Offense leads Bengals past Steelers
There's still room for improvement, but the Bengals took a huge step forward Sunday behind their high-powered offense, writes Len Pasquarelli.
PITTSBURGH -- Revolution typically doesn't occur overnight. Unrest usually foments for a while before the status quo finally comes unraveled. Overthrowing a longtime power in the NFL doesn't happen until you eventually quit overthrowing open receivers.
So when the Cincinnati Bengals all but completed their coup d'etat in the AFC North on Sunday with a 38-31 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, coach Marvin Lewis reminded everyone postgame that his team had to lay the foundation for its first winning season since 1990 by first cobbling together consecutive non-losing seasons. And right offensive tackle Willie Anderson, one of the longest-suffering Bengals, quickly seconded the motion.
"It seems like we've been climbing [mountains] ever since I got here," said Anderson, a 10-year veteran who, until Sunday, had never played on a team with a winning record. "I guess we're finally near the top. I mean, we're not the [division] champions yet, and there is still some work to be done, but we're feeling pretty good now. It's very gratifying."
As well it should be.
In defeating a Steelers team that had won the previous meeting at Paul Brown Stadium by 14 points on Oct. 23, the Bengals moved to 9-3 and extended their lead in the division to two games over slumping Pittsburgh, which lost for the third straight week. Almost as important, Cincinnati continued to reinforce the notion that it might be a force in postseason play, and perhaps the favorite in the AFC North for the foreseeable future.
Lewis has assembled a young team -- every point scored by the Bengals on Sunday was by a player 28 or younger; standout quarterback Carson Palmer is in just his third NFL season; and Cincinnati got a ton of key plays from rookies like middle linebacker Odell Thurman, wide receiver Chris Henry and kickoff return specialist Tab Perry -- one likely to only get better in ensuing seasons.
That the Bengals did so in a manner heretofore anathema in a division principally noted for its stodginess and blue-collar approach, trotting out a diverse and high-octane offense the likes of which hasn't been seen for a while in the AFC North (see: AFC Central), was especially impressive. Lewis still has holes to fill on defense, and Sunday marked the sixth time in its last eight games that Cincinnati allowed 23 points or more, but the Bengals offense continued to render all the opponents' scoring, well, pointless.
This is certainly not the way games are historically won in this division. Sunday marked just the third occasion since the league realigned into eight divisions of four teams, and the AFC Central was rechristened, that both teams scored 30 or more points in a division matchup. The difference in the game, clearly, was the turnover margin. The Steelers lost three interceptions and one of four fumbles, while the Bengals did not turn the ball over at all and, during some stretches, looked virtually unstoppable.
Cincinnati ranked second in the league in total offense and fifth in scoring entering the game, and lived up to these numbers. The defense, No. 21 and still a sieve at times -- it must rankle Lewis, whose acumen on that side of the ball is well documented -- played poorly for long stretches. But it mattered little, because the defense snatched the ball away four times and the offense was rarely held in check.
Veterans in both locker rooms acknowledged Cincinnati potentially possesses the most explosive offense the division has witnessed in recent memory. For years, this has been a division in which defenses tried to pitch shutouts. But with a triggerman like Palmer, who probably won't win NFL most valuable player honors this year but who should be on the short list of candidates, the Steelers, Browns and Ravens might have to refocus now on prevailing in shootouts instead.
"We're kind of revolutionizing the division," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had five catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns. "We knew we could score on them with this offense. It's a great offense, really, with a lot of weapons and a great line. We've got playmakers all over the place, a smart quarterback, and we like to attack. We can play you tough or we can finesse you. It's certainly the best offense we've had since I've been here."
Cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who notched his eighth interception of the season with one of the three pickoffs of Ben Roethlisberger, practices every day against Cincinnati's offense. Told that the Bengals defense played a huge role in the victory by often providing the offense with a short field -- the Bengals, as a result of takeaways or kick returns, started four of 13 possessions in Steeler territory -- O'Neal agreed. But he also acknowledged the potency of the Palmer-led attack.
"I don't want to take anything away from the other offenses [in the division]," O'Neal said. "But this offense, I mean, there are times it looks like it can score at will. I wouldn't know how to begin game-planning for it, because it has so many ways of moving the ball and scoring, you know? It's an offense that has a whole lot going for it. They can move it up and down the field. And it seemed like every time the Steelers scored to make it close, our offense answered right back."
Indeed, the Steelers' 31 points represented their third-highest output of the season. And Pittsburgh held big advantages in first downs (28-21), total yards (474-324) and time of possession (33:18 to 26:42). Despite playing with an injured right thumb that several media outlets have reported is broken, Roethlisberger threw for a career-best 386 yards and three touchdowns. But in addition to the turnovers, Pittsburgh was deficient on special teams as well, allowing Bengals rookie Tab Perry 197 yards on five kickoff runbacks.
The most costly was a 94-yard return that immediately followed receiver Hines Ward's first of two touchdown catches, which tied the score at 24 nearly six minutes into the third quarter.
In a superb individual effort, Perry burst up the middle, cut to the left and simply bulled his way down the sideline. He dragged Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, by unofficial count, for 27 yards before finally being hauled down at Pittsburgh's 3-yard line. The Bengals scored two plays later, on tailback Rudi Johnson's 1-yard run over the right side, to take back the lead for good.
|“||It seems like we've been climbing [mountains] ever since I got here. I guess we're finally near the top. I mean, we're not the [division] champions yet, and there is still some work to be done, but we're feeling pretty good now. It's very gratifying. ”|
|— Willie Anderson, Bengals OT|
"I just kept moving my feet as best I could," Perry said. "I kept thinking, 'Well, sooner or later, someone else is going to come and jump on [me],' but it didn't happen. It was a good feeling to make a play like that. I mean, if you can give this offense any kind of a boost like that, well, it can do the rest. Those guys are really clicking."
At one juncture of the first half, in fact, the Bengals offense scored touchdowns on three straight possessions. Over a stretch that began late in the first quarter and went into the third, the Bengals scored on five of six series as Palmer mixed the power running of Johnson (21 carries, 98 yards, two touchdowns) with connections to wideouts Chad Johnson (five for 54 yards), Henry (five for 52) and Houshmandzadeh.
Not surprisingly, Johnson conducted a virtual filibuster after the game and, as he had in the days preceding the contest, donned a Terrible Towel as a bib. And the loquacious wide receiver wasn't the only talkative player in a Cincinnati locker room where players were clearly long on bravado.
Houshmandzadeh cited a quote from after the previous meeting of the year when Steelers linebacker Joey Porter had suggested the Bengals' "measuring stick game" had become a "whipping stick game." Bellowed the confident Houshmandzadeh: "So what kind of stick was this game, huh? Let's here it from them."
Given what Anderson termed "our well-known history" in reference to the Bengals' mostly miserable existence over the past decade and a half, Cincinnati players certainly earned the right to crow a bit following Sunday's outcome. But Lewis, who earned one-year contract extensions after each of the previous two .500 seasons, and could well be appointed coach for life after Sunday's win, might do well to temper things some in coming days. While there seems little doubt now that Cincinnati will claim the division -- it has only one remaining game against a team with a winning record -- there is still a ways to go.
The victory over the Steelers, while a giant step, was not quite a quantum leap. But this is a Cincinnati team that, with its ability to score big, might surprise people in the playoffs, especially if it gets a home game. It's a team, as well, that won't be nearly as stealthy, Lewis suggested.
"We have an opportunity to do something special," the onetime Steelers defensive coach said. "We still have a lot of football to be played. But it's time to stop hiding from it. It's time for us to go sit in the front row."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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