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Steal Curtain

Chris Crocker

Posted: 7:30 a.m.

Everyone knows the Steel Curtain, the nickname of Pittsburgh's four-time Super Bowl champions from another era. The Steelers bring that legacy into Sunday's AFC North first-place showdown in Pittsburgh against the Bengals' little-known but newfound Steal Curtain.

Cincinnati robbed the scrap heap for what could be half its defensive starting lineup at Heinz Field if five-time Pro Bowler Roy Williams returns to strong safety and third down titan and special teams whiz Brandon Johnson lines up at WILL linebacker for the injured Keith Rivers.

And if CFL refugee and run specialist SAM linebacker Rashad Jeanty gets more snaps in the wake of the injury, then call it seven regulars as the Bengals look to once again bottle that passion of redemption in another emotional defensive stand.

"We use the Tasmanian devils. We use the energy nobody wanted us," said rookie SAM linebacker Ray Maualuga before Wednesday's practice, a second-rounder snubbed by the first round. "There are six people no one wanted. We use that energy."

If there is one stat that shows it, it is also the one stat that shows how far the Bengals have come in the blood-and-guts AFC North and their chippy feud with the Steelers. The NFL's column on rushing yards per game:

  1. Steelers
  1. Bengals

Observers always talk about the Steelers' ability to impose their will on the Bengals, whether it is in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. Stretching through the last 18 years and seven runners and seven Bengals defensive coordinators, the Steelers have racked up 23 100-yard rushing games to cement their dominance with a 19-4 record.

But even they seem to know it is different this time around.

"The defense is why they're 6-2," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and it is a defense built to stop the run with sense and sensibility.

"You have to study. You have to have formation recognition and then your talent takes over," Maualuga said.

"Football is a language," Rivers said. "The offense talks to you in a language and you have to be able to decode it."

The Bengals are playing with a language the strong can understand. They've allowed just one 100-yard rusher in the first half of the season in Cleveland's Jerome Harrison and while the Steelers' Willie Parker almost got them with 93 yards on 25 carries in Cincinnati's 23-20 win back in September, the Bengals know that's different, too, after Rashard Mendenhall busted the Broncos for 155 yards Monday night in Denver.

It shows the Steelers are still deadly when they get a lead and hide the clock. That's why the Bengals fourth-quarter comeback from a 20-9 deficit back on Sept. 27 was so stunning. The Steelers couldn't run the ball or didn't want to against the Steal Curtain.

"You would think," said Bengals free safety Chris Crocker of Mendenhall, "they are going to give it to him again. At least give him a chance."

Crocker and middle linebacker Dhani Jones are the symbols of the recycled refugees. Jones was on the street in September 2007 and Crocker was on the street until Halloween Eve 2008. Crocker was born and bred as an AFC North baby, drafted by the Browns out of Marshall in Marvin Lewis' first year as head coach of the Bengals in 2003.  

Every Thursday or Friday, Crocker might greet you with a "This is crazy isn't it? Every game is like the Super Bowl around here. It's great." On Wednesday he talked about how fun it is, finally. In seven years his best team won seven games.

"I'm getting some gray hairs," he admitted of the close games.

But his gray hair sprouts experience and brings an NFL lesson to a young locker room.

"It didn't work out elsewhere and that was a learning experience," Crocker said. "That's where we are as a team. That's where we are as players. Because we've taken our experiences and turned it into a positive. You learn about it yourself when you're down and out."

Crocker says when he talks to a young player, he knows "I'm telling the truth. We have a bunch of guys that realize how important this opportunity is. Right now, we're at the midpoint and trying to get ourselves set up for the rest of the way. It's hard to win in this league. Everybody has ability, but it's how it's put together. You see it each year."

Along with the passion and experience, there are nuts and bolts reasons why the Bengals are so much better against the run. Linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who coached a unit that was always in the top five in Baltimore against the run, says the defensive line has been a major reason.

"The guys up front have to play with discipline and good leverage. It starts with the D-line," he said. "They've been doing a real good job for us as far as holding off linemen, getting through double teams so guys aren't up in linebackers' faces and they can get to their gaps."

Tank Johnson, the defensive tackle let go by Chicago and Dallas, says it all comes down to gaps. "We're a one-gap team and we have to play and make the play," he said.

More nuts and bolts? Lewis has been screaming for years about getting his cornerbacks to tackle. This is the first year he hasn't been screaming. After a couple of years of learning, Johnathan Joseph is third on the team in tackles and leads the secondary, and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been saying triumphantly, "He's come over to the dark side."

"That's how you play good run defense. It starts from the perimeter guys all the way through," Lewis said Wednesday. "When you get teams that don't play the run very well, it's generally because their secondary guys don't tackle very well. It's really never as much a reflection of the front guys as it is maybe of the perimeter players. You don't see most teams rip up and down the middle of the field. What happens is the secondary guys can't tackle very well. Guys don't play the leverages and forces correctly."

But there are also personnel and depth reasons and one may be on display Sunday if Brandon Johnson gets the nod in place of Rivers. Johnson has been terrific on third down as a cover guy who showed he can blitz last week with 1.5 sacks when Rivers left with a strained calf. The move doesn't bother FitzGerald because Johnson played well on first and second down in his nine starts last year after Rivers got hurt.

"That's a luxury," FitzGerald said of Johnson's experience on the bench.

Plus, Cincinnati's best run defender of all may be Jeanty, relegated to second string SAM with the drafting of Maualuga. But FitzGerald said after practice Wednesday that the WILL and SAM can be interchangeable so there could be times that Jeanty and Maualuga are on the field together.

But it gets back to what are the nuts and bolts inside the personnel. Johnson, cut by the Cardinals right after the 2007 season, is his own worst critic. He's so bad, he says "if I make a mistake on the field, I have a hard time going to the next play."

Take a look inside Maualuga and you see the road map to stingy play against the run, even though FitzGerald is looking for more from him after a so-so outing in 25 snaps against Baltimore. But FitzGerald loves the joy Maualuga brings with his physicality and how it has helped shape the identity of this unit.

"These guys want to be known for that by their peers around the league," FitzGerald. "And that's what matters to people. How their colleagues see them."

If there is anyone who defines the Steelers' tough, physical approach it is the face of their defense, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. Maualuga shares the same college (USC) and he says ethnicity (Polynesian) and he has been a role model for Maualuga over the years. But they have never met.

If Maualuga was supposed to be the Bengals' Ray Lewis, he was also supposed to be their Polamalu. Complete with the hair. But it hurt Maualuga when he heard people say he grew his hair to be like Polamalu. It wasn't that, he said, it was a commitment to the culture.

Run defense is emotion, and both guys have it. Polamalu didn't play in Maualuga's first Pittsburgh game back on Sept. 27, the one where Maualuga came back off the cart with a sprained knee to finish. At one point during that game after a play near the Pittsburgh sideline, he said he briefly caught Polamalu's eye and saw him tap his hand on his heart a few times and give Maualuga a quiet, hidden fist. Maualuga responded in kind.

"This is an emotional game," he said. "You can see it when coaches are crying because they haven't beaten them here in (eight years). And you see them smiling after beating Baltimore twice. If we can win, you'll see that emotion walking off the field."

And probably in the stat sheet under yards rushing.

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