Week 7 Preview: Steelers vs. Bengals

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Winning cures all ills and the Cincinnati Bengals have typified that over the Marvin Lewis era. After the 2005 season, Lewis was praised as a savior for the Bengals organization despite his players’ constant run-ins with the law.  And if winning cures all the ills, losing amplifies all of the ills and after an 8-8 season in which the Bengals blew chance after chance to make the playoffs, gripes about Lewis’ coaching style started to surface. After a tumultuous 7-9 season in 2007, the honeymoon was clearly over and Lewis is probably in his last season with Cincinnati. Unless of course, he wins.

Unfortunately, this has all of the makings of a disaster season as the defense made the grave mistake of hiring Mike Zimmer to be the defensive coordinator. They also have the Chad Johnson fiasco, which likely will not end well. But for all of the talk of getting rid of Lewis, one has to wonder whom they will get to replace him and do a better job. Who will be good enough to work with a cheap owner in Mike Brown and take over a roster filled with criminals, troublemakers, and malcontents?

STEELER DEFENSE vs. BENGALS OFFENSE

QB Carson Palmer has been ruled out of the game.  So the duties will fall to 4th year back-up Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Fitz played his college ball at that football powerhouse, Harvard.   I might not know much about him but I’m guessing he can kick your ass on the S.A.T.s.  Speaking of which, he’s probably most famous for the urban rumor that he scored a perfect 50 on the Wonderlic test in only nine minutes thus beating Vince Young by 44 points.  I was recently given a chance to share my wealth of Steeler knowledge on a Bengal website so I’ll return the favor and give him a chance to tell us about this Ryan fellow.

Anyway, in two games he’s accumulated a stunning QB rating of 57.7 which is hard to believe because, like the S.A.T.s, you get 75 points just for showing up.  He’s thrown one TD pass this year despite having some decent receivers and no semblance of a running game so I wouldn’t be too optimistic about how he’ll fare against our PH.D of D Dick Lebeau and his exotic schemes.

The running game has been so bad that they went out and signed Party Animal Cedric Benson.  The Bears had enough of him after his 2nd DUI in as many months but evidently no crime is too horrible and no rap sheet is too long for the Bungles.  Benson hasn’t done much this year as he’s working himself back into game shape.  The nominal starter is Chris Perry, who the astute Cincinnati management liked so much they got rid of Rudi Johnson during the preseason.  Perry’s responded to being handed the job by stinking out the joint, fumbling 5 times this season while averaging a miserable 2.6 YPC and cracking the 50 yard barrier only once this season.

The Bengals use a 3 WR, 1 TE scheme and usually leave the tight end in for pass blocking help. They did this with Reggie Kelly over the years, but now have Ben Utecht to take over Kelly’s old duties.  Of course this didn’t save Carson Palmer from getting creamed earlier this year.  The Steelers will definitely be able to get pressure on the QB and with a young inexperienced guy back there, responding to that pressure will require a Herculean effort.

The Steelers have been coy about the returns of NT Fats Hampton and DE Bret Keisel.  Not to downgrade these excellent players but the defense was more than fine without them as Chris Hoke, Travis Kirschke, and Nick Eason formed a solid line in their absence.  They held the hard-running Jaguars to only 50 yards on the ground and now they’re going against a team that can’t run the ball at all.  You do the math.

Cincinnati will have to throw the ball, early and often.  Luckily for them, good WRs they do have.  Chad Uno (TD catches this year) is the speed guy and it’s tough to argue with a guy who has finished 2nd, 5th and 6th in WR DPAR in the last three seasons.  He wanted out of Cincy last year and Mike Brown refused to trade him and take an $8 million cap hit.  He’s clearly moved on to plan B, the Randy Moss Scenario, where he has decided to play like crap so the team will give up on him after this year.  The Bengals are fortunate to have another superstar receiver in TJ Houshmandzadeh on the other side of the field from Uno.  While Housh is the “hands” of the team, he’s nowhere near as fast as Johnson, but he’s much bigger and has really good speed for his size.

Our secondary Triple Threat of Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, and Deshea Townshend has played very well all year long.  As long as they show up to play this Sunday things should be under control although mental lapses of any kind and the Bengals do have the players to hurt you.  They also have the players to steal, rape, punch, and drunkenly crash into you but that’s another story.

STEELER OFFENSE vs. BENGALS DEFENSE

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a 3-4 coach but due to personnel has been forced to stick with Marvin Lewis’ favored 4-3 scheme.  The Bengals are one of those teams who love to use a lot of Cover 2 zone.  Over the years, they have struggled heavily against the run. Here’s how their average yards allowed per carry have looked under Marvin Lewis:

2003……..4.8
2004……..4.4
2005……..4.3
2006……..4.2
2007……..4.2

Fast Willie Parker was set to make his return this Sunday and licking his lips over the chance to run against that defense.  He already has four 100 yard games against them and would very likely add a fifth this weekend.  Then he stepped in a hole.   Yes, you read that right.  A first class, professionally run organization which spares no expense in strength, conditioning, and rehabilitation equipment for their players has evidently lost a key player to injury because of a POTHOLE.

I have no idea who the Steelers employ to take care of both Heinz and their practice fields but they should be fired immediately.   Meanwhile, Mewelde Moore, who offense coordinator Bruce Arians didn’t seem to realize was on this team until two weeks ago, has performed tremendously in FWP’s absence.  It looks like he’ll be given the featured back role once again this Sunday.   Hopefully he’ll have the same success he had against the much stouter-against-the-run Jaguars.

With Zimmer running the defense, Ben Roethlisberger can almost breathe a sigh of relief this week.  The Cowboys went from 34 sacks under Zimmer in 2006 to 46 sacks under Wade Phillips in 2007 because of different philosophies as the players stayed the same.  Expect a very conservative defense that will likely blitz only in very obvious or very safe situations.  The linebacker position for the Bengals is in disarray as the only player solid at a position is rookie Keith Rivers, an explosive weakside backer. Odell Thurman was a trouble-maker who’s not playing for them anymore. He won my defensive rookie of the year award in 2005, even over Lofa Tatupa, so it’s sad when you think how good he once was.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Big Ben is going to take some sacks no matter how good of a line we put in front of him because of his tendency to hold the ball and his belief that he can escape any situation to make a big play.  As such, I think the baseline for sacks/game is about 3.  Even with minimal pressure and good blocking, Ben is going to go down several times a game simply because of his playing style.

WRs Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes should still be able to find room out there and make a few plays.  I’d also look for TE Heath Miller to have his first big game of the year.  With their lack of pass rush and weak LB corp, he’ll be able release off the line and roam around in open space a lot more often this week than in previous ones.

One the surface, the winless Bengals don’t seem to have much going for them.  But as we saw last week when two 0-fer teams got their first victories, a hungry and desperate NFL team is a dangerous NFL team.   Also, for as bleak as the future looks, other than a terrible effort against the Titans, Cincinnati has played competitively almost every week.  Three of their losses have been by a TD or less and they took the World Champion Giants to OT.  Even if Ocho Bozo has given up, it doesn’t appear the team as a whole has.  No matter what the year, what the record, or who the QB, be it Neil O’Donnell, Jon Kitna, or Jeff Blake, the Bengals usually play the Steelers tough.  With some of the hardest games of the year on the horizon, let’s hope this week isn’t one where the Black and Gold look past their opponent and fall into a trap.

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