With all the NFL 100th Season lists, I’ve been thinking about the histories of various Steeler rivalries. So every week for the rest of the year, I’ll post a retrospective preview, considering the two teams and setting up for the upcoming game.
This week: Cincinnati Bengals
Pittsburgh 5-5 (2nd AFC North)
Cincinnati 0-10 (4th AFC North)
2019 Off/Def Comparisons:
....................................... Overall........... Pass ........... Rush........... Score
Pittsburgh Offense........284 (28th).......203 (27th)........81 (27th).......20.0 (20th)
Cincinnati Defense.......425 (32nd).......258 (24th).....167 (32nd).......27.6 (28th)
Cincinnati Offense........309 (27th).........229 (17th).....81 (28th).......14.7 (30th)
Pittsburgh Defense........328 (12th)........223 (9th)....105 (16th).......20.2 (13th)
Player in Common:
James Harrison (Steelers 2004-12, 2014-17 / signed as free agent with Bengals 2013)
Harrison held out in 2013 and the Steelers, who had tied up a great deal of money betting that Lamarr Woodley was the future, let him walk. Harrison moved down the division to Cincinnati, where he had a pedestrian season as a defensive end, and retired. The following year, with injuries and mediocrity in the Pittsburgh linebacking corps (and significant potential in their high-flying offense), Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu convinced James to suit up one more time. He would record 24 sacks for the Steelers over the next four years (including postseasons) before an ignominious departure and second retirement.
Coaches in Common (past):
Dick Lebeau (Bengals Defensive backs coach and Defensive Coordinator 1980-91; Steelers Defensive backs coach and Defensive Coordinator 1992-96; Bengals Defensive Coordinator 1997-2000; Bengals Head Coach 2000-2002; Steelers Defensive Coordinator 2004-14)
When a man coaches for 41 years, he’s likely to collect paychecks from a number of organizations, but the bulk of Lebeau’s career was spent jumping between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Coach Dad was a Hall of Fame player himself and one of the great defensive minds of the age – an architect of the zone blitz in the 70s and 80s, perhaps the most effective scheme for combatting the new West Coast offenses of the age. Lebeau’s head coaching career was a bust, but he served on the defensive staffs for every Bengals or Steelers team that competed for a Super Bowl after 1980, and collected Super Bowl rings under Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh.
Marvin Lewis (Steelers Linebackers coach 1992-95; Bengals Head Coach 2003-18).
The Bengals all-time winningest coach worked alongside and under Lebeau in Pittsburgh from 1992-95 (both were on Bill Cowher’s first staff). He was hired away to coordinate the celebrated Baltimore Ravens defense from 1996-2001, and (after a year in Washington), he amazingly replaced Lebeau as head coach in Cincinnati from 2003-18. Lewis was on the Steelers sidelines for Super Bowl XXX, then won a ring with Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV. In Cincinnati, he went 0-7 in the playoffs over sixteen seasons.
Coach in Common (current):
Teryl Austin (Bengals Defensive Coordinator, 2018; Steelers Assistant Defensive Backs Coach, 2019).
If you look at Coach Austin’s career, he seems oddly destined to work with the Steelers at some point. He was the DBs coach on the Seattle Seahawks from 2003-06 and then held the same position with the Arizona Cardinals from 2007-09, meaning he coached against the Steelers in two Super Bowls. Then he was the Secondary Coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 2011-13, posting a 4-2 record against the Steelers (note: in 2014, when Austin left to coach in Detroit, Ben Roethlisberger lit up the Ravens secondary for six touchdowns in a 43-23 blowout). Finally, in Cincinnati, as Defensive Coordinator, he met the Steelers twice last year as well (going 0-2 this time). That’s a lot of interaction.
Since Austin came to Pittsburgh to assist Tom Bradley with the defensive backfield, the Steelers have exploded with interceptions, having picked off only eight balls last year versus the fifteen they already have this season. The arrivals of Steven Nelson and especially Minkah Fitzpatrick are certainly factors in that leap, as is a second year with Bradley, but let’s not overlook the other new face: Teryl Austin.
Pittsburgh 664-583-22 (.532)
Cincinnati 362-441- 4 (.451)
Founded in 1966, the Bengals can’t be compared with the Steelers in raw win totals. Their winning percentage, however, can. The Steelers are 11th best all time winning percentage; the Bengals are 27th.
Pittsburgh 502-315-3 (.614)
Cincinnati 355-421-3 (.457)
The Steelers are the winningest team in the NFL since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger.
The Bengals are 20th.
Pittsburgh 212-115-2 (.648)
Cincinnati 143-165-3 (.462)
The Steelers are the #2 team in the NFL this millennium.
Cincinnati sits at 21st.
Steady Success vs Feast/Famine
Steelers have been the playoffs twelve times this century, recording three Super Bowl Trips against only one losing season. They aren’t always the champs, but they’re always competitive.
Bengals were playoff qualifiers seven times this century, including five years in a row from 2010-15 (though they didn’t win a single postseason game). But they also have nine losing seasons – 2019 will be the tenth season under .500 in only 20 years.
Most famous retiree turned talking head:
Pittsburgh : Terry Bradshaw
Cincinnati : Chris Collinsworth
Most famous final minute Super Bowl drive:
Pittsburgh : SB43 in 2008.
Ben Roethlisberger drives the Steelers 88 yards in 2:24, throwing the game winning touchdown to Santonio Holmes with 34 seconds left.
Cincinnati : SB23 in 1988.
The Bengals defense allows Joe Montana and the 49ers to drive 92 yards in 2:34, throwing the winning touchdown to John Taylor with 36 seconds left.
* Note: I’m sure some of you are already ready to point out that Ben’s drive was only 78 yards, but the first play from scrimmage was a holding penalty, backing the Steelers up to the 12 – thus making the drive 88 yards. Oddly, a similar thing actually happened on the 49ers drive: they returned a kick to the 15 (making the drive 85) but had an illegal block penalty that took them back to the 8. In any case, I’ve always felt like Ben gets short-changed, so I’m calling it 88.
Best Defense Under Dick Lebeau:
Pittsburgh : 2008
First in the NFL in yards, yards per play, passing yards, yards per pass, yards per rush, touchdowns allowed, points allowed.
Second in first downs, touchdown passes allowed, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns allowed, passer rating against, sacks.
Third in interceptions.
Cincinnati : 1983 (when Lebeau was DBs coach; there are no real standouts in his time as DC).
First in the NFL in yards, yards per play, first downs allowed, yards per rush.
Second in yards per pass.
Third in passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards.
Player Who Ought to be HOF but Isn’t:
Pittsburgh : L.C. Greenwood (1969-81)
Cincinnati : Kenny Anderson (1971-86)
1980s QB no one knows is named Norman:
Pittsburgh : Norman “Bubby” Brister (1986-93)
Cincinnati : Norman “Boomer” Esiason (1985-91)
Best Coach’s Insult to a Divisional Foe:
Pittsburgh : Bill Cowher leading the “Who dey? We dey!” chant in the locker room after defeating Bengals in the 2005 playoffs
Cincinnati : Sam Wyche telling the Cincinnati crowd to stop throwing snow balls onto the field in 1990: “You don’t live in Cleveland, you live in Cincinnati!”
HEAD TO HEAD:
Pittsburgh 65 – 35
Pittsburgh 2 – 0
Pittsburgh – 9w (including 2015 playoffs)
Pittsburgh – 9 games (2015-19)
Cincinnati – 6 games (1988-90)
November 2, 1970
Pittsburgh – 21
Cincinnati – 10
The student (Chuck Noll) beat his mentor (Paul Brown) as the Steelers had just entered the AFC and the Bengals had just entered the NFL. Three Steelers threw passes on the day — with Terry Hanratty posting a 133.9 rating and running back Dick Hoak throwing a touchdown on a halfback option. Only rookie Terry Bradshaw looked bad, going 4-12 for 40 yards on the day. Cincinnati ultimately won the division, but the Steelers won the day.
Most Recent game:
September 20, 2019
Pittsburgh – 27
Cincinnati – 3
The Steelers were 0-3, playing without Ben Roethlisberger, and in danger of losing control of their season. Enter the Cincinnati Bengals. James Conner and company had struggled to run in the first three weeks, and Mason Rudolph had thrown nearly every pass the previous week at or behind the line of scrimmage. To counter their own weak offense, Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner insert a package of wildcat plays featuring Jaylen Samuels and Conner taking direct snaps and pitching shovel-passes that effectively cleared running room through the Bengals D. It worked, as Samuels completed a pass, caught a pass, and ran for a touchdown, the Steelers defense flatlined Cincinnati, and the Steelers emerged with a blowout victory and some momentum to turn around their season.
Biggest Game in the Series:
January 8, 2006 (AFC Wild Card Game)
Pittsburgh – 31
Cincinnati – 17
The curse of the Terrible Towel. Following a division sealing victory in week 13, Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh wiped his cleats on a terrible towel on the sidelines, to the chagrin of Steelers Nation. This isn’t going to end well for Houshmandzadeh.
An early-season Super Bowl favorite after their 15-1 season the year before, the Steelers had famously endured a three game losing streak mid-season, falling to 7-5 on the year, and the cusp of playoff elimination. The Steelers did their part, winning the final four games, and the stars aligned for them to grab the sixth seed in the playoffs – earning a trip to Cincinnati in the wildcard round.
The Bengals had a powerful offense, with Houshmandzadeh, Chad Johnson and Chris Henry catching passes from Carson Palmer. On their first offensive possession, Henry beat Bryant McFadden on a 66 yard pass, and the Steelers. On the pass, though, Steeler (and former Bengal) defensive end, Kimo Von Olhoffen rolled up on Palmer’s knee, tearing his ACL and ending his season. This must have been a devastating blow for the Bengals. Veteran backup Jon Kitna entered the game instead and played valiantly, but the Steelers were clearly the superior team.
Everyone forgets this (because of his lackluster Super Bowl) but Ben Roethlisberger was sensational in these playoffs. Moreover, the Steelers defense terrorized Kitna and the Bengals all day. Two highlights: Leading late in the game, Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt dialed up a flea flicker to Cedrick Wilson (remember him?). The Bengals were utterly surprised, and Wilson was open by fifteen yards. This play didn’t just break the Bengals backs, it also prefigured the end-around wide receiver option play that famously broke the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. Later, Troy Polamalu snagged a vintage interception and cut across the field (like always). Going to the ground, he lateraled to Deshea Townshend, who nearly missed the ball, causing a scuffle to recover the fumble. Bill Cowher was not thrilled, but it didn’t hurt the team. The Steelers won 31-17.
I’m sure Bengals fans will grind their teeth forever about Palmer’s injury (and rightfully so, I suppose), but the Steelers proved to be the best team in the NFL that year, beating the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd seeds in the AFC (all on the road), as well as the 1st and 2nd seeds in the NFC, over their season-ending eight game winning streak. They would go on to win three AFC titles and two Super Bowls over the next five years. If they’d lost this game, it’s fair to ask what would have come of that mini-dynasty, as well as Bill Cowher’s legacy as Steelers coach, and Ben Roethlisberger’s and Jerome Bettis’s reputations. Though the teams have played twice a season for 49 years, it’s hard to imagine a more consequential game than this one.
Other Memorable Games:
January 9, 2016 – AFC Wildcard Playoffs
Pittsburgh – 16
Cincinnati – 13
God I hate Vontaze Burfict. This is perhaps the filthiest game I’ve ever watched. The Steelers dominated the game for three quarters, leading the Bengals 15-0 when Burfict drove his knee into Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulder on the ground, separating his shoulder and forcing him from the game (at which point, Bengals fans threw trash at the injury cart). Landry Jones entered and immediately the Bengals pitched a comeback, taking the lead late in the fourth. When Jones threw across the middle and Burfict (of all people) made an interception, the Bengals just needed to run out the clock. This is when Ryan Shazier refused to go down quietly. Shazier had earlier forced a fumble with a violent hit on Giovanni Bernard, after which Jeremy Hill charged Shazier, looking for a fight. In the fourth quarter, on Burfict’s interception, Hill ran down the sidelines and danced in the end zone – well before the game was over. Hill got the call on the first play from scrimmage after the pick. He hit the line and Shazier, amazingly, stripped the ball from him. Given one last chance, Ben Roethlisberger did his best Roy Hobbs, coming back out onto the field for the game winning drive.
I wrote game-notes on this one at the time (LINK), so I’ll refrain from going through it again (I could go all day on this one). But I’ll say this: I think this Steelers team was the strongest one of the 2014-18 era. They pitched a 17-point comeback to defeat the eventual champion Broncos in week 15, and then nearly beat them again at Mile High despite playing without Antonio Brown, LeVeon Bell, and DeAngelo Williams, and with Ben Roethlisberger playing with a separated shoulder – ALL coming from Burfict’s dirty hits.
This team was special – a spectacular offense and a scrappy, courageous defense. I’ve long suspected that, if they’d have been at anywhere near full-strength in those playoffs, they’d have been unstoppable. This could have been the 7th ring. I hate Vontaze Burfict.
December 30, 2001
Pittsburgh – 23
Cincinnati – 26*overtime
This Steelers team went 13-3 and took the AFC’s #1 seed into the playoffs. Their week 16 loss to the 6-10 Bengals was hardly a season-killer, in that case. So why include it here? Because Bill Cohwer famously rang up a 110-1-1 record when leading by over ten points in the fourth quarter. This was the one loss.
Fun trivia note: Dick Lebeau was the opposing coach.
October 14, 1979
Pittsburgh – 10
Cincinnati – 34
December 2, 1979
Pittsburgh – 37
Cincinnati – 17
In the 70s Steelers last Super Bowl year, the Bengals series featured a wild swing. In the first contest, Cincinnati scored touchdowns on special teams and defense, en route to a 24 point route. In the late-season rematch, the Steelers ran out to a 24-3 lead and then held on for the convincing victory. Interesting statistical note: in October, John Stallworth recorded six catches for 126 yards and a touchdown. In the December contest, Lynn Swann caught five balls for 192 and two scores. That’s an awful lot of firepower on one team.
The split series may indicate a passing of the torch in the AFC Central, as the Bengals would go to the Super Bowl two years in the future.