Steelers-Bengals chatter is believable
Thursday, September 24, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
We've all gotten pretty good at this particular autumn protocol, this understated semiannual ceremony that traces its roots to the Nixon administration, in which the Steelers devote part of a workday to a public explanation of the many ostensibly worthy qualities of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Whom they've now beaten in 15 of the past 19 meetings. Who have played one playoff game in the past 19 years.
So three days before the Steelers are to leave again for extreme southwestern Ohio, where they've won in eight consecutive autumns, most recently by the largest margin of victory in the 39-year history of this rivalry, they were at it again yesterday.
But this time it was different.
This time, the Steelers did not merely intone the common compliments.
This time, I think they believed them.
"Well, last year against [Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer], we did a good job -- no touchdowns, no completions!" chuckled safety Ryan Clark, purposely failing to mention that Palmer didn't play in either Steelers-Bengals game in 2008. "Hey, he's only one person. He can't win the game by himself. He can't cover Hines Ward. Can't cover Santonio [Holmes]. But we know he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league and that's why this is a new Bengals team. He's a new surgically repaired man.
"Now that [Chad] Ochocinco has Carson Palmer to get the ball to him, you can expect to see big things from him, too."
It's true Palmer is back from an unhealthy season, and Ochocinco has returned from an unproductive one partially as a result, but there is so much additional crackle to the new Bengals and so much potential stagnation here 300 miles upriver that I'd almost be tempted to tell you that these are two teams headed in opposite directions.
I'm not doing that because teams headed in opposite directions are the very definition of the game. One team's going toward one goal line and the other toward the other, which is, quite evidently, in the opposite direction.
But the Bengals are humming offensively behind an accomplished running back, Cedric Benson, who has three 100-yard-plus performances in his past four games dating to last year, or one more than the Steelers have in their past 12.
The Bengals are destroying people's best laid plans on defense behind Antwan Odom, whose seven sacks from the right end spot are 31/2 times the Steelers' total (and the most in any season's first two weeks since the NFL starting counting sacks in 1982).
"The defense shut down Denver in the first game until that crazy [game-winning] play at the end, and they pretty much did the same thing in the second game," said an admiring Palmer via conference call yesterday. "It was my two turnovers that made it difficult."
Palmer threw two picks Sunday at Green Bay, but the Bengals still overturned twin seven-point deficits to win for the first time at Lambeau Field.
"I think we showed what kind of character we have," Palmer said. "We were coming off a heartbreaking loss. The offense still needs to improve, but there's a little extra incentive this week because the Steelers are supposed to be the best."
Yeah, I keep hearing that.
But after two games, the Steelers have two sacks, two takeaways and three touchdowns. After two weeks last year, they had seven, five and six.
If Ben Roethlisberger weren't 6-0 in Cincinnati and 11-0 in Ohio adding the Browns factor, you could almost identify the aroma of a 1-2 start for the Super Bowl champions. If you don't want to smell that, you should probably ignore the fact that the Bengals went 9 for 14 on third downs at Green Bay, that they scored touchdowns all four times inside the red zone, and that they've possessed the ball for nearly 34 minutes on each of the past two Sundays.
"That's the big difference," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis via squawkerphone. "Even though we've given up the ball on offense, we've been able to move the ball up and down the field."
The bigger difference might well be emotional for these Bengals. Palmer's quietly reached the point in his career where as much of it is behind him as ahead, and his one playoff appearance ended within minutes via the disastrous hit by former Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. Getting back to the playoffs, and getting deep into them, is a powerful incentive.
"It's extremely important to me because I've been in the league seven years and played for six and haven't had a good run in the playoffs, something I want very badly," Palmer said. "Of all the groups that I've been with since I've been here this is the one that has the best chance to do that."
Should they beat the Steelers Sunday, that notion will have life. Somehow it doesn't seem so routinely impossible.
Gene Collier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. More articles by this author
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