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Keys to beating Pittsburgh: Defense has to take over this game; offense has to ditch finesse generalizations

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There are too many things that could come out of Sunday's game with a win to just ignore. If the Bengals win:

  • ...there's a chance they could be tied for first place in the AFC North standings; provided that the Cleveland Browns beat the Ravens in Baltimore (what are the chances of that?). Even then, the Bengals would be the de facto leaders in the division with a better division record.
  • ...Bengals fans will start buying up tickets -- I made the prediction earlier in the week that if the Bengals beat the Steelers this Sunday and then the Browns on the road, that Paul Brown Stadium will be sold out the rest of the season.
  • ...it will end a seven-game losing streak when playing Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium.
  • If the Bengals beat the Steelers this Sunday, and do it with a nastiness that the Bengals need to compete in this division, a whole new era of Bengals football could emerge.
  • ...the Bengals will start the season 2-1 (or better) for only the sixth time since 1990 -- the other seasons being 2006 (3-0), 2005 (3-0), 2001 (2-1), 1995 (2-1), 1992 (2-1).

However, there's the other side. If the Bengals allow Pittsburgh to run them over, like they did twice last year (38-10 and 27-10), then Bengals fans will implode. Many will shy away from the explosive win that brought waves of optimism to this team after beating the heavily favored Green Bay Packers. If the Browns beat the Ravens (and who actually expects that to happen?), the Bengals could be all alone in last place, by way of division record. The Steelers will win their eighth straight game in Cincinnati, questioning the Bengals motivation (again) when defending their home turf.

Speaking in more detail, the Bengals have lost seven consecutive games when playing at home against Pittsburgh Steelers. It's been bad. The Bengals have been outscored 182-84 during that span and the margin of defeat is 14 points per game.

Date Record * Score
October 13, 2002 0-5 7-34
September 21, 2003 0-2 10-17
November 21, 2004 4-5 14-19
October 23, 2005 5-1 13-27
December 31, 2006 8-7 17-23
October 28, 2007 2-4 13-24
October 19, 2008 0-6 10-38

* Record before the game.

The last time the Bengals beat the Steelers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh came into the 2001 game, 12-1. Jon Kitna threw for 411 yards passing on 68 attempts (completed 35), recording two touchdowns. Peter Warrick caught 10 passes for 109 yards. Darnay Scott caught seven passes for 113 yards. Corey Dillon rushed 21 times for 91 yards. Former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw four interceptions (two picks by Kevin Kaesviharn). Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward combined for 11 receptions for 152 yards receiving and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala rushed 25 times for 55 yards.

In other words, it's been a long time.

So what has to has to happen for the Bengals to win; some of them you can call The Obvious.

It's not enough to rush Big Ben. We've seen how Big Ben can evade a pass rush, keeping a play alive, even turning it into a big gain. He's big and strong. How many times have we seen him break a sure-sack only to find Santonio Holmes streaking (with clothes) down the the middle of the field? Bengals pass rushers Antwan Odom, Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson, Jonathan Fanene and maybe a defensive tackle (for a change), have make a difference. But it's not enough to just pressure Ben Roethlisberger. The pass rush has to knock him down, a lot. When they make a move for a sack, they have to drill him. The Bengals haven't recorded a sack in the past three meetings against the Steelers, and haven't had multiple sacks in a single game since September 4, 2006.

Date Result Sacks
October 3, 2004 L, 17-28 1
November 21, 2004 L, 14-19 7
October 23, 2005 L, 13-27 1
December 4, 2005 W, 38-31 2
September 24, 2006 W, 28-20 3
December 31, 2006 L, 17-23 (OT) 1
October 28, 2007 L, 13-24 1
December 2, 2007 L, 10-24 0
October 19, 2008 L, 10-38 0
November 20, 2008 L, 10-27 0
    16

Players that recorded sack in series since 2004: Duane Clemons (4.5), Justin Smith (4.0), Robert Geathers (2), Kevin Hardy, Landon Johnson, Madieu Williams, David Pollack, Domata Peko, Kevin Kaesviharn (0.5).

Stuff the Steelers rushing offense. Michael (Blitzburgh) at Behind the Steel Curtain was right about one thing. The Steelers do establish the rushing offense against the Bengals. And it seems like it's far too easy. Cincinnati's defense hasn't prevented the Steelers from recording over 100-yards rushing, as a team, since the Bengals 38-31 win on December 4, 2005. In the last 12 meetings, the Bengals defense prevented a rushing touchdown only once (November 21, 2004).

However, it's not just that. In the past 12 meetings, the Bengals have allowed 1,739 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns on the ground. Pittsburgh has rushed the football 40 times or more four times.

There are, however, encouraging signs to hang onto. The Bengals rush defense hasn't allowed 100-yards rushing by any team in their past three games -- 89 (Packers), 75 (Broncos), 31 (Chiefs). The Steelers rushing offense rushed for 36 yards against the Titans and 105 against the Bears to start the season. The Bengals have to keep pace by not allowing the Steelers to rush for over 100 yards (they are 2-0 in such scenarios since 2003). But, as we pointed out already, the Steelers tend to establish their rushing offense against the Bengals... a little to easily.

Date Result Steelers rushing Leading rusher
9.21.03 L, 10-17 38-138-1 Amo Zereoue: 16-69
11.30.03 W, 24-20 25-85-1 Jerome Bettis: 20-62-1
10.3.04 L, 17-28 40-165-2 Duce Staley: 25-123
11.21.04 L, 14-19 40-151-0 Jerome Bettis: 29-129
10.23.05 L, 13-27 47-221-1 Willie Parker: 18-131-1
12.4.05 W, 38-31 28-95-1 Willie Parker: 15-71
9.24.06 W, 28-20 38-170-2 Willie Parker: 31-133-2
12.31.06 L, 17-23 (OT) 45-207-2 Willie Parker: 34-134-2
10.28.07 L, 13-24 33-160-1 Willie Parker: 22-126-1
12.2.07 L, 10-24 35-101-1 Willie Parker: 28-87
10.19.08 L, 10-38 27-125-2 Mewelde Moore: 20-120-2
11.20.08 L, 10-27 37-121-2 Mewelde Moore: 15-56

But what of the offense? I believe that the Bengals offense is getting closer to the potency they enjoyed during the 2005 season. Palmer recorded three touchdowns against the Packers and Benson rushed for over 100 yards. However, if you go back to the game before the win over Green Bay, the offense was far too similar to the team's worst ranked offense in 2008.

I feel that if the Bengals play mistake-free offense and convert drive-sustaining first downs, that they'll be alright. I don't expect Palmer to put up 300 yards. I don't even expect him to record three touchdowns. I don't expect Cedric Benson to record more than 100 yards rushing nor do I think any of our receivers will pick up 100 yards or more receiving. But if they sustain drives, win the time of possession and finish drives with points, the offense will do their part.

Prove we're no longer a finesse team. But I think this game will rest with the Bengals defense. If they knock Roethlisberger around and limit the Steelers rushing offense -- let's call it containing rather than eliminating -- then I think the Bengals will have their best chance at winning the football game. I know. Mistake free offense. Sacking the quarterback. Limiting the opposing rushing offense. Those are typically keys for every NFL team to win football games. But historically, when the Bengals have won, it hasn't always been that way. In previous years -- not including 2008, of course -- people have been right to generalize the Bengals as a finesse team, by simply outscoring the other offense. Defense was tasked to force a few punts; other than that, they just had to make sure the opposing offense didn't score more than the Bengals offense. Again. I know the Maddenism that exists here. But for the Bengals to win, Cincinnati's defense has to do more than that. They have to beat up the Steelers and not rely on the offense to win a shootout; because I don't think we can trust the Bengals to win that way against the Steelers.

The Bengals beat the Steelers if... I think the Bengals have as good a shot beating the defending Super Bowl champions than they've had since 2006. We're stronger on defense and the offense is coming around. Furthermore, if the Bengals offense can finally ditch the finesse term, along with the new Bengals defense passing the biggest test that they've face yet by taking over the football game, then I believe the Bengals win this football game.