- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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"There's nothing like Monday night," the eight-year veteran said. "It's electrifying out there."
The atmosphere on the Riverfront certainly will be charged later in the day when the Bengals host their first home game of the season and welcome a familiar foe to their stomping grounds. Actually, "stomping" is an appropriate word for this matchup. It has been used far too often against Cincinnati in this rivalry, with the Steelers coming out victorious in 13 of the last 14 games played in the Queen City. Pittsburgh also has won five of the last six meetings overall.
Cincinnati's most recent series victory came in December on a game-winning field goal that put the Bengals in the playoffs for a second straight season.
To get you set for this latest installment in the longtime AFC North rivalry, which begins at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN, here are four things to watch for:
1. Taking advantage. With center Maurkice Pouncey's season-ending injury that came just eight plays into last week's game against Tennessee, the Steelers scrambled all week to find an adequate backup. Although there has not been a formal announcement, it appears Fernando Velasco will play in place of Pouncey, making just the 20th start of his five-year career. Until last week, he was a free agent who started all 16 games at center and left guard for the Titans last season.
With so much change at the crucial position, the Bengals will want to take advantage by crashing their physical and athletic defensive line into the interior of Pittsburgh's offensive line often. As good as Velasco may be, the difficulty he faces is understanding as many of the Steelers' play calls and protections as possible. It might behoove the Bengals to blitz from the inside and send multiple stunts early just to see how he reacts.
2. Keeping up with the receivers. Whatever struggles Velasco may have could be negated by Ben Roethlisberger. The veteran quarterback has demonstrated an ability to put the Steelers' offense on his shoulders and will it to victory, regardless of all of the challenges that exist. Expect him to try to do the same Monday night. In doing that, he will be roaming around the backfield, looking for as long as it takes for as many open receivers as he can.
Like we wrote on the ESPN NFL Nation Bengals blog earlier, among quarterbacks who had four to six seconds to attempt a pass last season, Roethlisberger ranked first in QBR. He also led the league in touchdowns and passer rating in similar situations. How was he able to have so much time to pass? Well, he had an offensive line that blocked well enough for him, and he had receivers who kept routes alive even as Roethlisberger stumbled in and out of sack attempts and avoided rushers. Cincinnati will need to be sure its defensive backs don't lose coverage, and it will need to stay relentless on the rush in order to prevent Big Ben from taking over.
3. Cleaner game? Will the Bengals play a cleaner game this week compared to what they showed in Chicago last Sunday? We shall see. If they don't and lose their composure often, retaliate with punches and shoves after the whistle and let the trash talk get inside their heads, they could be in for a repeat result. Coaches contend that they spent part of the week impressing upon players the need for avoiding useless penalties like the unsportsmanlike and personal-foul calls that were a product of retaliatory behavior last week.
A clean game also is one with few clock-management issues. Thanks to personnel problems that arose not even halfway through the fourth quarter last week, the Bengals burned their last two timeouts. With a divisional game that could go to the wire, they have to make sure those challenges also are behind them.
4. Battle of run games. Neither team's running game looked good in their respective openers. The Steelers rushed for just 31 yards. The Bengals amassed 63. In order to combat its rushing woes, Pittsburgh re-signed the once-waived Jonathan Dwyer. Last year in Cincinnati, Dwyer rushed for 122 yards in one of the last games in which the Steelers went beyond the 100-yard rushing plateau as a team.
Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden says he'll make Cincinnati's offense one predicated on passing if that's what is needed to win, but he wants to establish a semblance of offensive balance. To that end, look for Giovani Bernard to get more than four carries this week. Against the Bears, his four carries totaled 22 yards.