Cowher, Lewis, their paths come full circle today

They grew up on opposite sides of the tracks but went through a few Friday nights together on the Western Pennsylvania proving grounds.<br><br> "Carlynton and Fort Cherry is a pretty good rivalry," said noted Carlynton graduate Bill Cowher, the coach of the Steelers.<br><br>

It was his first encounter with Marvin Lewis, the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Today, the two will coach against each other for the first time, but their common histories go way back.

"They won 6-0 on a kickoff return for a touchdown. How ironic is that?" Cowher said, indirectly noting his current team's biggest problem.

Cowher was asked if he was in on the coverage that day.

"No I was not," he said. "And even if I was, you'd have to go back into the films to find that one. I wouldn't tell you."

The two got to know each other better as both worked their way up through the coaching ranks. Lewis joined the Kansas City staff, which included Cowher, and then Cowher brought him to Pittsburgh in 1992. Lewis left in 1996 to become the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and won a Super Bowl ring. Lewis was hired to coach the Bengals this season, and the feeling is he will have a competitive team in Cincinnati sooner than not.

"He's a good football coach who understands the game and I think his players enjoy playing for him, and you can see that," said Cowher. "Even though they're 0-2 they've gotten a lot better from Week One to Week Two. You can just see the whole approach they have to the game is one of renewed energy that they have down there."

Haven't we heard this before? In 2001, former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau supposedly injected energy into the moribund Bengals. He had them off to a 2-0 start, but a 16-7 loss in Pittsburgh dropped them to 2-2 and they finished 6-10. LeBeau was fired after the Bengals went 2-14 last season.

"We have heard this before, but it's different this time," said Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward. "Marvin was with the Super Bowl champions in Baltimore. And he knows our personnel well. He's going to mix it up. He understands how Plax (Burress), myself and Antwaan (Randle El) run routes. They're going to find ways to defend us and disguise coverages and try to keep Tommy (Maddox) off guard."

Because of those players, the Steelers have the NFL's second-ranked passing offense, but because of Lewis and the changes he's made, the Bengals are the NFL's second-ranked pass defense.

After allowing the league's highest cumulate passer rating last season, Lewis brought in cornerback Tory James from the Oakland Raiders, added strong safety Rogers Beckett off the waiver wire, and added his own defensive know-how to make dramatic improvement. Even though the Bengals lost to Denver and Oakland, they've allowed a passer rating of 34.9. Oakland's Rich Gannon passed for only 103 yards last Sunday, his lowest total in nearly two years.

"Watching them against Oakland," Ward said, "I think Tory James had a lot to do with that, being an old Oakland player. He kind of knew the crossing routes and they love to run crossing routes. But with his experience, and (cornerback Jeff) Burris and the other guys, they're doing a nice job. And the front four's really helping them out a lot. They're putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback and they're starting to take chances. That's something they probably didn't have previous years but this year Marvin's got those guys playing well. They don't look like an 0-2 team."

Statistically, the Bengals shouldn't be 0-2. They're ranked in the top 10 in four of the NFL's six major categories. They are second in pass defense, fifth in pass offense, eighth in total offense and 10th in total defense. Players on both teams are convinced Lewis is making a difference.

He was asked about turning around the Bengals.

"Fans can get to where they think their team has a funk or some kind of rash or something, and then they realize that winning takes work and it takes time," Lewis said. "Anybody can win. There are no cities in the NFL that can't win. Just like anything else, you have to work at it."

Lewis learned that back on those Friday nights in Western Pennsylvania. Not that he remembers much about the rivalry his Fort Cherry team had with Cowher's Carlynton team.

"Those were two schools that were close together," Lewis said. "It was hard-nosed football, like hopefully we will get to play on Sunday."

Jim Wexell

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