This train ride to nowhere makes a stop in Pittsburgh this week in what most expect will be a lop-sided and savage affair. These people will say there's no hope for the Bengals and that leaving Pittsburgh with their lives and most of their possessions is the best they should hope for. Why not fold up this lawn chair and call the whole season a rainy day at the beach, right? After all, here in the throws of winter, waking up to single-digit temperatures and win-totals have already become a depressing combination; taking a Steeler smack-down to the chops would excavate new morale lows for the team and its dwindling fans.
However, this entry's purpose is not to to drift you closer to football suicide, but rather the opposite. With the season mercifully wrapping up, and the impending labor doom darkening the horizon for next year, this game is Marvin's Last Stand, the Battle of Little Big Ben, the fight for Middle Earth! When a person knows their effort will not result in their desired goal—when they have undoubtedly failed—the fighter-types give it one last furious push to prove their nobility as opponents—the gunslinger who takes out a few more bad guys as he bleeds from his gut. That's what I wanna see from the Bengals this weekend. They have lost the season, presumably their head coach and any and all enthusiasm from their city. There is nothing left to lose. Do it for Marvin, do it for us, or do it because your professional football players and coaches. Make this your Super Bowl. Everybody hates the Steelers—they're like parking tickets or having gum on your shoes; do it in the name of good fighting evil!
Outside of rah-rah rhetoric and general ballyhoo, the Bengals could and should make this game at least competitive. They are extremely familiar with the ebb and flow of the Steelers' play-calling, the strengths and weaknesses of Ben Roethlisberger, the tomfoolery of Dick LaBeau and his scheme, and the difficulties of the Heinz field wind and turf. To Cincinnati, the Steelers are the bully big-brother whose familiarity makes them less scary.
Steelers offense vs. Bengals defense
The Steelers have dealt with their fair share of injuries this year, especially along their offensive line. Big Ben himself needed his nose straightened out after the Sunday night back-ally brawl with Baltimore, and, despite his size and strength, it's just a matter of time before all the hits he invites does some serious damage to more important parts of his noggin. On the flip side, the Bengals have actually manufactured an inkling of pass rush the past couple of weeks in the form of rookies Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Dunlap is a physical specimen with nice individual pass-rush moves that have accumulated 3.5 sacks in two weeks. Atkins also has some moves and a strong motor and has disrupted more than the other defensive tackles when pressuring the quarterback so far in 2010. Mike Zimmer has prepared smart game-plans in the past against Roethlisberger; if his youngsters continue to progress and the Steeler's offensive line struggles protecting Big Ben, Pittsburgh may be surprised by their lack of production against this team.
Regardless of what kind of plays they run early on, Pittsburgh is always trying to set up the defense for a Mike Wallace deep ball. The Bengals have struggled against the big pass play all season, and had numerous breakdowns last week; it's better to allow the Steelers to inch their way down field rather than give up huge chunk plays to Wallace. The secondary must be mindful of where he roams at all times but especially when he goes deep. Since tight end Heath Miller is still recuperating from a gruesome hit that nearly removed his head in last week's game, the Steelers ball-control offense becomes even more predictable as it is likely to concentrate heavily on Hines Ward and third-down back, Mewelde Moore. If Cincinnati can keep these two men in front and make tackles when they catch passes, and keep Wallace covered deep, they can win on Sunday. Of course, limiting Rashad Mendenhall's explosive runs goes without saying, but these Bengals have a hard time not getting fried on the ground so perhaps we'd better say it after all: stop the big runs.
All in all, this offense is not as scary as its been in the past, and these Bengals have danced with these bozos plenty of times before.
Bengals offense vs. Steelers defense
Here's a news flash: The Steelers are exceptional against the run. The worst thing to do against them is attempt predictable stretch run plays on predictable running downs. The Bengals can't be forced into dangerous passing downs because they failed to move the ball running it on first and second downs. A little variety in the play-calling is absolutely necessary against the villainous mob that is the Pittsburgh defense. In their secondary lives a man with a lion's mane and a fox's instinct who can turn games around in a heartbeat. He guesses often, and often right and he will kill you if you're not careful. Troy Polomalu is a great player, and that term is not dished out lightly.
There are moments when the Bengals get into rhythm and look formidable. These moments are usually made possible thanks to a quality check-down pass to a secondary or even tertiary receiver. With the hall-of-fame threats on the outside, Cincinnati can run them deep, clear out the safeties and allow Jermaine Gresham, Jordan Shipley and Brian Leonard to work underneath on yards-after-catch conversions. On early downs, don't force the ball deep but rather dump it off to safety valves, and on third down, run routes that go past the first-down marker. This is not original thinking, but a reminder of the basics can't hurt with this team. They've been their own worst enemy all season; four quarters of a competitive offensive performance is within the realm of reasonable possibility. Limit turnovers and penalties, call plays that make more sense, and be more safe than sorry, and a game may be won. It's a bizarre take on the sport, but I think it could work.
There are select members of this team who know the end is near. The men gathered in the locker room next year will likely be a markedly different group and a new chapter will begin in the dark, dank annals of Bengals history. This game should mark the last great moment for a group who pulled off some unexpected highs and lows. The veterans that have been with the team throughout the Marvin Lewis-era, and even Marv himself, should lay it all out on the line for this clash against their rivals. For just one game, as fans, as players, as offensive coordinator, and as team owner, let's just pretend we're a good team and see what happens. Not a team made up of high-profile stars with big money bags and haughty reputations, but rather a team of calculated professionals hungry to turn in a hard day's work. Think it, live it, be it.
Bengals 27, Steelers 17
Mojokong—down to my last drop of optimism