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Today's Bengals Wake Up Echoes For '05 Greats

Willie Anderson Ruled the Jungle Sunday.
Willie Anderson Ruled the Jungle Sunday.

Two greats from one of the best Bengals teams of the 21st century left Paul Brown Stadium Sunday on a wave of nostalgia after watching their Who Dey descendants take apart the Steelers with deadly efficiency.

"It's kind of familiar," said T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the big game receiver on that '05 team still looking to wipe his shoes on a Terrible Towel. "It didn't have to be (Ja'Marr) Chase and (Tyler) Boyd. It was Mixon and (Tee) Higgins and maybe next week against the Chargers it will be Mixon and Chase. Or Mixon and Boyd. They can beat you in so many ways. That's the good part of the offense. They just don't rely on one person."

Willie Anderson, Houshmandzadeh's teammate and friend, is 1-0 as Paul Brown Stadium's Ruler of the Jungle and the Bengals did it to the Steelers in a game befitting a Hall of Fame worthy right tackle.

They ran it 38 times, passed it 24 times. Mixon had a career-high punishing 165 yards and they had their biggest win over Pittsburgh, 41-10, since Big Will was just starting his legendary high school career in Mobile, Ala., in 1989.

"They did to the Steelers what they did during the late '90s and early 2000s," said Anderson, who a few days before had compared these Bengals to Marvin Lewis' first Bengals of 2003. "They looked like '05 on Sunday. More polished with the three receivers and the running game with Rudi (Johnson).

"And it was good to see the air let out of their fans who were everywhere in the stadium. For their fans to leave with that kind of butt whipping, that was good."

Houshmandzadeh accepted a fan's invite long before he knew it was the Steelers. He surfaced in a suite a day after spending five hours at the nearby Yard House with Anderson watching Ohio State-Michigan and Auburn-Alabama while swapping enough yarn to knit Anderson's rookie pullover circa 1996. He scouted out Anderson at halftime and they watched the second half together, when Houshmandzadeh took a curtain call in the third quarter to a nice ovation.

"They're lucky I didn't have a Terrible Towel," Houshmandzadeh said.

"We were both looking for one," Anderson said.

Houshmandzadeh would have done what he did at Heinz Field on the first Sunday of December, 2005, the last time the Bengals put up such a big number in a 38-31 win that basically won the AFC North.

Wipe his shoes with it.

"When I was walking to my seat, there were some Steelers fans who wanted a picture," Houshmandzadeh said. "I told them they could if they gave me a towel. They didn't, so no picture."

The Bengals did it on the field. And they did it in such a manner that Houshmandzadeh, a Fox analyst and all-around football savant like his buddy Anderson, uttered the words.

"To be honest with you," said Houshmandzadeh, who always is. "The similarities are there, but this team may be better."

Not on the offensive line, which is no knock on the current group because Anderson's crew included a Pro Bowl caliber left tackle in Levi Jones and center in Rich Braham and was one of the best units in the league.

"Our line was our line," Anderson said. "But we started the rebirth of the Bengals with both the offensive and defensive lines. We didn't have star-studded names on the defensive line, but for the first time in a long time they were making plays and with the kind of offense we had, that's all you needed."

This offense is at least just as good, Houshmandzadeh says. Out of rock-ribbed loyalty to his quarterback, Houshmandzadeh won't take Joe Burrow over Carson Palmer, even though he loves Burrow's game and has been in workouts with him in Los Angeles near his home.

"It's a different time, but very similar," Houshmandzadeh said. "I think we're better up front. I think we're better on the offensive line. Receiver-wise, it's maybe a push. Today, you'd probably take Mixon over Rudi just because he can do more. You'd take the tight end today, not as a blocker, but as an overall tight end."

The numbers back him up. The '21 Bengals are on a 16-game pace to score 449 points, breaking the vaunted 1988 AFC champs' club record by a point before even the 17th game. It would also be four touchdowns better than the '05 team's 421.

And Houshmandzadeh can't get enough Burrow.

"I knew he was coming off the knee," Houshmandzadeh said. "But I told anybody who would listen that the Bengals would win seven to nine games and next year they would make a run at being a really good team. But Joe is just so good, they're doing it earlier than I thought. He rebounded from, his knee injury sooner than I thought. He plays very well under pressure."

The defense is what sells both guys. While the offense was ranked sixth in '05, the defense was ranked 28th even though it had 31 interceptions, the second best ever by the Bengals.

"They're not forcing as many turnovers. I think they had two Sunday, but that's good," Houshmandzadeh said. "Because that means it's sustainable. They're not relying on turnovers. They're playing really good defense. They stop the run. This defense is upper echelon. Top half of the league."

Houshmandzadeh knew all about 10.5-sacker Trey Hendrickson before free agency because he played with the Saints on Madden.

"He's fast on the video game," Houshmandzadeh said. "Who is the guy? I was saying."

Anderson herd the buzz about Hendrickson when he signed from New Orleans.

"We found out that he didn't just benefit from Cam Jordan. He's an elite pass rusher," said Anderson, who also found out some other things along with the rest of us.

"We didn't know how the free agents were going to play. Hendrickson and the guy who had the pick-six Sunday (Mike Hilton) and he's played well in both Pittsburgh games. We knew the skill guys, but we didn't know the offense line was going to run block like this. Yeah, they've given up some sacks, but they've made a 180 when it comes to run blocking.

"So yeah, now that we all know that, they are ahead of schedule."

But Houshmandzadeh is right on time to win Sunday's bet with old Steelers sack ace James Harrison. Anderson may have vacated the Ruler's throne, but he's looking to work this week's game into his schedule with Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in town.

"I'd like to see that," Anderson said with a wave of nostalgia. "Joe and old boy Herbert."