clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The problems and possible solutions to the Bengals’ lack of success vs. the Steelers

New, comments

Cincinnati just can’t get past the Steelers. Why does this continue to be an annual issue?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Another game against the Steelers, another collapse by the Cincinnati Bengals. These losses keep getting harder to explain and to swallow. Because of this, it’s caused many of us to re-examine the rivalry and ask why things are so unbalanced in such a heated rivalry.

My colleague, Josh Kirkendall, already summed up what happened on Sunday very well. We won’t harp too much on it specifically, but rather attempt to provide some sort of plan or alterations to what the Bengals have been doing to start to even this series out a bit more.

The problems:

Not only losing, but in new and creative ways: By now, you probably know the numbers. Marvin Lewis’ Bengals are 2-16 at home against the Steelers, including the playoffs, and sport an 8-25 overall record against their most bitter rivals since 2003.

Sunday’s result was just the latest in a string of confounding results against the Bengals’ favor. The granddaddy of them all was the 2015 Wild Card game, with the 2005 heartbreaker also being another hallmark of the rivalry. Still, losing by a touchdown with about 10 seconds left to play definitely ranks up there as well.

That’s not even including last year’s Monday Night Football collapse, the 2006 season finale where Pittsburgh pushed them out of the postseason, and a myriad of other examples.

Lewis has done well against Baltimore and Cleveland, but his .242 career win percentage against the Steelers is an absolute abomination. After Sunday’s contest, CBS analyst and former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason summed it up well:

“The Pittsburgh Steelers are to the Cincinnati Bengals, what the New England Patriots are to the Steelers. They just can’t find ways to get past those particular teams.”

Pittsburgh’s photocopied route to beating Cincinnati: To clarify, I’m not talking about how the Steelers are copying another team when beating Cincinnati. The Steelers have admirably found a couple of ways to routinely get past the Bengals.

They go something like this:

  1. Let the Bengals shoot themselves in the foot and capitalize off of their mistakes.
  2. “Out-physical” Cincinnati by bullying them in the trenches, on the ground and on defense.
  3. Get some gift calls from the referees at crucial times.
  4. Take advantage of the multitude of injuries that inevitably pile up in these games.

It’s usually some combination of these factors and, for some reason, Lewis’ Bengals keep running into the same walls. Aside from the loquacious Steelers fanbase, one of the biggest annoyances in this rivalry from the Bengals’ side of the fence is in the similar fashion of the losses Cincinnati has suffered.

To be quite honest, I hate to truly point at Nos. 3-4 as viable reasons because every team experiences these issues. Sure, injuries to Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton in critical games are the outlying examples, but Cincinnati has had many other chances to overcome outside variables to grab what should have been important victories.

And, if you had understandable gripes about the officiating, the crew in zebra stripes aren’t rushing Ben Roethlisberger, playing linebacker, or calling plays.

Regardless, as predictable as the sun rising in the east, you had Bengals players proclaiming they’re the better team, yet still coming up short.

Blah, blah, blah...

Possible solutions?

Re-load up on linebackers with high draft capital: Lewis made his reputation with the Baltimore Ravens as a defensive guru. He molded Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware into Pro Bowl players and his 2000 unit was one of the best ever in the NFL.

Yet, at the mid-levels of the Bengals’ defense, Lewis hasn’t captured the same lightning in a bottle. Whether it was in seeing Takeo Spikes leave in free agency before he ever coached a game in Cincinnati, the fizzle-outs of Nate Webster, Keith Rivers and Odell Thurman, trying his hand on rental deals for Dhani Jones, Kevin Hardy, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Minter, or the continuing antics of the roller coaster that is Vontaze Burfict, it’s been a little good mixed with quite a bit of disappointment.

How many times have we seen a glut of different Steelers running backs charge all over the Bengals’ defense? Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, and now James Conner have had career days against Cincinnati. Even scrubs like Fitzgerald Toussaint have gashed the Bengals in critical matchups.

Obviously, run defense isn’t just about the linebackers, but they are a big part of it. For years, Cincinnati has passed on using high draft capital to bolster some of the “meat” of their roster, and they’ve paid for it often in these losses to the Steelers.

I understand that the NFL landscape has changed a bit and there has been a devaluation at the linebacker position. However, there are potential three-down players out there, it’s just a matter of identifying them and using the necessary capital.

Different defensive game plan and personnel: Getting a little more in-depth on some of the above-mentioned points, it seems as if Pittsburgh’s game plan and personnel often outplay some of the seemingly-superior facets of Cincinnati’s roster.

Case in point: the offensive and defensive lines. Even when the Bengals still had Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, Pittsburgh’s 3-4 defense with quicker edge rushers frustrated Cincinnati’s offense. Little has changed since the respective departures of those quality linemen.

Did I mention that the Steelers had three sacks on Sunday?

Meanwhile, Cincinnati employs the second-best defensive tackle in the game with Geno Atkins and a three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher in Carlos Dunlap. These guys should continuously get after “Big Ben” and bring him down, yet they, and others, often shrivel in these games.

The times they have played well have usually yielded one of those few and far between victories. On other occasions where they’ve actually shown up, Roethlisberger has executed his backyard football style of play to avoid getting sacked.

This past Sunday, though, the defensive line may as well not have even been out there on passing downs. Roethlisberger was barely hurried, much less hit or sacked. Either the Bengals need to do a better job of finding a different type of rusher to make them consistently effective against Pittsburgh’s line, or they need to get more creative to show things to their offense they haven’t seen before.

Wait out for retirements: After Sunday’s loss, I jokingly said to my brother that maybe the Bengals are just waiting for Ben Roethlisberger to retire so they can hit the reset button on the rivalry. As weird as it sounds, Cincinnati may simply need to pray that Pittsburgh finds itself in another Mark Malone/Bubby Brister situation, as was the case from 1980-1992.

It’s a total cop-out and I have serious doubts that the Steelers will ever be an organization that sees longtime droughts, given how well-run of an organization they are. Still, from 1980-1990, the Bengals were 15-6 against Pittsburgh and Hall of Fame coach, Chuck Noll.

I’d take a stretch like that any day of the week and twice on Sundays, at this point.

Some teams, particularly those in the AFC East are waiting for the same thing to happen with the Patriots and Tom Brady, while other franchises were grateful to see Peyton Manning hang it up. Even so, I personally think that this is a very weak-minded way to approach building a football team and engaging in a heated rivalry.

The head coach: I’m fairly certain that this is where most Bengals fans will lay blame and/or find their solution to the Steelers conundrum. Lewis has done a lot of marvelous things for the Bengals, including some in 2018, but the inability to win the big games is the major issue on his resume.

It’s odd, really. Lewis is a guy who has spent 27 years working as a coach in this division and was once employed by the Steelers. He seems to have a pretty solid formula worked out against the Ravens, another former employer, but is an absolute mess when in comes to Pittsburgh.

Like the point above, maybe fans just need to wait until Marvin is one of those guys who retires for this rivalry to tip back into shape. Just a reminder: Lewis has a job in The Queen City for basically however long he wishes, so it’s up to him when he wants to leave.

For now, he’s known as a coach who can get his team to win the games they are expected to and a guy who can rebuild a team from scratch to a competitive one. Unfortunately, his big game record more resembles that of Marty Schottenheimer and not Bill Belichick.

Either become obsessed with beating them, or lessen the emotional value of the rivalry: In Lewis’ previous 15 years as Bengals head coach, Pittsburgh has finished as the divisional winner seven times, with Cincinnati grabbing four AFC North titles. The other four in the span belong to the Baltimore Ravens.

Still, more or less, the division runs through the Steelers and if the Bengals had just a couple other victories against them, the division crown dispersal would probably be even more balanced. So, as a franchise, you have to realize this and come to a crossroads decision.

On one hand, you want to build your team in a way that not only suits the coaching staff and the style they run, but also in a way that is constructed to consistently beat the teams who comprise over 35% of the annual schedule.

On the other, things are getting a bit out of control in this rivalry. Injuries, questionable hits and a boatload of finger-pointing from both sides after contests have become the norm. There are a bunch of players on these squads who genuinely seem to dislike each other.

For old-schoolers, it’s the trademark of a great rivalry. However, what if Bengals players are focusing on that and tensing up too much for these contests?

Think of it as a high school student freaking out before their SATs, I guess.

They know how much it means to the fans and the hatred is apparent on the field, but maybe the talking, fist-fighting and everything else should quiet down until at least Cincinnati figures out a way to consistently get past the Steelers.

I’m not sure of the answer, but at some point, they will need to re-direct their focus if they are to get this rivalry back to something in which they can be proud.