Steelers carrying the chip

Posted: 9:30 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS - If Bengaldom still hasn't forgotten about the Steelers, rest assured the Steelers are taking a chunk of the Bengals with them to next week's AFC Championship Game in Denver.

The Steelers laid out the Colts and history with a perfectly executed chip-on-the-shoulder tackle Sunday in the RCA Dome as they saluted the 21-18 victory whooping and hollering into the locker room and taunting the media with linebacker Larry Foote's "All the non-believers, you want to come in and talk to us now."

Us-against-the-world psychology in football is older than Freud in everything else. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has lived it during his three seasons and Steelers coach Bill Cowher has used it heavily since the Bengals beat them last month. One of those ploys made it on NFL Network last week as Cowher parodied Lewis leading the Who-Dey Cheer after the 31-17 Wild Card win over the Bengals.

The Steelers figure they weren't the ones doing the insulting.

"No, the question is," said Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen Sunday, "is the video and wiping their shoes on our towel."

Von Oelhoffen and many of his mates were made aware of the video that hit the Paul Brown Stadium scoreboards this season and they felt it was a slap in the face.

"Wouldn't you be?" asked von Oelhoffen, and when asked about any specifics that set them off, he answered, "Just the whole thing."

After von Oelhoffen took out Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer with a questionable hit on last week's second play of the game, this is now officially the NFL's small-market answer to Red Sox-Yankees with big-market personalities.

Cowher. Lewis. Palmer. Ben Roethlisberger. Chad Johnson. Hines Ward.

"You hate to see any player get hurt, but he's a great athlete; he'll be back," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the former Bengals head coach whose return to the AFC title game comes in his 68th year. "Unfortunately, I'll have to deal with him for years to come. Well, a couple of years at least. No question with these two great young quarterbacks, it's going to be a great one."

While there is massive angst in Bengaldom about if and when Palmer is going to return, the Steelers are planning on him. Von Oelhoffen, who politely met representatives from the Cincinnati media after Sunday's game, said he has yet to talk to Palmer since the hit.

"We're both busy," von Oelhoffen said. "I'm done with that. Don't ask me about Carson. He's a good player. He'll be back."

Apparently there's not only a gag rule on Palmer in Cincinnati, but also in Pittsburgh. Troy Polamalu, the Pro Bowl safety who hits loudly and talks softly, put up his hands when asked if he had talked to his old housemate from USC.

"Actually, I'm not allowed to comment," Polamalu said.

But the Steelers defense went on the record Sunday. Like it always does.

Von Oelhoffen, the former Bengal, may be a scourge in Cincinnati, a man whose name elicits a mushroom cloud of derision.

But let it be known that at two weeks shy of 35, he was as big a part of the Steelers win Sunday as Roethlisberger. Say what you will about his hit on Palmer, but von Oelhoffen is a tough, try-hard, passionate player who personifies the Steelers' unheralded front three.

And, let's face it. Since Cowher arrived in 1992, the reason the Steelers have dominated their division, and the Bengals in particular, isn't because of the Pittsburgh running game, or their road record, or their so-called smashmouth mentality.

Defense.

A week after limiting backup Bengals backup quarterback Jon Kitna to two touchdowns and a field goal, the Steelers allowed the same thing to the league's leading passer. Peyton Manning threw for nearly 100 more yards than Kitna in finishing with 290, but their percentages were almost identical with Kitna 24-of-40 and Manning 22-of-38.

"It's nothing special. It's Steeler defense. We've got high standards," von Oelhoffen said of a defense that was ranked first in the NFL and fourth this year. "Defense wins championships. Our offense played excellent. When you play together, it's hard to beat."

The Steelers haven't been beaten since they lost to the Bengals Dec. 4, 38-31, because their defense kicked in down the stretch. While the Bengals gave up 37, 37, and 31 points in their last three games, the Steelers won their last four of the regular season by allowing a total of 33 points, and now have allowed just 35 points in two playoff games by shutting down the league's No. 6 and No. 3 offenses.

LeBeau's latest masterpiece was vintage Blitzburgh. As they continually changed looks and blitzes to freeze Manning's Phi Beta Kapa reactions and make him look like a red-shirt sophomore, the Steelers rung up Manning for a career-high five sacks. With Von Oelhoffen (one sack), fellow end Aaron Smith, and nose tackle Casey Hampton continually getting push, Polamalu and linebackers Joey Porter (1.5 sacks) and James Farrior (2.5 sacks) were able to torture a Colts offensive line that had finished ahead of the Bengals for No. 1 in the NFL in allowing sacks per pass.

"Any quarterback, when you hit him as many times as we did," von Oelhoffen said, "it changes the outcome."

What happened to the Colts offensive line makes you appreciate how well the Bengals block the Steelers. In the two regular-season games, the Bengals allowed Palmer to get sacked three times. Kitna got drilled four times last week, but that still makes just seven in 12 quarters compared to what happened Sunday to Indy.

"Let's just say we had some problems in protection," Manning said. "I'll give Pittsburgh credit for their blitzes and their rush, but we did have some protection problems. ... Pittsburgh mixes up their blitzes and their looks every single week. It's kind of the signature of Dick LeBeau. I think every week they have different looks. I thought we had some chances, but we just didn't have the best execution."

LeBeau shrugged when it came to the strategy. How many times have we seen it and heard it? But this time he talked about the importance of von Oelhoffen, Smith and Hampton.

"We've got enough defense to do what we do. We fit what other teams do," LeBeau said. "Kino has had a tremendous year. He and those guys are a big part of the plays that are made by James, Joey and Clark (Haggans). Those guys are undersung, but they're tremendous. They are the anchor of the defense, no question."

Von Oelhoffen knew what the back end was supposed to do. When Marvin Harrison finishes with three catches for 52 yards and no touchdowns, you know they did it.

"Our defensive backs played great," von Oelhoffen said. "They re-routed guys. They kept people off their timing. They just ran and ran on every play until the whistle blows."

Since the Steelers gave up 366 yards and 324 yards in back-to-back losses to the Colts and Bengals Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, the most yards they've allowed is the 327 they gave up last week to Kitna. Manning could generate only 305. The 38 points against the Bengals were a blow. Porter said the Steelers have played mad since.

"All you've got is the 53 guys you bring with you," Porter said. "All we've got is each other and that's all we need to know to get where we're going."

Porter kept pouring on us-against-them, storing it up for Denver, livid the officials overturned what would have been Polamalu's clinching interception with less than six minutes left.

"The whole world loves Peyton Manning," Porter said, "but come on man, don't take the game away from us. That play right there, they tried to take the game from us."

Look for the Steelers to keep the same mindset next season. Especially against the Bengals. Von Oelhoffen insists they respect Cincinnati.

"I don't know why we have a bad rap," he said. "We respect them. You see it in the newspapers. It is what it is."

And, it's heated. But Von Oelhoffen doesn't see it getting nasty.

"It's going to be a war for a long time," he said. "Very competitive. They've got a quarterback now, and there will be some great games."

There are also the matter of the two head coaches. As Cowher walked out of the locker room, he was asked if he might get together with Lewis after the season to smooth it over.

Cowher didn't stop.

"I'm not going to talk about that right now," he said.

So the Steelers go to Denver with the chip the Bengals will have to knock off next season.

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