Week 9 Preview: Bright Lights On An Empty Stage

 

Writing about the Bengals these days is like addressing a mostly-empty auditorium about the ins and outs of the tax code; those few in attendance are only half awake and not really listening. And why should they? There are more important things to think about like grocery lists and why the pennies in our change jars will outlive us all. Any musings about the men in stripes, as interesting as they may be in content, are now shrugged off as pointless hypothetical gibberish that bears little to no intrigue to anyone's everyday life.

 

Yet I am a committed writer who cannot and will not, turn back now. So for all the Mel's in this Flight-of-the-Concords-like endeavor still tuned in, the rest of this season is for you.

 

Because of last year's joy of a season, the Bengals this year were awarded three prime-time games, the first of which is upon us this Monday night. On one side is the Bengals who have labored through a four-game losing streak in October that felt like a sharp stick in the eye, on the other is the insufferable Pittsburgh Steelers who have prevailed despite missing their franchise quarterback for four of their seven games.

 

Before we move ahead, I need a quick word with all Steeler fans who will certainly take the time to dig this up and attempt to piss all over it—they're motivated in strange and spiteful ways.

 

Your team is great, there is no denying it. You have an exemplary organization that is committed to winning through sensible and efficient methods. You employ excellent coaching, scouting, and player personnel. You have a rock-solid fan base that will seemingly never desert you. It's no coincidence that you have won more Super Bowls than any other team.

 

We in Cincinnati envy you. We can only wish that the Kim Jung-Il of the NFL, Mike Brown, would change his policies even a little to emulate your ways. Alas, it is extremely unlikely that will ever happen. If you believe that some people in life are made to suffer, then in football terms, we Bengal fans are those unfortunate few. That being said, why even take the time to remind us of how awful we are? Why kick a dog when it's down?

 

Do some Bengal fans go overboard when their team occasionally does prevail? Of course—there are knuckleheads in every corner of the Earth. But should you pay any attention to them? Not until they too have won six Super Bowls which could take a hundred years or more to accomplish. What I'm saying is enjoy the catbird seat and please ignore those groveling at your feet. Your elitism only incites bitter anger in us because no matter what happens, we have no comeback for the infamous "six rings" rhetoric. So now that we have acknowledged just how superior you are to us, can we all just move ahead like adults?

 

Now, as for the Bengals chances in this one, well, they aren't good. As difficult as it is to identify any real weakness in the Steelers, it's equally challenging to find strengths in the Bengals. All the firepower we thought we had has proven to be in short supply. The hard-nosed gritty toughness we counted on has inexplicably dissipated. It seems like it's time to go back to the drawing board, but I'm afraid that Mike Brown didn't spend enough money on it either and now it's antiquated and broken down. Unlike in Pittsburgh, things in Cincinnati fall apart—quickly.

 

Nonetheless, the game must be played out and if the outcome of games were always certain, no one would bother with Las Vegas. Since both teams are composed of human beings, the unexpected has a chance to occur, and that, it seems, is the only unprotected area in the Steeler death star. The Bengals have played Pittsburgh tough the last few years, there are very few unknowns between the two teams, and the bright lights of nationally televised games sometimes brings out the best in the underdogs. Flimsy sources of hope, I know, but I am not a conjurer of cheap tricks. So there you have it.

 

Steelers offense vs. Bengals defense

 

When a team can win three out of four games with the second and third-string quarterbacks at the hlem, you know it's composed of workable parts. Now with their big-jawed gun-slinger back under center, the Steelers feel that they're back to title-contending form. As is the Steeler philosophy, Big Ben will likely never lead the league in passing yards. The offensive balance the Bengals organization seems hellbent on achieving, even when such an obsession is the cause for multiple losses, such balance comes naturally to Pittsburgh.

 

While Rashard Mendenhall is not the greatest back in Steeler history, he is capable of putting up big games and busting big runs. Their offensive line, a staple in the team's success over the years, has shored up nicely aided by the impressive development of rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. This unit has allowed Mendenhall, and complimentary back, Mewelde Moore, to compile a reasonable 117 yards per game so far this year.

 

The Bengals, meanwhile, have completely lost the credible rush defense it enjoyed last season. Slipping all the way to 23rd in the league, Cincinnati has bent and broken against the run in multiple games this year, all of which resulted in losses. If the Bengals even want a sniff of a chance to win this Monday, they must keep the Steelers rushing tandem to a modest day. If Ben Roethlisberger can finish the night without passing 30 or more times, he and his team are probably very happy of the game's outcome.

 

The Steelers don't seem to run as much trickery as they used to, so staying in run gaps and flowing to the ball should be a fairly straight forward assignment for the Bengal defense. The linebacker play for this team has slipped through mediocrity into the realm of unimpressive. The high draft picks of Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers need to prove they can have more of a positive impact on games. Dhani Jones isn't likely to improve anymore as his body continues to slow down, but the others must step it up. Each man was a force in college. What happened to those days?

 

Against the pass, Mike Zimmer knows how to go after Big Ben. Even though the Bengals pass rush this season has been as fierce as a toothless kittens, Zimmer instructs his larger men to employ something he calls the pulse rush. Instead of just zooming toward Ben with reckless abandon, Zimmer wants his men to move forward then stop, then move again and stop again, and so on. The theory is that this prevents Ben from avoiding the initial pass rush, and keeps him from moving out of the pocket and improvising his way to first downs. If they can't get to Roethlisberger this way, they throw their hands in the air and try and knock down passes. This experiment went well in the second meeting between the two teams last season when the Bengals repeatedly sacked and deflected the passes of Big Ben. Unlike most quarterbacks in the league, daring Roethlisberger to stand in the pocket and throw in rhythm is the way to go.

 

When Ben does get the pass off, speedster Mike Wallace presents the most problems. Sure, Hines Ward is the consummate gamer who is locked in tune to Ben's thought processes and is always a candidate to have a big game, but it's Wallace that stretches out the defense and makes Ward's life easier. With many of the Bengal defensive backs ailing with numerous pains and injuries, a speedy deep threat is even that much more daunting. To allow Pittsburgh multiple long, sustained drives that eat up a lot of clock and wear out the defense is never a good thing for their opposition, but quick strikes to Wallace could put the game away in a hurry, and the Bengals are no stranger to that unfortunate circumstance this season.

 

In order for a severely disappointing defense to redeem itself in a big way against a very quality team, they must keep the rushing yards at a reasonable total, pressure but not overpursue Ben Roethlisberger and keep Wallace from getting deeper than the deepest defender. A turnover or two is also probably vital for any real success against Pittsburgh.

 

Bengals offense vs. Pittsburgh defense

 

One thing no one has been able to do this season is run on the Steelers. There are good run defenses and then there are blood-thirsty banshees who simply refuse to allow any decent ground momentum; Dick LaBeau's group is made up of the latter. How good are they? They allow 58.9 rushing yards a game. Second best? San Diego with 83.1 yards per game.

 

The typical game for Cedric Benson this season has been something like 20 carries for 70 yards. That doesn't impress that much as it is, but facing a defense like Pittsburgh's, it's conceivable to expect less than half of that rushing total. Of course the team does have another notable back, but the offensive powers that be for whatever reason prefer to keep Bernard Scott in the closet most of the time, wasting a perfectly good talent. It would be nice to see some more experimentation with the abilities of Mr. Scott, but I've said the same thing every week and nothing changes. Apparently my advice falls on deaf and stubborn ears within Paul Brown Stadium. A shame, really.

 

So if they can't run it, they'll have to pass it, which the stats show is the no-brainer way to go. As terrific as the Steelers are against the run, they aren't dominant against the pass, ranking a surprisingly low 25th in the league. Even more fortunate for the Bengals, is the fact that passing is what they're best doing.

 

If the drops can cease, or at least marginally subside, and if one aged yet productive receiver can display a tad bit more effort—especially on the deep ball—then, as repeated in nearly every blog post this season, the Bengals can pass on this team. The problem is, however, the Steelers attacking blitz scheme that has through the ages become world renown for its complexity and tenaciousness. If it isn't James Harrison, that rottweiler of a person who takes life's misery out on his opponents, then it's Lamar Woodley, a slightly less imposing hell-hound but still extremely problematic in his own right. And if LaBeau doesn't want these two wreaking the havoc, he can send the famed Troy Polamalu, or the other defensive backs to get in Carson Palmer's face and disrupt any passing rhythm that has proven scarce for the Bengals this season.

 

It doesn't help that Palmer is not prone to playmaking once he scrambles out of the pocket, if he is even able to do so at all. It also doesn't help that the offensive line has struggled at key moments this year and that the eternal hope the franchise has in Andre Smith has proven to be repeatedly misguided. Third-down plays have been abysmal for the Bengals and it appears that the problems there are so bad that the team's confidence in their ability to convert said scenarios are completely shot. When a group of people know it's possible to complete a task but repeatedly fail, they begin to wonder if that task has become impossible. I fear that effect has taken hold of the 11 players on offense. Jordan Shipley, a fine rookie who has exceeded my expectations, should not be the most reliable player to throw to on the entire team, yet he is.

 

Asking for good time in the pocket against Dick LaBeau is like asking an elected politician to erase an immense deficit in two year's time—it ain't happening. If the Bengals choose to live and die with the deep ball on Monday, they will likely die because there's no way the Steelers will drop back and wait for receivers to come free. Instead I expect Pittsburgh to send pressure and attempt to fluster Palmer into throwing into coverage on a hot read. That is why I feel it is imperative that Carson be comfortable checking down to underneath receivers and living another day.

 

The interception against Miami came on 2nd-and-10 and Palmer ignored a wide open Brian Leonard for at least six yards electing instead to squeeze one into Terrell Owens who simply watched the ball flutter past him. The same also happened with the second interception against Tampa Bay when Palmer again tried TO instead of a much easier pass to Jermaine Gresham. Checking down is not a defeatist decision, especially on second down. True, it often brings up third and short, and we've discussed how that can be something of a nightmare for this team, but I'd rather see if our players can break a tackle and get the first rather than force the ball into places it shouldn't be. Both Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson won Super Bowls regularly checking off. Just sayin'.

 

It should also go without saying at this point, that I feel the Bengals should go no-huddle on pretty much every drive, because they can't do anything when they don't, but since not every one gets it, I am hence stating that the Bengals should go no-huddle on every drive. Moving on.

 

Conclusion

 

I'd like to say that this is a big game for Cincinnati and its football team, but I feel they no longer have the luxury of being in big games. They're all just games. If they want to win, they would be wise to follow the ingredients laid out in this passage, but it's safe to say that this wisdom is not a virtue this team demonstrates. If they do win, I will be pleased, mainly because I despise the Steelers and everything about them, but I can't in good analytical sense pick that as a likely outcome. It pains me write this out, but I'm pretty sure the only games I can give the nod to the Bengals on are Buffalo and Cleveland, and even those aren't gimmies.

 

Steelers 28, Bengals 17

 

 

Mojokong—let's all drink to the death of a clown.

 

 

 

 



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