Does a team ever truly deserve to win a game before it’s played? Last week we ruminated on the question of karma in football. Is it real? Does it matter? Browns fans will tell you no. What happened last week was about execution, limiting mistakes and solid game-planning, not some flukey ripple in the space/time continuum. Bengal fans might lean closer to admitting that there is some underlying unseen force that makes the league so hard to predict. It’s what the old mantra of Any given Sunday is built upon. The idea that you just never know what you’re going to get out of a team. Otherwise, how did we lose to the Browns?
What is for sure is that the debate will not likely ever be completely settled. After railing against any supernatural elements in the game last week, I feel prone to becoming a devout, born-again, spiritually-enlightened instrument of football karma, and write in these very same pages of how the Bengals deserve to win this Sunday night against the Steelers. Their last win at home against the Black & Gold came in Week 3 of the 2009 season in a game that the Steelers let get away. The year after, the Stripes just fell short on a valiant late-game comeback on Monday Night Football. Then in 2011, Andy Dalton was introduced to the rivalry, only to be vanquished like so many other rookie quarterbacks before him, in a game that never felt all that close.
Now the big stage and bright lights find the Bengals once more along the banks of the Ohio River, and, despite the records, the vast majority of the universe still likes Pittsburgh. And why not? They’re one of the classiest organizations in sports, mollifying the blue-collared populace with their industrial home setting and with their tough colors and décor, while placating the band-wagoneers who take the easy road and flock to winners. The Bengals have been an historical step-sibling to the Steelers, making noise on occasion but rarely submitting Pittsburgh into yelling "uncle". In ’09 the Bengals got them twice—along with the rest of the division—and it seemed some ground had been made up between the two organizations. Then the next year the ultra-hyped Bengals famously floundered their way to only four wins while the Steelers made it to another Super Bowl. Logic says that there will be a time when Cincinnati truly positions itself to be better than the Steelers for an extended era of multiple seasons, not just a blip on the radar from time to time. We Cincinnatians patiently await the natural process of aging to transform the Steelers into a group of has-beens who have lost a step and can’t remain healthy. Pittsburgh laughs at such a sentiment as they plug in young strapping replacements who they expect to carry the torch of regional and divisional dominance for years to come.
The facts are that the veteran Steeler players finally are beginning to show some rust spots as they struggle to avoid injury and missed games. The famous Hair, Troy Polumalu, is really beginning to deteriorate as his commando style of play has worn on his smallish Samoan frame. Other longtime stalemates on the defense like Aaron Smith and James Farrior passed their expiration date already and are no longer on the team. James Harrison and Larry Foote are nearing their finish line on a career faster than they’d like to admit. Age is showing in the hardened face of the Steelers defense, but will it be enough to turn the tides?
The other facts are that the Steelers have lost more games than they’ve won and that they have yet to win on the road. Does this prove that they are a less potent force in the AFC and that they are staring at a rebuilding stretch, or just that they have yet to truly get rolling and are angry with much to prove?
On the other side of that token, the Bengals are a hard team to figure out. After blowing it to the winless Browns, Marvin Lewis publicly questioned his team toughness, calling them "too nice". If that is the case, Marv has no one to blame but himself. I love the Marvin Lewis Program, no secret there, but what I saw in training camp is what I’m seeing now: a team that goes through the motions without showing much emotion. I wrote at the time that I felt the team had cultivated something of a golf culture over the summer— quiet, serene and often times pretty boring. Some players took mild umbrage to their coach calling their toughness into question, defending their play as hard and physical. I think both parties are correct. They’re not mean people, but they do try hard. Either way, I doubt that’s the problem.
Take Jeff Faine, for example. He’s got a kind of bad-boy persona but his play appears on the softer side of life. Then there is Geno Atkins, a guy I mostly see smiling but was once dubbed the Tazmanian Devil for his high-energy and tight spin moves. Sure it’s nice to see a mean-streak to these hulks, but go too far and you end up with a rash of arrests and other social ills. If the personality of the team is a problem, it’s not because it’s too nice, if anything it’s because there is a certain inner-fragility on the team. A team can be nice and still remain focused and headstrong. Football is a game of mistakes that only discipline can overcome. I don’t need my football team to be mean, but I do need it to be tough.
Pittsburgh is usually tough, but this year’s version is more bark than bite. They’re still a respectable group with a few hall-of-fame names on the list, but dominant they are not. Fifteen years ago, the Steelers would ground and pound with big backs and a monster offensive line. Today their offense is made up of speedy playmakers and a patchwork line. One doesn't walk away with the bruises they used to suffer against the Steelers, but probably do walk away more winded.
The guys going up against all this speed are not fast themselves. They are either too old or too young to hang in man-to-man coverage. I suspect a heavy dose of zone defenses demonstrated by Mike Zimmer and his defensive goons, and the underlying philosophy of the day will be based around strong open-field tackling. Rather than try and match Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown stride for stride, why not keep the safeties deeper than the deepest, allow the check down throws and be sure to come up and make the tackle? This will lend itself to more rushing yards to whoever the Steelers trot out there as their halfback, but as long as the Bengals defense forces third-downs and employ the bend-but-don’t-break style of play, Pittsburgh will be forced to kick field goals instead of touchdowns and Cincinnati will win. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger is terrific on third down, and yes he typically finds ways to beat the Bengals, but he can’t do it all by himself. If the Bengals can keep the speedsters in front of them, the gameplan should carry them through to a respectable outcome. Allow the big play, however, and the hope will be vacuumed out of Paul Brown Stadium and blackouts for future home games will ensue.
On offense, the Bengals will try to run the ball, but there is no evidence to say that this time it will work. Why would it? Unless the Bengals offensive line can become noticeably stronger from last Sunday to this Sunday, getting yards on the ground will continue to be a struggle. Cedric Peerman might get more looks—why not?—but the chances of stumbling upon another Rudi Johnson just waiting to be plucked from the bottom of the depth charts is unlikely. If BenJarvus Green-Ellis continues to produce at such a meager rate, a midseason trade might become a sensible move. The experiment of having BJGE as the premier back is officially a failure. Either he must become someone else’s complimentary back or share equal time with one or even two other backs. For all the good personnel moves Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis have enjoyed in the last few years, The Law Firm seems to be a swing and a miss. Too bad DeDe Dorsey is no longer a Bengal.
If they can’t run, then they must throw and the whole world knows that A.J. Green will get the most attention in the passing game. The man is great, and even when his opponents know it’s coming, he still gets big yards and a lot of touchdowns. But he’s just one man. The others are having a whale of a time carving out their own notch in the minds of defenders and Andy Dalton may be developing trust issues with his supporting cast. If these secondary threats continue to peter out when targeted, defenses will tighten the noose around Green’s neck and eventually cut him off completely. Viable weapons matter—we saw how a lack of them can kill a promising season like in 2009—and the chances of scoring a new legitimate player midseason seems remote, so then it’s becoming more vital every day that a current Bengals offensive player elevate his game to the point where defenses are worried about him. Jay Gruden got by on some good playcalling to rack up three straight wins, but since then, his creativity has seemed tapped. I wouldn't be surprised to see him pull a few tricks from his play-calling sleeve against the Steelers, but the Bengals need more than gimmicks and tricks to enjoy any sustained success. They need better, more consistent execution from players other than A.J. Green.
As for the flow of the game, I think it’s important to not fall behind too early. I sense this team is on the brink of self-ruination brought on by a string of perplexing losses to seemingly bad teams mixed with a prolonged inability to defeat a team recognized as playoff-caliber. If big mistakes happen early on, the Bengals may not have the heart to keep their spirit and wits about them. So in that case, I would suspect that they will come out conservatively and allow the nerves and butterflies to dissipate before taking many chances. If they get ahead, they will have to stay sharp throughout the dreaded third quarter to give them a shot in the end. If it’s a shootout, I fear the Bengals lose, but grind it out with Pittsburgh and you never know how a close game will play out.
To say it’s a pivotal game is an understatement. It’s a huge road marker that will dictate this season and help define the career of Andy Dalton. For Marvin Lewis it’s a measuring stick to gauge the progression of his overhauled team. Marvin got to start over in 2011 and the results were pleasant, but a loss on Sunday might sour all the progression he and his fans have enjoyed up to this point.
I still think that to say the Bengals deserve to win is silly. Nothing deserved, except for despair, frustration and heartbreak comes from losing a bunch of previous matches. Luck, even bad luck, is still a superstition. The only way that the Bengals win is if they play well and that is how the team and its fan base need to view this game.
In Cleveland a hole was dug. If they aren't careful on Sunday, that hole will be filled up with dirt with the Bengals still inside. Change must come now.
Bengals 17, Steelers 16
Mojokong—because they have to.