Preview: Cincinnati Bengals

If this were European football (or soccer as it’s called here) perhaps Steelers supporters would have a chant as follows:

“We don’t give a d*** about the Cincinnati Bengals…”

The song would be appropriate, as it’s how I feel about Marvin Lewis‘ team and their performance. Sure, the national media doesn’t give the Bengals credit for winning the AFC North title. It’s never about how good their team is and rather how the other team loses. Could it be, because Cincinnati simply isn’t a good team?

I know that’s the lowest of the low when it comes to disrespect, but I feel it’s more than earned. Given the last few seasons, the Bengals fortune has come by way of the misfortunes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Yes, I just said that: and it is credit where credit is due. After all, in a season where the Bengals beat out the Steelers to the postseason (after the Steelers imploded to finish 8-8) it wasn’t the orange and black striped team that hoisted the Lombardi trophy at the end of the season, rather, the team in the division hailing from Baltimore.

But, but… the Bengals just beat the Denver Broncos. Shouldn’t that raise some concern?

Well, maybe if Sunday night’s game gets moved to North Kentucky and is played in a rainstorm, then I might start to worry. I haven’t seen the Bengals beat good QB play at their house in FOREVER, without the assistance of Mother Nature. This season it was Peyton Manning and the Broncos, last year it was tropical storm whatever pushing Tom Brady’s ball from the sky. But when those same skies are clear, names like Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger generally dismantle the Cincinnati defense with ease, while the Bengals own signal caller, Andy Dalton, goes on suicide watch for 48 hours.

But while I’m on the topic of the Cincy defense, when and where did this rumor begin that their secondary was so good? The last few games I’ve watched, along with all of this week’s media hype, all of the attention has been on first round draft selections in the Bengals secondary. It’s quite insulting to listen to the general ignorance that the plethora of these players were NOT drafted by the Bengals! Who cares if Terrence Newman was a first round draft choice? He was run out of town by Dallas, the team who selected him, because he wasn’t good. That would be like sticking a feather in the Steelers cap by saying they have a first round draft selection in Darrius Heyward-Bey, who isn’t a significant offensive contributor and was previously cut by the Raiders and Colts!

Taking note of the names that are in that backfield, it’s Leon Hall and Newman who are the starters at CB. Hall was drafted by Cincinatti (2007) as were backups Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard. Adam “Pacman” Jones is another 1st rounder, but was taken by Tennessee originally and is more of a special teams ace at this stage of his career. FS Reggie Nelson was a 1st rounder, but he came from the Jaguars and starting SS George Iloka is a 5th rounder choice.

However, that’s not the part that really irritates me about this team, rather, the comparison that is never made: Cincinnati is as old on defense as Pittsburgh is. The Steelers are always saddled with the “old man” jokes, but no one ever points out that Terrence Newman has played in the NFL as long as Troy Polamalu (both in their 12th season.) Pacman Jones is only in his 8th season, just like Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson, but Jones is older, having lost 2 seasons due to missing time with off the field issues. (Many of which were documented with former Bengals players, and I will not get into at this time.)

This all leads to why I do not respect the Cincinnati Bengals. They are a team that took advantage of an opportunity set before them by the Steelers and the Ravens. However, it’s now time for the Black and Gold to get some sweet payback for getting bumped out of the playoffs in 2012, when the Bengals came into Heinz Field and embarrassed the team.

The Steelers are the first team in NFL history with a 4,500 yard passer, 1,500 yard receiver and 1,300 yard rusher. I believe Ben Roethlisberger, who is sitting at 4,635 yards, could eclipse 5,000 for the year this Sunday. For each of those names in the Bengals secondary, there is a name on the Steelers WR unit they will have to match up with. One of those is Antonio Brown, who is 2 catches away from having the 2nd most ever in NFL history. Martavis Bryant is a handful to cover and has seen more snaps as the season has progressed: he is still, but no longer only, a deep threat.

I also believe we saw a preview of what could happen Sunday night, as the Steelers ran several plays with 4 and 5 WR sets, and those weren’t with Bell and/or Miller split wide either. With Markus Wheaton, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Lance Moore in the wings, the Steelers could stretch however-good-they-say-they-are Cincinnati’s secondary thin. But that shouldn’t discount Bell or Miller in the passing game. Heck, don’t leave out Wheaton, who with Brown and Bryant, line up all over the field. Outside, inside, slot or stacked, the only question is: WHO DO YOU COVER?

That leaves Le’Veon Bell, who tore the Bengals defense for 185 yards rushing, 6 catches for another 50 yards and 3 scores in their meeting earlier this month. The Bengals defense is without their top LB Vontaze Burfict, and among the street free agents trying to fit into their injured and ill rotation is former Steeler Chris Carter (who was cut this season and bounced around from team-to-team.) If the Bengals can’t stop the run, they certainly will have trouble stopping the pass.

Flipping sides, Pittsburgh will have the same worries stopping the duo of RB Gio Bernard and RB Jeremy Hill. The rookie Hill has been lightning in a bottle, supplanting Bernard as the team’s top rusher. In their last meeting, however, the Steelers held Bernard and Hill to combined 63 yards rushing and 40 yards receiving. Having the same success last week against the Chiefs equally talented duo of Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, the Steelers held KC to 68 yards with no scores.

That shifts the focus to the air, where big pass plays are the stuff that has hurt the Steelers all season long. AJ Green, the top Cincy target, is banged up and listed as probable with a bicep injury. Without Green, the Bengals (and especially Andy Dalton) lose their most valuable offensive threat. This could help the Pittsburgh defense, as the status of Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are still up in the air. (The rest of the team, however, appears to be at full strength at a critical time in the season.)

My final conclusion is, while I believe this game should be close, it’s going to come down to key mistakes and who makes less of them. If the Steelers protect the football and put pressure on Dalton, it’s very difficult for me to think they won’t win by a least 10 points. Maybe not the runaway win they had earlier this month in Cincinnati, but I do believe it will be a decisive victory heading into the postseason.

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