Many thanks to Josh over at Cincy Jungle for taking the time to answer a few questions about this Sunday's big AFC North matchup between the Steelers and the Bengals. Head on over to their fine blog for more information about the game, as well as to check out my answers to his questions at some point later this evening. - Michael B. -
1) I've written on numerous occasions that I thought the Bengals made a tremendously wise move picking up Cedric Benson last year. So what, a young millionaire 22 year old had a hard time adjusting to life as a professional and got caught drinking a few times? Irresponsible and typical of young men in their young 20s who never really had to deal with adversity before? Sure. But felon or worthless football player, that does not make in my book. Tell us about Benson so far in 2009. Is he creating something out of nothing or does a lot of the credit belong to the offensive line for opening up huge holes for him to run through?
Cincy Jungle: You could give credit all around. The Bengals retooled-offensive line has played surprisingly well, especially up the middle. Jeremi Johnson is slowly regaining his older form when Rudi Johnson twice broke the franchise single-season rushing record. Laveranues Coles and Chad Ochocinco have contributed on some of the longer rushes; both are blocking well. The rushing offense has been a total effort, and largely responsible for beating the Green Bay Packers in week two.
Cedric Benson looks stronger, quicker and more agile than he did last year. When he hits the hole, he hits it hard. He's also shown a level of patience that he didn't really exhibit last year, allowing blockers to do their thing.
2) The Steelers have struggled defending the short and intermediate passing game of their first two opponents. Kerry Collins and Jay Cutler are notoriously good at getting rid of the ball quickly. Is Palmer doing the same thus far in 2009? Without T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Cincy, do the Bengals have that possession receiver who's able to use his body effectively in traffic to catch tough balls? How are Chris Henry and Laveranues Coles looking along side #85?
Cincy Jungle: For the most part, the Bengals have started relying on Andre Caldwell as their short-range guy that you could call the heir to the T.J. Houshmandzadeh throne. And he's really good. Houshmandzadeh, while not the most talented, was perhaps one of the most intelligent football players on the field; meaning he always understood what defenses were trying to do and reacted as such. He also knew the importance of sustaining drives on third down, working every which way to get open underneath. Caldwell isn't there yet, in terms of his instinct and football intellect. However, in terms of his talent, he's already far above where Houshmandzadeh was in his second full year.
Coles hasn't proven much of anything. In his first week against the Broncos, he caught one of five passes targeted at him - most of them were drops. He rebounded last week and picked up a first down on a third-down conversion and recorded a touchdown. Having not seen the field much, Henry has seen limited production. He's, more or less, the team's fourth receiver on the depth chart, though he's admitted to having a quad issue.
As for Palmer, a lot of the passing offense is reverting back to the 2005 offense, where at least one receiver stretches the field, another sits in intermediate zones and a third crosses underneath. It's not a quick passing offense. Even though Palmer has been sacked five times through two games, we haven't had to deal with a nasty consistent pass rush yet this season forcing quicker three-step drops.
3) Back to the Bengals offensive line...who's going to block James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley this time around? The pass-rushing duo had a combined 5 sacks in the two games last year (Woodley 3; Harrison 2). I noticed Palmer has been sacked five times through the first two games. Is the offensive line better in run blocking than pass protection? Are some of those sacks a product of working Palmer back in to the fold? Talk to us. Steelers fans are dying to hear that Woodley and Harrison are ready to have a monster day.
Cincy Jungle: Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth allowed two sacks against the Green Bay Packers last weekend. On both sacks, the defensive pass rusher took an inside step and Whitworth had already committed himself to the outside, forcing him to lean; on one occasion, falling to his knees. The week before, Anthony Collins, the team's right offensive tackle, allowed two sacks. If you remember last year during the second meeting between the two teams, Collins started his first career NFL game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and James Harrison didn't record a sack in the game.
In truth, I'm nervous. Both of our offensive tackles have given up a combined four of the five total sacks allowed. I would like to say that you'll be disappointed, but we could as easily be disappointed. However on Wednesday, there's grumblings of changing up the offensive line against the Steelers also.
4) The Bengals have limited their first two opponents to just 75 (Denver) and 89 yards (Green Bay) on the ground so far. Is the Bengals defense continuing to build on some of the progress they made last year? Or were opponents abandoning the run in favor of the pass? It seems like the Steelers find a way to get their ground game going against the Bengals, even last year when their run game was decidedly down. Will the Steelers be able to get their ground game going against a familiar foe or will they encounter tough sledding with the Bengals rush defense?
Cincy Jungle: I wouldn't say that the Broncos or Green Bay abandoned the run - Denver was never losing the football game until there was a minute left in the game and against the Packers, the game was always within a score either way until late. The front seven is vastly improved since this time last year. With the combination of Tank Johnson, Domata Peko and Pat Sims at defensive tackle and safety Roy Williams darting through like a missile, the defense has a very good trio of linebackers in Dhani Jones, Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga. The rushing defense isn't great by any means, but their improvement each week doesn't go unnoticed.
I believe that the Steelers rushing offense won't have the success they've had in the past. However, I'm not naïve enough to believe, since history dictates differently, that the Bengals will stop the Steelers rushing offense. But I do think we'll be able to contain better than we have in the past.
5) The Bengals rookie class was widely considered the best of the AFC North teams this year. Are any rooks making an early impact on the Bengals season thus far? We know 1st round pick Andre Smith was lost to injury, but have any of the other draft picks gotten early playing time and made the most of it?
Cincy Jungle: We've had some really good success with certain rookies. Last week, Rey Maualuga recorded a sack and two forced fumbles. Punter Kevin Huber is on pace to shatter the record for most punts inside the 20 in a season. Cornerback Morgan Trent and running back Bernard Scott are decent backups and Michael Johnson shows promise of being a quality pass rusher; he's still a step late. On the other hand, tight end Chase Coffman has been inactive in both regular season games, Andre Smith's story is well known and three draft picks (Fui Vakapuna, Clinton McDonald and Freddie Brown) didn't make the 53-man squad.
Cincy Jungle: I'll take the high road on this. I believe that the Bengals are a far better squad than what you guys saw in 2008, when you guys dominated us in every phase of the game. Our offense is light years better than last year and our defense has steadily progressed. I believe that this game will be close to the end.