"We don't like them and they don't like us."
If you guessed "What is 'quotes by Carson Palmer, Alex'," you would be correct. Had you also fast forwarded to over half a decade later and said "What is quotes by current Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman David DeCastro", you also would be a winner. Whether the quotes are coming from Chad Johnson, Joey Porter, James Harrison or a myriad of other athletes who've played for both the Bengals and the Steelers, it's clear this rivalry has entered a new level.
For years, the Steelers and their oh-so-affable fan base have written off the Bengals as an afterthought because of the lopsided record in the series since Marvin Lewis has taken the helm of the Cincinnati franchise. "The Bungles", as they are still called by The Terrible Towel-wavers, still look like a tiger-striped Rodney Dangerfield in their eyes, even though they have accrued 50 regular season wins in the Andy Dalton era compared to the Steelers' 46 in the same span.
Still, there seems to be a sense of fear and desperation out of the Black and Yellow these days. Gone is the leadership of buttoned-up professionals like Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Dick LeBeau; and ushered in is an entitled group of talkers, fueled by the backing of one of the NFL's elite franchises. It's some of these young guns who have yet to sport a championship ring, much less have the ability to boast about a playoff win, who are fronting the talk.
In Week 8 of this season, the Bengals dealt a familiar sting to the Steelers in the form of an unfortunate injury to a important player. On what looked like a routine tackle between two Pro Bowl players in Vontaze Burfict and Le'Veon Bell, the star running back's season was over as he suffered a torn knee ligament. What ensued was initial shock from Pittsburgh players that quickly turned to anger.
Something has to have been placed in the Gatorade of Steelers backup linebackers. After reserve man Terence Garvin cracked the jaw and vertebrae against a well-known Bengals' tough guy, AKA punter Kevin Huber in December of 2013, current backup Vince Williams tweeted out that he would "paint" Burfict in the streets of Miami because of his injuring of Bell. It didn't seem like Burfict's tackling was the culprit of the ire, but rather his perceived celebration afterward. The controversial linebacker has since claimed the reaction was simply shock and his attempt at calling a trainer over once he realized the immediate severity of the injury.
Though Williams has since deleted the remark from his social media account, the resonance of the comment was and is being felt. Piling on it was offensive lineman Ramon Foster's take of Burfict's actions akin to a phrase rhyming with "bull spit" and then DeCastro's aforementioned comments this week. Could the Bengals actually be getting under the Steelers' skin more than the hated Baltimore Ravens? Anyone associated with Pittsburgh would never admit it, but the smoke signals are starting to become clear.
Then there is safety Mike Mitchell--a guy who fizzled out in Oakland after they selected him No. 47 overall only to deliver four sub-par seasons for the Raiders. He made himself some money with a solid one-year stint in Carolina and was brought to Pittsburgh in an effort to fill the enormous vacant shoes left by Polamalu. While he has three interceptions this season, he had zero in 2014, yet somehow has taken the mantle of the defense's vocal leader.
Perhaps Mitchell's most prized notch in his Steelers belt, given his surprising recent comments, lay in his injuring of A.J. Green in the 2014 regular season finale, causing the star receiver to miss the Wild Card game against the Colts. Using that concussion as a scare tactic in Week 8, Mitchell supposedly told Green he was next after delivering a big hit to fellow wideout Marvin Jones.
Maybe not-so ironic is the fact that Mitchell was on the field when Green torched the Steelers for an 11-catch, 118-yard performance against Pittsburgh in Week 8, where he also scored the lone Bengals touchdown en route to a 16-10 win at Heinz Field. Mitchell was also on the prowl for the Steelers defense when Green had a career day at PBS with another 11 receptions for 224 yards and a score. But, sure, little Mikey M. has earned the ability to talk noise, right?
Now he's claiming that is isn't "our blood that will be spilled" this Sunday against the Bengals. Maybe Mitchell is attempting to embody so many other Steeler bullies in the franchise's past while conjuring up his inner-Leonidas; or maybe he's just trying to get into the Bengals' heads after the Steelers have seen them crumble under pressure so many times. Maybe it's both.
Either way, the Bengals don't seem to be buying into his mind games. Lewis has preached poise and composure to his team this week, warning them not to return verbal fire with the likes of Mitchell, Foster and DeCastro. Bengals defensive back Dre Kirkpatrick made it known this week that Pittsburgh can talk all they want, but that's all it is--talk. There is a contingent of Bengals fans want to see the players retaliate in the war of words, but they're preferring to leave it out on the field.
While Mitchell might not have the strongest resume to lead the talking against the Bengals, his team sure has the ammunition. Since Lewis took over the Bengals, the head coach is just 7-19 including the playoffs against the team that was one of the stepping stones in his coaching career. Making the record even more laughable is Cincinnati's 2-11 record at Paul Brown Stadium against their heated division rivals. Given said history, it's no wonder Steelers faithful scoff at the notion of Cincinnati being a true threat.
For years, the NFL has seen more than questionable behavior from Steelers players, and yes, even coaches. Bill Cowher once pantomimed the action of throwing a punch at an opposing player as he ran down his sideline for a touchdown, only to be one-upped by his successor, Mike Tomlin, who nearly (but "accidentally") almost tripped then-Ravens return man Jacoby Jones on a would-be kickoff return for a touchdown.
Aside from the recent comments from current Pittsburgh players, there was Porter clocking Levi Jones in sucker punch fashion while both were randomly in Las Vegas with their respective entourages, Hines Ward creating a new league rule on blocking and Antonio Brown using Cobra Kai-like maneuvers on opposing punters. Steelers faithful chanted "Yeah, bro!", while also reminding fans that football is a "man's game", telling everyone to toughen up. Cheap shots and big talk are the M.O. of a bully.
Believe it or not, this very likable writer had a bully of his own at one point. Marcos Diaz (yep, that's his real name) tended to target kids a grade below him at our elementary school, without any real rhyme or reason. While his antics with me weren't anything overly-physical, I received more of the annoying bus ride ear-flicks than punches or shoves. I told my brother about the continual incidents after a few days and he urged me to let him do it again then give him a pounding. I still remember the feel of his gel-spiked hair on my knuckles and the laughter of the bus driver the next afternoon as he begged me to stop punching him--he might as well have been waving a white flag. Even through the following years at middle school, ol' Marcos refused to make eye contact with me, even though he outweighed me by the amount of a small child.
As tacky and meatball-ish as it might sound to re-hash my own piddly story , the Steelers and their treatment of opposing teams and fans are reminiscent of bullies like Diaz. It's quite possible Pittsburgh is feeling it's once-steel grip over the Bengals and the AFC North slipping, and must resort to mental warfare as a last-ditch effort to re-assert the grasp. This tactic works for the mentally weak, but completely folds against those who weather the storm.
It won't be easy for the Bengals on Sunday, regardless of all of the peripheral noise. Pittsburgh's offense is red-hot once again, with Ben Roethlisberger looking vastly improved from the rusty version everyone witnessed in Week 8. Antonio Brown seems almost impossible to cover, while Martavis Bryant is averaging over 20 yards per catch on the season. The biggest beneficiary of the passing offense is DeAngelo Williams, who has played well in the relief of the injured Bell.
Complicating that issue is the staggering amount of injuries the Bengals are currently experiencing in the secondary. After team health being such a key to the team's current 10-2 record, the back end of the defense is starting to drop like flies. Darqueze Dennard landed on Injured Reserve a couple of weeks ago, while Adam Jones has been in and out of a cast on his foot this week. Veteran Leon Hall looks to be getting the start and will likely go up against Bryant, who torched him for a 94-yard touchdown last year at PBS. Rookie Josh Shaw will likely get extensive time on Sunday, even though he was knocked out of the game against the Browns last week, while safety George Iloka is nursing a groin issue. Yikes.
Remedying that situation though is the Bengals' front seven. Since Burfict has returned, this defense is stifling offenses not located in the southwestern desert and disallowing teams to run the ball effectively. Cincinnati's defensive line is once again dominant with all four starters getting to the quarterback regularly and it's making the entire team better. It's that ability that will need to be showcased on Sunday against the Steelers to allow the rangy Reggie Nelson to continue his dominance of Big Ben.
However, as unlikely as it might seem, sometimes a team's offense is the key to stifling their counterpart on the opposite sideline. To get Roethlisberger and Co. out of any kind of rhythm, Cincinnati will want to control the football, and thus, the game clock. Fortunately for the Bengals, Jeremy Hill has awoken from his 2015 slumber with two of his best rushing performances in as many as many weeks, while Giovani Bernard continues to find creases for chunk yardage.
If the Bengals can somehow find a way to run the football and take at least a little pressure off of Andy Dalton and the passing game, the home crowd (which will likely be evenly divided in their allegiances) will begin to back them. Dalton will still need to make accurate and decisive throws while continuing to distribute the football, but balance will be key.
All that being said, it isn't the play of Mitchell, Green, or even the secondaries that reigns supreme in the Week 14 showdown. As it often goes when you play Pittsburgh, trench warfare will determine the outcome. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward are coming into their own as solid defensive lineman in the Steelers factory that often produces them, while their athletic, blitzing linebackers can create confusion for offensive lines.
Pittsburgh has mastered the ability to confuse Cincinnati's big boys up front and Week 8 was no different story. The Bengals have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but they have their spells of being either totally dominant or surprisingly ineffective. The hope has to be in Paul Alexander's ability to get the big uglies ready for this huge test.
This game could be a blowout by either team, or a one-possession, last-minute decision in the mold of the game a month ago. While it might not be a "must-win" for the Bengals, that sure is the case for the Steelers. Cincinnati will make the 2015 playoffs regardless of Sunday's outcome (assuming they don't lose out), but the game provides a big test on how to gauge the Bengals' potential performances in January.
Don't believe me? Both of the Bengals' losses have come against playoff-contending teams in primetime. And while this game is set to kickoff at the coveted 1 p.m. EST time slot, it will most definitely have a postseason atmosphere.
Steelers 23, Bengals 27
AC -- Connecting with Marcos Diaz on LinkedIn as we speak.