Week 4: Cincinnati at Pittsburgh

Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were 65 seconds away from sweeping the surprising Cincinnati Bengals. QB Tommy Maddox finally found his rhythm late in the fourth quarter, after spending most of the day trying to avoid the Bengal pass rush, hitting WR Hines Ward in the end zone and putting the Steelers up by 3. The ensuing kickoff was short and returner Brandon Bennett put the Bengals near midfield. 4 plays and 52 seconds later, the Steelers suffered another disappointment.

In 2003, if it was not one thing, it was another for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team would plug one leak only to see one or two more spring forth. The rematch against the Cincinnati Bengals demonstrated all too well everything wrong with the Steelers last season.

What might we expect in 2004? Expectations are high in Cincinnati after being in the 2003 playoff hunt right up until the last weekend of the season. Head coach Marvin Lewis, entering his second season at the helm, has players and fans believing that the Bengals can play winning football.

The foundation of this resurgence is the offensive line. LT Levi Jones, LG Eric Steinbach, C Rich Braham, RG Bobbie Williams, and RT Willie Anderson will comprise the best starting five in the AFC North in the coming season. Cincinnati's comfort level with OL allowed them to let go of disgruntled and disruptive running back Corey Dillon, opting for up-and-coming Rudi Johnson.

But don't be fooled by last season's statistics. Johnson is not quite the talent that Dillon is, but a great offensive line looks to make that issue a point moot.

Injuries, like the ones that the Steelers experienced last season, could usher in the return of the dark days in Cincinnati. As the offensive line goes, so will go the Bengals.

The Bengals will need the running game to take the pressure off of the inexperienced QB Carson Palmer. The Steelers defensive scheme thrives on the mistakes of quarterbacks, almost always torturing the neophyte signal caller. 2003 was kind to starting QB Jon Kitna, who can make plays if given the time to do so. Kitna has shown a tendency to implode when asked to do too much. Regardless, the Bengals have decided to take another bold step into a better future.

The Bengal rushing attack did not intimidate the Steelers in 2003 and it won't in 2004, either. However, once LT Levi Jones settled down into his role in pass protection, Cincinnati could exploit Pittsburgh's weak spot, the secondary.

Protecting the passer was not an AFC North strength in 2003, but Pittsburgh's pass rush had grown surprisingly anemic. The current off-season debate concerns whether this was Bill Cowher's fault or Tim Lewis' fault. Choose your own scapegoat, but the Steelers clearly were attempting to hide the deficiencies in the secondary with copycat cover-2 nickel scheme, borrowed from Tampa Bay.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, they could not generate much of a pass rush with the down linemen, exposing the pass defense anyway. Cincinnati took note and exploited this advantage to the hilt in the rematch.

But the Bengals won't start Kitna this time around and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will do his best to confuse the young Palmer. If the Steelers can shut down Rudi Johnson, the Bengals will struggle to score.

Cincinnati does not lack the proper counterpunch. RDE Justin Smith leads an aggressive pass rush that put the Steeler QB on his back 6 times in their win and just once in their loss. LT Marvel Smith is the difference for Pittsburgh. With Smith in there, Maddox will have time to explore the Bengals' secondary, and he'll like what he finds there.

The Bengals tried to shore up their secondary with former Bronco CB Deltha O'Neal. But Denver let O'Neal go because he failed to live up to his potential and proved to be too erratic. With CB Dennis Weathersby experiencing another tragic injury, many expected the Bengals to go corner in the first round of the 2004 draft. Surprisingly, the Bengals took RB Chris Perry, perhaps showing some unease with Johnson at starting running back.

Cincinnati did pick up ballhawk Keiwan Ratliff in round 2, who should help shore up the dime. Still, the Bengals are lucky that their division is far from pass-happy.

WR Hines Ward had 17 receptions for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Bengals last season. He'll be looking to tame the tiger again, if Maddox can keep the turnovers to a minimum. Cincinnati will do their best to turn up the heat, challenging the left side of the Steeler offensive line to win the game.

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