Fans of the Black-and-gold take legitimate pride in the legacy of Arthur J. Rooney, Sr. and his family, which have provided uncommon stability and consistency for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ organization through the years. But in contrast to the Steelers’ six NFL championships during the past five decades, the story of the Cincinnati Bengals during the same period has been one of continual frustration, occasionally bordering on abject hopelessness.
Conceived by the immortal Paul Brown, former head coach of the Cleveland Browns whose teams won three league championships during the 1950-1955 period, the Bengals were one of 10 franchises in the former American Football League (AFL) which merged with the NFL in 1970. Brown served in the dual role of team owner and the original head coach of the Bengals from 1968 to 1975. After 1975, Brown continued in his role as franchise owner until his death in 1991. His son, Mike Brown, inherited the Bengals upon his father’s death and he’s continued as the team’s owner since that time.
If we consider the year 1970 as the beginning of pro football’s modern era, the overall records of the Steelers and the Bengals in the years since then could hardly contrast more sharply. While Pittsburgh was compiling its treasured collection of a half-dozen Lombardi trophies and appearing in eight Super Bowls, Cincinnati appeared in only two Super Bowls (XVI and XXIII), losing both games to the San Francisco 49ers led by western Pennsylvania legend, Joe Montana.
Beginning with their 1991 season, the Bengals went 14 years without posting a winning record or even making the playoffs. During this period of futility, the team had several head coaches and Cincinnati has had a total of nine head coaches since 1969, compared to Pittsburgh’s three. When an NFL team experiences this much adversity over a number of years—as the Steelers had done for decades prior to the arrival of Chuck Noll—the blame typically falls on the front office. Not surprisingly, a sizable majority of Cincinnati sports fans and pundits openly blame Mike Brown for this recurring story which invariably has a pitiful ending. Driving this point home with emphasis, Business Insider gave Brown the dubious distinction in 2011 of naming him among its “16 Worst Owners in Sports.”
Andy Dalton leads his offensive unit into Heinz Field on Sunday as the current heir to Cincinnati’s historical procession of highly-regarded quarterbacks that, somehow, never succeeded in rising above the foibles of their organization. The names Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Carson Palmer are widely respected in pro-football circles, and it’s not difficult to imagine any of those former Cincinnati quarterbacks wearing Super Bowl rings today, had they been drafted by organizations such as Pittsburgh, Dallas, San Francisco or Oakland. And for five consecutive seasons after Dalton was drafted in 2011, the Bengals reached the playoffs each season, cruelly tempting their fans to entertain championship hopes. In each playoff appearance, they promptly fell on their faces.
But Dalton’s failure thus far to become the quarterback that Cincinnati fans originally envisioned him to be is only the latest chapter in an old and extremely frustrating story in the Queen City. Just as it’s been said that Washington is the city where your tax dollars go to disappear, Cincinnati has earned the reputation of a city where NFL quarterbacks go to ruin.
All of the above explains why, if they accomplish nothing more during the 2017 regular season, the Bengals will experience their own personal “Super Bowl” if they’re able to ride into town on Sunday and beat the Steelers—an organization that represents everything they’ve longed for but never have been able to achieve during the past five decades. As they typically do, you can count on the Bengals to pull out all of the stops in their single-minded devotion to Pittsburgh’s demise in the AFC North.
This brings us to the question of what the Steelers must do on Sunday afternoon and evening to send Cincinnati back home with yet another bitter taste in their mouths. Let’s take a look at the Three Keys to Victory for Pittsburgh:
Key No. 1: Pressure Dalton via an aggressive pass-rush
In decades past, the Steelers usually have had Cincinnati’s number—not necessarily because their quarterbacks were poor—but because they didn’t have time in the pocket to find their receivers. While any quarterback obviously is rattled by an aggressive pass-rush, Dalton may be more susceptible to pressure than his predecessors in black-and-orange. In quite a few games during his career, defensive pressure has entirely discombobulated Dalton, and the resulting turnovers have scuttled Cincinnati’s ship. The word on the street is that the Bengals’ offensive line hasn’t been able to open many holes to help the running game so far this season. Assuming that’s true, it’s all the more reason why pressure on passing downs will be a key for Pittsburgh.
Key No. 2: Steelers’ offense must capitalize in the red-zone
The longer Pittsburgh continues to misfire on its red-zone opportunities—or settles for field goals instead of TDs—the greater the probability that they’ll come out on the short end of a close game against a team they should beat. If Ben Roethlisberger and his offense want to prove they “still have it,” there’s no better way than by turning field position on Sunday into touchdowns.
Key No. 3: Run the ball effectively with Le’Veon Bell
Last Sunday in Kansas City, the Steelers proved they could run the ball—practically at will—against a solid defense. If they can keep this ground assault going at Heinz Field on Sunday, it’ll make their passing attack all the more effective. That means ringing the Bell early and often.