Opening up a sports page, or flipping on a sports television show this week it is easy to get the impression that there is only one NFL game going on this Sunday, and it is taking place in Indianapolis.
Traditionally, a trip to Pittsburgh has been a veritable death sentence for the pass-happy Bengals, as turnovers abounded and the Steelers ran the ball endlessly until a lopsided victory was in hand.
2009 brings a change of pace however, as Cincinnati enters the matchup not relying on Carson Palmer’s arm—although it has been accurate to the tune of a 89.5 passer rating—but the legs of running back Cedric Benson.
Behind a revamped offensive line, Benson has piled up 837 yards in 2009, second in the NFL behind Chris Johnson’s 959.
The role reversal carries over to the Pittsburgh offense, as well. The tried-and-true grind-it-out running game that the Steelers have turned to in compiling a 149-90-1 record in 15 years under Bill Cower has slowly given way to a reliance on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm in year three under head coach Mike Tomlin.
Pittsburgh’s 266.8 yards per game ranks fifth in the NFL, with their ground game only producing 115.2 yards per game.
With the changes in offensive systems, the defensive strategies that the teams employ will be altered, as well.
Cincinnati’s rejuvenated defensive unit, led by cornerbacks Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall, will likely have to continue its exceptional single-coverage ability against Steeler receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
Joseph and Hall will be left on an island more frequently because of Cincinnati’s need to bring more pass rushers at the elusive Roethlisberger to replace defensive end Antwan Odom—out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon.
Even with Odom, the Bengals’ pass rush struggled in a 23-20 upset of the Steelers on Sept. 27, registering only one sack and forcing defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to continually bring extra blitzers.
Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense will be forced to hold back on many of their customary blitz packages featuring linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Since the Bengals routinely utilize six linemen at a time, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau runs the risk of blitzing his defense into an unbalanced position, opening up big plays for Benson on the ground.
With Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry out for the season with a broken arm it is likely that the Bengal passing game will be featured even less in the gameplan, making a forecast of 30 to 35 carries for Benson a realistic possibility.
With Benson running himself ragged, and Roethlisberger firing 35 to 40 passes, Sunday’s matchup will not show much of a resemblance to your father’s Bengals-Steelers matchups.
With the new tactics, comes new importance. Tell that to the newspapers.