With a slew of college games on Saturday to keep us preoccupied, Sunday's big game against the Cincinnati Bengals should be upon us before we know it. By the way, is there any better time than early fall for sports? The newness of football is still alive and well, and just about every NFL team and its fans (well almost every team) still believes they have a shot at the playoffs and beyond. For those baseball fans lucky enough to still have a team in contention, October baseball is just around the corner. Ahh, good stuff. On to the game...
When Cincinnati Has The Ball
The Bengals offense is off to a fine start, squashing their first two opponents with a balanced offensive attack. The big question, of course, is with Carson Palmer, who suffered his knee injury in last season's AFC playoff game against this very Pittsburgh Steeler defense. One wonders whether the Steeler defense will have a mental edge in this matchup. There's no way to know until the teams make the field, but Bengal fans will undoubtedly be watching this closely.
Through two games, Palmer has been good, though not great. He's completing a very healthy 62.7% of his passes, but has only two touchdowns against two interceptions to show for it. The Bengals are most dangerous when Palmer to Johnson is a legitimate, defense-must-plan-for-it threat, but the duo haven't quite found that rhythm yet. Still, only a fool would dismiss their prowess, and you can't gameplan the Bengals offense without starting with them.
What makes this offense such a good one, though, is the balance. Rudi Johnson faces waves of doubters every offseason, and yet, each season, he comes out and produces. 2006 is no exception, and the bruising tailback has punished opposing defenses with 245 yards and 3 TDs through just two games. It's because you have to bring safety help to deal with Johnson that the Carson-Chad connection becomes that much more lethal.
We should be able to tell pretty early on whether the Bengals are in rhythm. Watch closely to see how effective NT Casey Hampton is in eating up Bengal blockers. If he's taking on two linemen, or blasting through single block schemes, Cincinnati may have trouble moving the ball. If not, the Bengals should have time to make plays, which their talented skill position players are ready and able to do. All the signs point to trouble for Cincinnati, though, as standout center Rich Braham is out with injury, making Hampton all the more lethal. This could be the decisive matchup of the contest.
When Pittsburgh Has The Ball
After an ugly performance at Jacksonville last week, I expect the Steeler offense to rebound to a more balanced attack this week. For one thing, Ben won't just be healthier, he'll be less rusty. My final conclusion on Tuesday was that - loss be damned - starting Big Ben was the right play. He'll be that much better this Sunday, and there's no bigger game on the early schedule than this one.
Truth be told, last week's game was a pretty bad one for Ken Whisenhunt - a rarity of late. The Steelers decided they couldn't run on Jacksonville, and wound up handcuffing the offense with out of synch play selection. No single individual is to blame, of course - Jacksonville was playing really well - but I do expect real improvement this week.
The Bengals are yielding 3.8 yards per rush, and with Dexter Jackson out with injury, I think we're going to see a heck of a lot of Fast Willie Parker this Sunday. Expect the Steelers to snap out of the Super Bowl haze and get back to the smash mouth football that they love and execute so well.
The key to the Steeler attack is using the pass off of the run, something they never established versus the Jaguars. I'd expect that will change this week, even if it means playing for a close, low-scoring game.
I can't help but be reminded about -why- the Steeler offense surprised so many in the AFC playoffs. It's because everyone expected us to run the ball. Because that's what defenses thought was coming, Whis threw it. I think Whis got a little bit away from establishing this team as a Running First team. The problem with that, of course, is that you can't play OFF the run unless you first ESTABLISH the run. Or at least that perception. Look for that this week.
So... What, Then?
There are a lot of unknowns in this game, which makes predicting even harder than it usually is. This is a damn good Bengals team, but they're awfully banged up. From Jackson to Pollack to Braham to the possibility that Palmer's head's a little bit loose because of what happened last year... the advantage probably goes to the Steelers. Esepecially because it's at home.
I expect the first half to be a tight battle without much offensive pizzazz, then for Pittsburgh to open things up in the second half off that run. I think we're good for a home win against a banged up Cincy squad. Steelers win it, 24-17.