“You are what your record says you are.”
“You establish the run to set up the pass.”
“If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none.”
You are surely familiar with these NFL cliches, whose truth waxes and wanes with the seasons. But there is one football saying, courtesy of Bill Walsh, that remains as profound as ever—perhaps more so in this day and age of the high-velocity aerial attack. “There is nothing more important than fourth quarter pass rush.”
While Walsh, tragically, never became the Bengals head coach, his maxim has taken root in the Queen City in 2018. The fact is that Cincinnati continues to get consistent, game-changing pressure on the QB late in games, which is why they’re 4-1 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC North.
Obviously the Miami game Sunday was Exhibit A. Cincinnati would be 3-2 without the pass rush creating not one but two turnover TDs. Sure, there was an element of flukiness to the bounces, especially the Michael Johnson play, but they don’t happen without the pocket collapsing on Ryan Tannehill. As for Sam Hubbard, remember he was also thisclose to game-turning plays in Carolina. He may not be J.J. Watt or even T.J. Watt, but he’s always hustling, can play inside or out, and possesses that innate skill to be around the ball wherever it goes. The fact that he grew up a Bengals fan is just delicious icing on that nutritious cake.
The Bengals’ gaudy record is nice, but the season really begins this Sunday, because here comes Pittsburgh! And naturally, just in time, the Steelers appear to have their stuff together. They pummeled the same Falcons Cincinnati scraped by in the final seconds—granted, the game was at Heinz Field and Atlanta was even more banged up on defense, if possible. It was all working for the hated Steel City Crew: Antonio Brown found himself, James Conner ran wild, and the previously MIA defense was all over Matt Ryan, led by the aforementioned Watt the Younger.
Hopefully, that means a little overconfidence. If it was any opponent but Cincinnati, you could set your watch to it—Pittsburgh is due for one of its patented mail-it-in affairs. But the sight of tiger stripes tends to refocus their brains.
I don’t have to remind you of all the pain inflicted on these shores by the men in black and gold. Suffice with this: Since the dreadful day Kimo von Turncoat took out Carson Palmer in the 2005 playoff game (I was there for that one too), Cincinnati has beaten Pittsburgh just six times against 20 defeats. Yikes. There have been so few wins that almost all have a name: Andy to A.J. (2012); the Brian Leonard Fourth Down Lunge (2009); the Bernard Scott Kick Return (2009); Welcome to Cincy, Gio (2013); the Shawn Williams Diving Pick (2015); and, uh, that game back in 2006 when T.J. and Chris Henry both had two touchdown catches. Incredibly, the Steelers are 17-3 all-time at Paul Brown Stadium.
Only in one of those wins (2013) were the Bengals favored and actually covered; Pittsburgh was a meh 8-8 that year). This time around the Stripes are 2 ½- or 3-point favorites, believe it or not, depending on where you care to bet. For the Bengals to duplicate the 2013 result, they’ll need to continue to pressure Ben Roethlisburger, especially in the fourth quarter. Last season, as the Bengals frittered away a 17-0 lead, the Steelers quarterback had all day to throw when it counted, especially in the final quarter, when they scored 13 unanswered points to steal the win.
So the Steelers offensive line will be a key matchup and a tough one as usual. Pittsburgh is fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate after five games and has gotten solid play from most of the positions, with the possible exception of center Maurkice Pouncey. Guard David DeCastro, back from a broken hand, and tackles Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva were excellent in Sunday’s win over Atlanta. As usual, the toughest part of the quest to sack Roethlisburger will be his maddening ability to avoid sacks by slipping around in the pocket and making plays on the move. Not only will the rush line have to play with its hair on fire, but the secondary needs to stay sticky and not lose sight of the elusive Pittsburgh receivers. That’s easier said than done over 60 minutes.
No Le’Veon Bell will be nice, of course. But there’s little doubt Conner is perfectly capable of putting up numbers on the iffy Bengals rush D. In 2016 Deangelo Williams put up 94 yards in Bell’s stead. In the infamous 2015 wildcard game, immortals Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for 123. Williams cracked 70 in two other games that season. Point being, the Steelers always have someone to crank out the yards, and Conner is better than most.
Offensively, the key will be preventing Watt & Co. from unleashing their fourth quarter pass rush. It’s a bad time for guard Clint Boling to turn up on the injury report with a dinged hip, that’s for sure. He is desperately needed against the Steelers.
Watt demolished the Falcons line from the offensive right side, which puts the highly beatable tackle Bobby Hart in the crosshairs. Bill Lazor has done a superb job of scheming not only to Andy Dalton’s strengths but around the O-line’s weaknesses. One thing the front five do well is get out in the open on screens and misdirection runs. Alas, Pittsburgh is second in the league in stopping passes to opposing running backs. Where they struggle is over the middle, especially seam routes to the tight end. Travis Kelce demolished them back in Week 2. Oh, if only Tyler Eifert were around for this one! With his fellow Tyler (Kroft) reportedly in a boot and using one of those mini scooters to keep the weight off his leg, the spotlight will be on C.J. Uzomah even more this Sunday. He has been solid thus far; now is the time to raise his game. Gio Bernard is unlikely to go once again, but hopefully John Ross gets out there after missing the Dolphins game—his speed will be crucial in opening things up underneath for Uzomah. The Bengals are fifth in the NFL in average yards per drive, so keeping the ball and thus sidelining the potent Steelers offense will be important.
Of course, when we’re talking Pittsburgh, individual matchups seem to matter less than the overall feeling of dread that inevitably envelops Paul Brown Stadium when matters begin to go south. Just think back to last December, when the 17-0 lead began to shrivel along with the confidence (and nether regions) of every fan at PBS. Mental El Foldos are a common thread in the Marvin Lewis Era and a historical continuum when it comes to Cincinnati-Pittsburgh games. There are a lot of new players on the roster, of course, and the older ones need to put aside the defeatism, not to mention the distraction. It has long been a Steelers tactic that the hotheads on the Bengals (#55, of course, but plenty of others as well) will lose focus when the Steelers employ their usual shenanigans of trash talk and dirty play.
The main factor in the Bengals’ hot start has been keeping their poise and steady play in the fourth quarter. In no game will that be more important all season than in the upcoming contest. In that December 2017 game, Cincinnati self-destructed with 13 penalties for an egregious 173 yards. Can the Bengals stare down defeat and their opponent and make the big plays at the end once more?
One thing is for sure: Any national respect the Bengals have engendered thus far will be in short supply if they can’t.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.