It was a bar in Dayton that an odd fellow, let's call him William, struck up a conversation with me that began with typical fantasy football musings. He drafted Adrian Peterson. His reaction was like anyone else's when drafting a great fantasy football player -- telling EVERYONE. Confident of his chances, not requiring the debate of the rest of his fantasy football draft, the conversation took an expected turn. Everyone that knows me personally, knows that I could chit-chat Bengals all day long. But it's not just about Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco. Those are the superstars that everyone else knows. What's more to say about them? Carson just wins. Chad just finds dollar bills laying around, hoping that the ref can find the owner who lost the money. We'll talk how hard Abdul Hodge will smack you in the face on kickoffs. We'll reminisce how the monstrous Ahmad Brooks had every tool to become a super-stud linebacker. We'll agree that Rashad Jeanty is perhaps the most unknown contributor on this defense, since 2006.
It was never about who was right. That's never the way conversations go. It's just about talking about the thing that we both love. William was old enough to remember both Super Bowls as if watching it live. I was too young for Super Bowl XVI. Not Super Bowl XXIII. I've told the story of breaking my mother's lamp when John Taylor scored the winning touchdown more times than I can remember.
But William's mind was sore. Last season left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth. That angry feeling we had before Marvin Lewis' era had resurfaced. Our last conversations didn't detail the exponential growth we saw from the defense last year. It wasn't about Carson Palmer returning. It wasn't about Cedric Benson, who had the best three-game stretch of any running back in the final three games. It wasn't about the veteran free agents, nor the NFL draft in which many observers praised the Bengals selections.
He was mad. And he should be mad. This team was terrible in 2008. Few things could be said about them that actually made us feel good. And that anger carried over to 2009.
William suggested firing Marvin Lewis. I gave the people's eyebrow for good measure, showing my uncertainty while questioning the validity of the source. How could you? Why would you? Who would you replace him with? It really took me aback. His argument is that great coaches could deal with the amount of injuries this team suffered, and still go undefeated... if they were great. Alright. Who would you replace him with? Bill Cowher, he instantly says. Yep. Bill Cowher. He's proven to put great teams together with a core philosophy that lasted most of his tenure, he argues. Yea, but. Well, he's a former Steelers coach. He lowers his head. He knows the point I just made. He knows that level of crazy-talk, while fun at times, has no place here. Are you drinking again, William, I asked. No, he laughed. It wasn't Bill Cowher he was suggesting; but Cowher being a model of stability that this team needed. Understandable.
At this point, I've recovered enough to make sure my adult beverage had a one-way ticket in, assuring that the mist that exhaled from my nose during that conversation had no escape. My composure, solid. I told him, have patience. They did a lot during the offseason, and excuse or not, Palmer's injury last year was a big contributor for their struggles. Even so, they were a solid football team in the second half of the season. They sported a winning recorded in the final eight games in 2008, I argued. That momentum would continue. How can you be so sure, he asked. Well, I can't be. But there are positive things. There is momentum. We won't repeat 2008. I promise.
William thoroughly enjoyed Cincy Jungle. We talked about the Bengals a lot. But we also talked just about football. The Buckeyes. The Bearcats. High School. We even shared our own football war stories.
About two months ago, William died of cancer. I'm going to miss talking to him about football. About the Bengals. But what really makes me sad, is that we won't be able to tell him that the Cincinnati Bengals swept the Steelers and Ravens, have a two-game lead in the AFC North with a 7-2 record. It would have been sweet to watch the pessimistic Bengals fan morph back into an bouncing anxious Bengals fan honestly optimistic that they could win any game on the schedule.
Hey William. We just swept the Steelers. You'd be proud.
The award for Offensive and Special Teams player of the game specifically designed to award Bernard Scott. We wrote briefly about Bernard Scott's ventures yesterday. He not only returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, but several runs late in the game moved the ball forward and helped Cincinnati kill 4:20 off the clock, setting up Shayne Graham's third field goal of the game. Scott also recorded a 21-yard reception.
Think that's it? Scott recorded 206 yards on kickoff returns, giving him 260 yards total on offense and special teams. Bernard Scott isn't the powerful between the tackles runner that Benson is right now, but Scott's speed and acceleration is impressive. With 3:05 left in the game at the Pittsburgh 35-yard line, Cincinnati lined up on second-and-five, Scott accelerated around the right edge, picked up five yards and the first down. This forced the Steelers to use two timeouts, and took another minute off the clock.
Carson Palmer didn't struggle. He did what the Steelers allowed. It was true. Most of Palmer's passes were off target, mostly high. There were some plays that Palmer felt rushed and threw the football early. In the second quarter alone, Palmer completed only two of seven passes for 30 yards. But Palmer's struggles didn't last. In the second half, Palmer's efficiency returned. He completed 10 of 13 passes for 98 yards passing. In the fourth quarter alone, Palmer completed six of seven passes for 54 yards -- including a big third-down 17-yard pass to Brian Leonard. This guy puts it together when it matters the most.
More importantly, Palmer didn't take more than what the Steelers gave him. He didn't commit a turnover. He threw passes that weren't risky. If he was getting sacked, he allowed it, not trying to do the impossible and threw the football up. No, he didn't win this football game. That's not how we beat the Steelers and I doubt that will be true next year, or the year after that. Nor did he lose the game. To me, Palmer didn't struggle. He did only what he could.
Including the big 17-yard pass to Brian Leonard that converted a third-and-five, Palmer completed a deep 16-yard pass to Laveranues Coles down the left sidelines that pushed the Bengals to Pittsburgh's 24-yard line. Palmer completed back-to-back passes for eight yards after a Brian Leonard one-yard run, setting up an easy 32-yard field goal for Shayne Graham to give Cincinnati a 15-12 lead with 7:29 left in the game. Cincinnati largely went into kill-the-clock mode with six minutes left in the game. Scott shined here. Palmer attempted only one pass -- an eight-yard pass to Laveranues Coles with 3:53 left in the game that gave the Bengals their third first down. Thanks to Bernard Scott and a scramble by Palmer where he totally forgot how to slide gracefully, Shayne Graham converted a 43-yard field goal to give the Bengals an 18-12 lead.
No. This wasn't the Palmer we saw against the Bears. Or early against the Ravens. But this isn't the same Bengals either. If Palmer only throws for 178 yards passing, doesn't record a touchdown and the Bengals win, you'll take that.
The Bengals won because they have a defense that wins games. With all of the talk about an inconsistent offense with star-power players, the truth of the matter is the Bengals defense is the biggest reason the Bengals have swept the Steelers and Ravens, own the tie-breaker against both teams and sit in first place at 7-2. It's the defense. Sure the offense has helped. But nothing with the consistency and confidence this defense has right now.
With 1:49 left in the game, the Bengals have an 18-12 lead. Pittsburgh has one timeout left and plenty of time to pick up 67 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Ever since we lost to the Denver Broncos, that little place in the back of my mind that anything could happen, gets really big. Most defenses in this situation tend to go into prevent, with one goal in mind of not allowing the game-winning touchdown. Not Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. He blitzed. He had his guys in coverage smothering route runners. Roethlisberger didn't have time for deep routes to develop, though he tried to wait. Brandon Johnson pressured Roethlisberger on first down, forcing the incomplete. Chris Crocker and Johnathan Joseph shutdown their guys on respective plays. On fourth down, Roethlisberger was assaulted by Frostee Rucker and Michael Johnson, who forced the quarterback to make a desperate throw that landed several yards away in the middle of nowhere.
Bengals football. Three knees. Bengals win!
Even though this sealed the win, I don't believe this is where the Bengals won the football game. Aside from the final score, here's the most important stat of the game. Four times the Steelers entered the red zone. Four times, the Steelers settled for field goals.
Pittsburgh looked to score a touchdown on their opening possession. They recorded three first downs, including a third-and-13 conversion on a 15-yard scramble by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Bengals this year have struggled defensively when the game starts. And trust me, struggle is a relative term. They're simply not forcing three-and-outs on the opening possession of the game. A little greedy? So. On the first drive, the Steelers recorded three plays of 11 yards or more, reaching Cincinnati's 15-yard line. After that, the bend-but-dont-break defense, stood their ground.
On first down, Johnathan Joseph broke from his cornerback spot to close a rushing lane on the right edge, preventing what could have been a touchdown run for Mendenhall. Instead, two-yard gain. On second-and-eight at the Bengals 13-yard line, Roethlisberger spread out the offense in shotgun, he rolled out left and threw a shovel passed to Heath Miller for another three-yard gain. Third-and-five with 4:50 left in the first quarter, Chinedum Ndukwe sprinted to the line of scrimmage as Roethlisberger received the snap. Ndukwe found a wide open lane on the right, threw his arms up and knocked down the pass. Steelers drive stalls and Pittsburgh takes a 3-0 lead on a Jeff Reed 28-yard field goal.
Pittsburgh would go on to punt on the following two possessions -- including a three-and-out. With eight minutes left in the first half, the Steelers began their second red zone assault. After a 10-yard run by Mendenhall, Roethlisberger throws two incomplete passes. On third-and-10 at the Bengals 36-yard line, Roethlisberger, under pressure rolls left and finds a crossing Santonio Holmes for a 21-yard gain. He follows that up with another 10-yard gain. Three of the Steelers first five plays on this drive picked up 10 yards or more. They were picking up chunks again.
But not for long. With their backs to the endzone, the defense foams at the mouth. First-and-ten at the Bengals five-yard line. Mendenhall gets the carry, shifts to the right, where Chris Crocker shot through the line of scrimmage, taking out Mendenhall for a three-yard loss. On second-and-eight, Morgan Trent ran step-for-step with Santonio Holmes on an out-route towards the back left pylon, easily knocking the pass down. After a timeout that must have conjured up some crazy magical touchdown play, Jonathan Fanene sacks Roethlisberger, forcing Jeff Reed to convert a 33-yard field goal. That's two red zones appearances by Pittsburgh. That's two forced field goals.
Cincinnati's offense went three-and-out.
Pittsburgh gets the ball back with 2:52 left in the first half. The Steelers move until Heath Miller was called for offensive holding. After an incomplete pass to Mike Wallace, the Steelers line up second-and-twenty at the Steelers 24-yard line. Roethlisberger watches Wallace run a deep seam route and lightly presses the "B" button, floating a rainbow pass. A millisecond before the pass arrives, Ndukwe hooked Wallace's left arm, forcing another incomplete. Flag. Defensive pass interference and a 46-yard penalty. Ndukwe knew it. He didn't bother complaining.
After an 11-yard pass to Moore, the Steelers enter the red zone. The Bengals defense foams at the mouth. With :59 seconds remaining, the Steelers line up first-and-goal at the Bengals eight-yard line. After Geathers recorded the team's fourth sack in the half, Roethlisberger was forced to pick up 17 yards for the touchdown. On the first pass, Roethlisberger overthrew everyone in the end zone. On the second pass to Santonio Holmes at the back right pylon, Johnathan Joseph grazed the floating football with a fingernail, causing football enough redirection that Holmes couldn't adjust. Jeff Reed converts the 35-yard field goal.
Bengals force a third field goal on Pittsburgh's third red zone appearance.
Pittsburgh would be shutout of the red zone until there was 2:51 left in the third quarter. After five plays in which the Steelers started at midfield, Pittsburgh lines up at the Bengals 13-yard line. The score is tied at 12. This is big. After Hines Ward's eight-yard reception, the Steelers run three times, including a quarterback sneak, to pick up the first down at the Bengals 11-yard line.
On the ensuing play, the Steelers are flagged for offensive holding. After that, it was the same script that had been played all day. Five-yard dump pass to Mendenhall. Incomplete pass batted down by Jonathan Fanene, who came unblocked and would have sacked the quarterback, at the line of scrimmage. On third-and-15 at the Bengals 16-yard line, Roethlisberger, overthrows the football to Mike Wallace, running towards the left sidelines in the endzone.
Bengals force a fourth field goal on Pittsburgh's fourth, and final, red zone appearance.
Say hello to Morgan Trent. The story of a great day for the team's third best cornerback. When we talked about Morgan Trent after the NFL draft, I wasn't encouraged. It wasn't so much what I've seen -- I really don't remember him playing at Michigan much. It was Wolverine fans who weren't giving us glowing reviews. Then again, what did you expect from a guy who was drafted in the sixth round, for a position that we believed was set, save for building solid depth.
To describe Trent this year would be to say that he's as solid as they come. And against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he made plays. While the Steelers were driving on their first possession of the game, Pittsburgh lined up second-and-eight at the Bengals eight-yard line, threatening to score. Morgan Trent, lined up over Santonio Holmes, sat in the wide receivers hip, following his break towards the back left pylon. Just as it seemed that Holmes created enough space for the touchdown reception, Trent accelerated just in time to knock down the its-not-a-touchdown pass. Jonathan Fanene ended Pittsburgh's threat a play later with a quarterback sack.
On the Steelers opening drive in the second half, Ben Roethlisberger targets Hines Ward on third-and-two at their own 40-yard line. Roethlisberger, in shotgun, throws over the middle. Morgan Trent, trailing Ward on a crossing pattern, flipped his hand up at the inaccurate pass and knocked the football back towards the line of scrimmage where Frostee Rucker intercepted the pass and returned it to the 14-yard line. The Bengals would tie the game soon after.
With 7:15 left in the game, Bengals leading 15-12, Pittsburgh lines up first-and-10 at their own 27-yard line. Roethlisberger throws a deep pass over the middle. Morgan Trent outran Holmes on the deep pass and "got in the way", slowing Holmes progress. On the following play, Roethlisberger throws a quick pass to Holmes on the right. After the reception, he only picks up seven yards, thanks to Trent's great open field tackle. The significance is that the Steelers had three yards to go for the first down and Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass on third down, forcing the Steelers to punt.
If you weren't encouraged by Morgan Trent's play before Sunday's win, you should be now.
They always say it's difficult to sack Ben Roethlisberger. The situation is second-and-eight at the Cincinnati 25-yard line with 7:42 left in the first quarter. Ben Roethlisberger lines up in double-tight end formation with a single-back. He fakes the handoff to Rashard Mendenhall, who targets the gap between center and left guard. Bengals defensive end Jonathan Fanene, lining up at right defensive end, remains at the line of scrimmage playing the run. Once he figures it's a pass, he breaks outside, actually losing his balance. Tight end Matt Spaeth uses Fanene's momentum and pushes him into the ground. Fanene, roughly a yard from Roethlisberger, lunged and twisted the quarterback's left leg to record the game's first sack.
Bernard Scott had just given the Bengals a 6-3 lead on a 96-yard touchdown return on kickoff. On the ensuing drive, with 3:36 left in the first quarter, the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up second-and-seven at their own 35 yard-line. Roethlisberger motioned Mendenhall out, leaving an empty backfield. After a three-step drop, Roethlisberger pump faked right, looked left, when Dhani Jones delayed a blitz. The Bengals had covered all of the Steelers offensive linemen, allowing Jones to come unblocked, sacking Roethlisberger for a seven-yard loss. On the following play, Santonio Holmes caught a 14-yard pass for the first down. Marvin Lewis said, "bull crap." He threw the challenge. The officials determined the spot was two yards too generous, forcing the Steelers into fourth-and-two. Pittsburgh punts.
Pittsburgh lines up third-and-goal at the Cincinnati eight-yard line with 4:54 left in the first half, threatening again. The Steelers had just called a timeout and were working up some crazy play that guaranteed a touchdown -- that's what teams do during offensive timeouts I think. Roethlisberger sets up in shotgun. Fanene lined up at the right defensive tackle spot. At first, Fanene was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The Bengals secondary forced Roethlisberger to hold onto the football. After a few seconds, Fanene found a way around the guard, sacking Roethlisberger for a seven-yard loss.
Under a minute left in the first half, the Steelers were driving to the Bengals eight-yard line. Roethlisberger lines up in shotgun and empty backfield. He looks left, pump fakes, braces for Robert Geathers, who nailed the quarterback without even being touched by any blockers. Roethlisberger threw two incomplete passes after that and the Steelers are forced to kick a field goal.
Rushing defense comes up big again. Cincinnati came into Sunday's game with the league's second ranked defense, allowing an average of 83.9 yards per game. Cincinnati limited Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker to 80 yards rushing on 18 attempts.
Rushing offense was effective in spots, but they were always persistent. Not a bad annoying either. The Bengals rushing offense was stuffed and stifled throughout much of the game. They made some plays, but as a unit, they only recorded 61 yards rushing. The thing is, they didn't stop running the football, rushing 29 times. That's commitment to the run.
Driving nowhere. The Bengals defense forced the Steelers offense into four three-and-outs. More importantly, the Bengals defense in the second half forced an interception, three punts, a turnover on downs and a field goal.
Third down domination. The Bengals defense has only allowed four conversions in the past 25 third down situations (16%).
Points allowed domination . The Bengals came into Sunday only allowed 16.9 points per game, ranked fifth in the NFL. They've not allowed a point in the third quarter for three straight games. During that same three-game stretch, Cincinnati has only allowed 12 points in the first half and 17 points in the second half.
What we know. The Bengals win over the Steelers is huge. You know that. Everyone knows that. It's a mark in the division and an introduction to the league that this team is legit. Now, the Bengals enter a stretch of potential trap games. Knowing the maturity of this team, I like our chances. Still, as William would quickly remind all of us, we've seen them fall in games they should have won too many times before. Aye.