The first chapter of the great yearly battle is upon the city of Cincinnati. As both the Bengals and the Steelers head toward the postseason, the head-to-head match-up in December once again has great significance. For some folks faithful to the orange and black, "Steelers Week" has become a pint-sized version of the Super Bowl.
If you ask Steelers fans though, it's quite possible that they don't share the same sentiment. On Wednesday night, I joined Jeff Hartman and Lance Williams who host the Behind the Steel Curtain Steelers podcast and on it, I turned one of their questions back on them. "Where does the rivalry with the Steelers stand with Bengals fans?", Jeff asked me. "For my money, it's the top of the list," I responded, and then asked them where the Bengals stand in the minds of Steelers fans. After Jeff gave a more diplomatic answer, Lance simply said "They're just the Bungles". Regardless, I enjoyed the time with these two and am grateful for their hosting me.
There are so many facets to this game that could and should be labeled as important, but we'll try to narrow them down to just the biggest five in our estimation.
Blitz Or Contain?
I don't have an answer for this myself, but Paul Guenther and his defense will need to devise a plan for Ben Roethlisberger while he's in the pocket. At times, playing contain and not letting Big Ben play his special brand of "backyard football" with his scrambling ability seems to work. Other times, he has all day to throw and he simply waits for the coverage to break down to make a play.
Conversely, blitzing Roethlisberger works often because of pressure and continuous hits that force errant throws. Then again, we've seen No. 7 take numerous hits in the pocket, move around and fling an improbable play to someone streaking down the field. Either game plan could work and either could be disastrous, so figure it out and stick with it.
Follow Le'Veon Bell with Multiple Sets of Eyes:
As seems to be a trend with running backs and the Steel City, the Pittsburgh staff has found another grinder who is on his way to stardom. Bell does a little bit of everything, as evidenced by his 254 total yards last week versus New Orleans, and 1,689 total yards on the season. In just his second year, Bell has become one of the best running backs in the league.
With the Bengals looking like they'll be without the services of Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict once again this week, multiple people will need to shadow Bell and limit the damage that he can incur. The beef up front provided by Brandon Thompson, Geno Atkins, and Carlos Dunlap will need to be stout at the line of scrimmage, while Rey Maualuga and Emmanuel Lamur will likely be following him out of the backfield on pass plays. If there is only one player that shadows Bell, that could be dangerous because one broken tackle could lead to a huge play.
Shore Up The Missed Tackles:
In short, the Bengals won't be successful if they can't bring down Roethlisberger, Bell or Antonio Brown on the first attempt at tackling them. Brown is shifty, while Bell and Big Ben have the ability to have big defenders slide right off of them, so wrapping up and bringing them down on first contact is critical.
If the defense struggles in this aspect, as they have for a decent portion of the season (including last week against the Buccaneers), things will get ugly fast. Big Ben will have his backyard football ways, while Bell will bring back images of Jerome Bettis running through Bengals defenders over a decade ago.
Play Loose And Confident:
No matter how well either team is doing in a particular season, the Bengals always seem to exude a sense of being intimidated by the Steelers. In many of Cincinnati's losses to Pittsburgh, the Bengals seemed gun-shy when physical play starts to show and they can't keep up. More than that, if they fall behind, confused exasperation is visible on everyone's faces. The bloodbath in Pittsburgh at the end of last year is a prime example, while the Bengals' win in Pittsburgh a couple of seasons ago is an outlier.
It's simple, really: you (Cincinnati) are atop the division again. The Bengals are becoming an example of extended franchise success, while the team across from you has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons. Every time the team plays tight, egregious errors occur, so relax. You're in the driver's seat again and a win against the Steelers makes a 2014 appearance in the playoffs seem very grim to them. Have fun and embrace the opportunity.
"Out-Steeler" The Steelers:
How often does finesse play work with high success against the Pittsburgh Steelers? Ask the pass-happy Indianapolis Colts and they'll give you a response. The games that Cincinnati has won while Marvin Lewis has been at the helm have been by (out)pacing Pittsburgh's physicality and scraping together clutch plays when the few opportunities present themselves.
This is the exact game that a player like Jeremy Hill and the Combine bench-press king (AKA Russell Bodine) were brought in for via the draft. Pound the football. Impose one's will and hype up the home crowd. Last year, I referred to the Sunday Night beat-down as getting "out-Steelered". At the risk of sounding egomaniacal, I'll continue to use it as a phrase to overpower and out-physical a team. It will be difficult to achieve a level of play with higher physicality than that of Pittsburgh, but it's the most viable style of play that will work against the Steel City bullies.
Though this key might not be something that is tangible and/or directly seen on the field, it's some of the little things in an athlete's repertoire that get them in the correct mindset to play toward a victory and any current or former athlete will likely agree. Utilize the multitude of disrespectful tags that the Bengals have earned over the years as fuel to change perceptions. This writer's hope is that the "out-Steelered" term morphs into getting "out-Bengaled" and not with the stigma that it has and currently carries.