On the first play of the fourth quarter on Sunday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Steelers veteran wideout Hines Ward took a short checkdown throw from Ben Roethlisberger in the right flat and gained eight yards before Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph delivered a shot to Ward just as he reached the right sideline. Ward, who stayed on his feet, immediately stuck his face mask against Joseph's, barking animatedly. And Joseph, with eight fewer years of experience and two fewer Super Bowl rings, jawed right back.
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2009 issue
"In that situation you've got to hold your ground," Joseph said later. "You can't let anybody back you into a corner."
It is difficult to imagine a less artistic three hours of entertainment than the Bengals' 18--12 victory over the Steelers. The game was slow torture in which there were eight field goals and a kickoff return to the house (by Bengals rookie Bernard Scott) but zero offensive touchdowns. Yet in the absence of aesthetics there was the unmistakable scent of change. "It was definitely a statement game, a game we needed," said Cincinnati free safety Chris Crocker. "A lot of people still weren't believing we were real."
It is acutely dangerous to read too much into a single victory in the modern NFL. "A win has value in itself," says Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones. "Sometimes that's enough." But sometimes the wins pile up and say something more. The Bengals are 7--2, and Sunday's win completed a season sweep of the defending Super Bowl champions, to go along with an earlier sweep of the Ravens. After three years of futility and embarrassment, on and off the field (an aggregate 19-28-1 record and numerous arrests), the Bengals are in command of the AFC North and, just as important, are built for postseason survival.
The last Cincinnati team to reach the postseason, in 2005, went 11--5 on the strength of quarterback Carson Palmer's brilliant third season. Those Bengals were one-dimensional, though, finishing 28th in the NFL in total defense.
The current Bengals are the same in some ways—Palmer is their leader—but in crucial ways very different. On Sunday they played 60 minutes in the NFL equivalent of a four-corners offense. Palmer averaged fewer than six yards per attempt and threw only four deep balls all afternoon. In the aftermath of the win Bengals coach Marvin Lewis would call the victory a "grind," and it seemed so by design. Cincinnati is second in the NFL in run defense and now secure in knowing it can win with its ability to make stops.
The Bengals are in their second year in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's one-gap 4--3 defense. (One-gap means that each member of the front four occupies a single gap, or running lane, between offensive linemen; some defenses require linemen to play two gaps.) Defensive tackle Tank Johnson, signed for $620,000 in April, has solidified the line, and rookie Rey Maualuga from USC has shone at strongside linebacker.
"We're just more comfortable this year," says Crocker, a seven-year vet who joined the Bengals at midseason of 2008. "Coach Zimmer's defense is pretty simple, but you have to get used to playing it and playing it together. Look at Pittsburgh. They've all been in that same system [with coordinator Dick LeBeau] for so many years, and it shows."
Cincinnati's was the better defense on Sunday. Roethlisberger was sacked four times and held to a quarterback rating of just 51.5. Given one last possession from his own 33 with 1:56 to play, Big Ben threw four consecutive incompletions.
Also, the Bengals won despite losing their leading rusher, Cedric Benson, with a second- quarter hip injury. Six days earlier wideout Chris Henry had season-ending surgery on a fractured forearm.
"Every win, this team gets a little more mature," says Johnson, who, like Henry, has had numerous embarrassing off-field incidents. "A lot of the older guys on this team have been taking the younger guys aside and telling them, 'You've got to embrace this opportunity.' I know with all the hardship I've had, I tell guys, 'Keep working. This could all be gone in an instant.'"
History shows that it would be foolish to dismiss the Steelers' chances. But the loss of strong safety Troy Polamalu after just one series, with further problems in his left knee, will make things that much tougher for Pittsburgh. "A month off would be great," Polamalu told SI in early November. "But that's not realistic during the season."
It might be all too realistic now, and it could be further evidence of a significant power shift in the AFC North.
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