Steelers challenge 6-0 Bengals, fittingly

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Left tackle Andrew Whitworth was there at the creation on the shifting sands of the AFC North.

PITTSBURGH _ It's always fitting when the 6-0 Bengals aim for division superiority in Pittsburgh as they do Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because that's where you find the roots of their rise as an AFC North powerbroker.

After all, head coach Marvin Lewis broke into the NFL as a Steelers linebacker coach 23 years ago in old Three Rivers Stadium. But maybe more importantly, it's where he grew up as the son of a foundry foreman and used those values to transform the Bengals culture from the Paul Brown Stadium Spa and Health Club into more like his father's Shenango Steel.

How about that? The rise of Who-Dey fueled with a little oil and grease from Pittsburgh?

"People were coal miners, and they went from coal mines to the steel mills and so forth, and they worked on the ramp at US Air until US Air left. It's a tough life," said Lewis this week in a rare weekly news conference that allowed a glimpse inside.

"The people before my father worked in the coal mines. My father's generation went to the mill, and guys that didn't go on to college that I grew up with went to work on the ramps for US Air. You learned as a laborer, so it's inbred, hard work and earning your way, and I think that's important. The great Steelers teams of the 70's were part of the whole environment in Pittsburgh at that time. There I am in junior high and high school, so you're part of it, part of that fiber."

So when asked to sum up the Bengals' culture under his stewardship, the answer was coal and steel.

"We work hard," Lewis said. "Guys know that when they come into this building, you work hard, you stand out."

And it was in Pittsburgh six years ago when they won the Battle of 18-12 the division's balance of power began to even out.

It was not only a game that beat the defending Super Bowl champions at their own punishing, physical identity; it finished off a franchise-changing sweep of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The division sweep was completed two weeks later against Cleveland, but the win at Heinz in which they held Big Ben to four field goals began a run of five post-season appearances in the last six seasons.

And they'd have to massively collapse not to make it six out of seven.

"It seemed like when I first got here, everybody had to change everything to play Pittsburgh or have some superhuman effort," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I think the way we see it now it's another game to try and win the division. It means a lot to us and it means a lot to them.

 "It's been different since we swept the division in '09. I think that's when we started to earn our respect. And we won't be all the way there until we make a run in the playoffs and win a championship."

It was no coincidence to Whitworth that the success coincided with a change in the locker room. It wasn't so much that the players were better, but they were much better teammates.

"The difference in the guys that were here in the first half my career compared to what we have now, it's night and day," Whitworth said. "By 100 percent. There's no question there's a different kind of guy."

There are a lot of reasons for that beginning with getting burned by so many character problems a decade ago. Both coaches and scouts began staying from red flags in the draft.

 And it was also about that time that Bengals president Mike Brown put overseeing the draft into the hands of director of player personnel Duke Tobin, beginning a subtle shift in the draft process for a franchise founded by a coach and run by a coach for so long. The draft board began to be shaped more by the scouts than the coaches.

Yet the coaches still have enough input that offensive line coach Paul Alexander told Sports Illustrated recently that he thinks he has the best assistant coaching job in the NFL because the personnel department "value our opinions."

And then when the players that got drafted began to win games that meant post-season runs, the front office kept them around with extensions. And the culture that had been built since 18-12 was so good, those that got away came back, like defensive linemen Michael Johnson and Pat Sims.

Now, the Bengals look a lot like the Steelers. They barely sign free agents, they keep their homegrown players and, with a nod to former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, they style themselves on a proud defensive tradition.

"Yeah, you can see the similarities," Whitworth said. "You rely on the draft to get your best players and you keep them."

Pro Bowl punter Kevin Huber, drafted in 2009 and knows no other way, gets it.

"The continuity," said Huber when asked what stands out from an organizational standpoint. "The way they've kept things together has been big. You're working with most of the same guys. Yeah, there probably is more continuity here than what I had in college."

Maybe the biggest compliment for the Shenango Steel approach comes from a guy who was down the other side of the Ohio for three seasons,  Bengals linebacker Chris Carter, a fifth-round draft pick of the Steelers who played 29 games in Pittsburgh from 2011-2013. Carter, who leads the NFL in diverse internships ranging from music to stocks, is another example of the effort to stack the place with solid locker-room guys.

"Honestly, I remember the meetings before the game and the meeting the day after," Carter said of those Bengals games. "Win or lose, everybody was sore, everybody was hurting. Everybody was limping. The coaches commented on that every time. 'It's going to be a physical one.' They had the mindset the Bengals were going to be physical. They'd say, 'Spend some extra time in the weight room this week. It's going to be tough.' "

Whitworth says that's basically how the Bengals view it. They no longer see the Steelers as supermen, the club that dominated them throughout the '90s and until Lewis got settled with his 2005 AFC North champs. The Steelers beat them in the playoffs last year, but no one gave them a chance until quarterback Carson Palmer tore his ACL on the second play.

 "They're a good team and we have to play our best to beat them," Whitworth said. "A lot of times the team on the losing end of it sees it as a rivalry. Every time the Jets and Patriots play I hear the Jets talk about a rivalry, but I don't hear the Patriots say that. I just hear the Patriots go and win.

"I think that's what's happened. I think both of us just see it as a game we have to win. Look at the last couple of years. Sunday night with a whole lot of stuff to be decided."

So what else is new? They're in Pittsburgh with a shot to go 7-0 for the first time in history and for all intents and purposes, win another division.

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