pittsburgh) and although he didn't play against the Steelers last month, Kenny Watson averaged 4.7 per carry against a defense giving 3.7.
But he's never played the Steelers with a bothersome hamstring on the wettest field in the NFL. But both Johnson and Lewis indicated they are confident his hamstring is healthy enough to contend with the bad surface.
"I'm not even thinking about the field. I can't worry about that," Johnson said. "I've just got to go play."
Johnson's hometown buddy from Virginia, Steelers Pro Bowl linebacker James Farrior, knows that Johnson is the ultimate mudder.
"We'll have to be prepared for that. That's part of his game. He'll probably love the conditions," Farrior said. "They probably won't be able to pass the ball as much as they usually do. Chad (Johnson) probably won't like that at all."
After watching Pittsburgh slog to a 3-0 win in the mess Monday, Rudi Johnson says it looks "old school," and he says he had some big days at his old school in the slop at Butler County Community College.
"We didn't have the best groundskeepers n junior college," Johnson said. "It's great. You've got to take advantage of it. I know where I'm going."