Remember last year when we beat the Miami Dolphins in the Mud Bowl 3-0, then the Bengals the following week in less than impressive fashion? Those two games were in the wake of our 7 sack, poor late defense, and special teams meltdown against the New York Jets at the Meadowlands. Sure, we won those games and padded our record as the New England game approached. But neither game really gave us reason to believe that the internals that were plaguing this team were really going to fix themselves that year.
As we come out of the BYE week this year, with two straight hard-fought wins against rivals in our back pocket, we have a chance to put some of the miserable moments from the 1/3 of the season behind us and really start working towards becoming a more consistent team offensively. Remember though, we haven't been all that stellar on the road in the Mike Tomlin era. Our win at Jacksonville before the BYE week was BY FAR the most impressive road win we've notched in the past two years. Good luck finding any other truly impressive road Ws on our resume since last year. The Bengals game Sunday won't be considered a 'great' road W if we win it, but it would still be a feather in Tomlin's cap, if you ask me. We should have won last year at Arizona and at New York, but we didn't. The only road game that we handled business in that could have been expected was the St. Louis game, and really, that shouldn't count for much considering just how bad they were.
But that's how bad Cincy is, and I hope we thump them just as soundly as we did the Rams in Week 16 last year. Here's 10 Things I Hope To See this Sunday:
1) Health: This one's a given every week but PLEASE FOOTBALL GODS let us escape this week with a W and no further injury problems. We'll be welcoming back, most notably, Brett Keisel and perhaps Willie Parker. Let's hope we can survive this road game and move forward into the truth teeth of our schedule.
2) Solid Play From Max Starks: Looks like Max will get the nod in favor of Marvel Smith. Big opportunity for Mr. Starks to earn some of that $7 (mil) large that he's getting this year. Whether finances or politics has been involved in this saga, we'll never know. What we can only hope for now is that Starks delivers while he's still a Pittsburgh Steeler. It may sound inconceivable now, but it's not impossible to think that we may still get our combo of Marvel Smith, Chris K., Stapleton, Willie Colon, and Max Starks, from left to right. We are grooming Stapleton to be the center of the future, no? Why not throw him in there now? Not saying that's how things have to play out, but this could be a step in a very interesting direction now that Starks is on the field. Could just be for a week, though. We'll see. I hope his play makes the decision tough for coaches, that's all.
3) Keep the Sacks Comin!: Hell, allow me to be greedy for a few weeks more. I'm still holding out hope that both LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison can both threaten to break the Steelers' single season sack record of 15. Last week, Bengals QB Ryan Fitzpatrick dropped back 33 times. If he does that again this week, he's going down at least four times.
4) Keep it up Special Teams!: I refuse to view this facet of the game as a given until we'lve put forth more than a half season's worth of solid games on special teams. Well, we're 5-for-5 so far this year limiting opposing teams for big plays in the return game. A team like Cincinnati could sure benefit from a big punt return or kickoff return. A new week, a new opportunity to erase the painful memories of last year's ST.
5) Keep Ben Upright: Guys and gals, this is imperative this week. The Cincinnati Bungles have 5 fu&*ng sacks through 6 games this year. If we don't keep it at two sacks or fewer, I will be pretty damn disappointed. Just sayin'.
6) Time for Santonio to Eat: Anybody else waiting for Santonio Holmes to break out? He's been solid. Taken what's been given to him. But he has only 17 catches for 271 yards and 1 TD. He's yet to have a 100 yard receiving day or catch more than 5 balls on any given gameday. This is no knock on him, really, it's just our offense hasn't really found any sustained rhythm. Don't be surprised if Holmes finds the endzone Sunday.
7) Can We Handle An Opponent: By that, I mean, can we really dominate anybody. Sure, we beat the tar out of Houston in Week 1, but it's hard for me to put much stock in that game 6 weeks later. I can see this team winning plenty of close games due to the sound play of our defense and Roethlisberger's propensity to come through in the clutch. But can we beat the crap out of a team that's on the mat, begging for mercy? I'm not sure we can. This may be our first and only chance to find out in quite some time.
8) Once More...Injurys?: Is it bad form to mention injurys once more? I really think this team can be special, but there's going to have to be some luck involved on the injury front. May those concerns drift away for at least another week.
9) Run the Ball: Regardless of whether Willie Parker is playing or not, I hope we stick to the run. The Bengals are 28th against the run this year, yielding 158 yards per game on the ground. I don't care if it's Mewelde Moore, Gary Russel, Carey Davis, or any combination of the three, let's at least get to the century mark and take some pressure away from the passing game. Let's open up some play-action opportunities and let Holmes burn the Bungles 2ndary deep at least once.
10) Just Win Baby: If you read that 'round table' I partcipated in, you might have caught that I don't think we're going to establish much of an offensive identity this season. I just think we need to do enough on offense to let our defense take care of the rest. You better believe that will require Ben to come through in clutch multiple times in the regular season and (hopefully) the postseason, but I think he can. Anyway, as much as I'd love to see us end this one by halftime, I really only care about getting the W. So long as the D does what it should, which I think it will, I don't really care what the offense does. I am resigned to the fact that we'll struggle at times, but so long as the D performs each and every week, I am clinging to the belief that we're good enough to be SB bound.
Is it game-time yet. My God. Been nearly two weeks already.