First of all, how good was the Bengals defense in 2013? A month after the Bengals beat the Patriots holding them to 248 yards, the Pats ripped the Steelers on 610 yards. No one had done that to Pittsburgh until Justin Herbert and the Chargers put up 533 last Sunday night and don’t look for that to happen this Sunday at PBS.
Not with All-World pass rusher T.J. Watt and Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick back. Savvy vet cornerback Joe Haden won’t play the Bengals for the 19th time in his career. He’s out, but not Watt and Fitzpatrick after all three were missing in Los Angeles.
But what the Steelers don’t have back is help for brilliant defensive tackle Cam Heyward. Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and Carlos Davis are all on injured reserve. The fans are hammering 234-pound linebacker Devin Bush’s lack of beef against the run (but they’re not going to sit him on run downs when they traded up ten spots into the top ten to draft him) and the Steelers have fallen to an uncharacteristic 26th against the rush in this seven-game stretch they’ve allowed an average of 143 yards per game on the ground.
But they’re still the Steelers and they can still rise to the occasion. The one club they’ve shut down on the ground in the last two months is, naturally, Cleveland’s No. 1 rush offense. So the Bengals are going to have to do what they did in Vegas last week when they were committed to keeping Raiders pass rusher Maxx Crosby off Joe Burrow with the run.
The defense is going to have to chill red-hot Ben Roethlisberger and hold him to field goals while the running game patiently gets Joe Mixon’s footing because they won’t win against Watt dropping back Burrow to pass 40 times.
So many Bengals-Steelers games that mean something have taken all day to morph and they’ve shifted in the fourth quarter recently and in the past. Go back to the 2005 Wild Card Game and the Steelers’ 17-0 second half. Or the Wild Card Game ten years later when the Bengals’ A.J. McCarron erased a 15-0 fourth-quarter hole before the Jeremy Hill fumble.
In Pittsburgh in 2015, the last time before Sunday the Bengals played the Steelers in November leading them in the AFC North, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and safeties Reggie Nelson and Shawn Williams erased a 10-6 deficit in the fourth quarter. From 2016-2018 in three straight PBS games, Ben staged fourth-quarterback comebacks and game winning drives in overcoming Bengals’ leads of 20-15, 20-10 and 21-20.
And go back to the Bengals’ 14-point fourth quarter at PBS in 2009 in their 23-20 win they had just 91 yards and three points in a first half Pittsburgh had 248 yards and a 13-3 lead.
If that was the way Burrow and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor attacked last week’s game, you’d have to feel like with Watt and his 7.5 career sacks against the Bengals lurking out there and Fitzpatrick and his career 11 interceptions against everybody roaming the middle, you figure they have to patiently stay away from the big mistake.
But after all’s said and done, the thing is probably going to come down to what they do with Big Ben. In his first PBS start 17 years and a week ago, he got a 19-14 win thanks to running back Jerome Bettis’ 129 yards. And he hasn’t stopped winning at The Paul with a record of 15-3, two in the playoffs. Of those wins, he had to dig deep for seven winning drives to pull them out.
Now, what Big Ben when will he be? The 350-yard flamethrower in the 2014 PBS win, a la the 273 he pumped up in L.A. last week like the Ben of old? Or the beat-up 17-year warrior that threw for just 170 yards in the Bengals’ Monday night win at PBS last year? Or the limping 39-year-old who needed 58 passes to get 318 yards two months ago in the loss to the Bengals?
The Bengals have to be counting on Hall-of-Fame Ben showing up, given the magnitude of the game and his history in the building and how good he looked last week.
Then again, after all that, maybe it is the kickers. Next to Ben and Cam Heyward and Joey Porter, Chris Boswell has been the biggest Bengals’ menace in the last decade. The man has missed one of 66 kicks against Cincinnati, hitting all 23 extra points and all but one of his 33 field goals. That’s 97 percent for a guy hitting a Hall of Fame 89 percent for his career.
And they’ve been big. Two of the field goals have snapped a fourth-quarter tie and were the winning points. One came at the gun and another one at the gun won a Wild Card Game by 18-16. In a 2017 game, he hit two in the last 1:50 of the first half to break a 14-14 tie in a 29-14 win he accounted for Pittsburgh’s last 15 points on five field goals.
He’s on fire this season, hitting all six of his shots from 50 yards. But he finally meets a Bengals match in rookie kicker Evan McPherson, back at PBS after last week’s record-setting hat trick from 50, making him 6-for-7 on 50s.
So maybe it’s who has it late. As it has been so many times in this one.