Season-opening losses by the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers may have taken a little shine off their "Monday Night Football" clash in Cincinnati, but they actually added to the game’s importance.
Teams that start a season 0-2 usually don’t make the playoffs and neither team wants to go down that path. The Steelers have never done it during Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach, and they don’t want to start now, especially coming off an 8-8 season and a brutal loss to the Titans last Sunday.
They will be decided underdogs, and neither I nor ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown can remember the last time they have entered a game in Cincinnati in that role.
Scott joins me for Double Coverage this week. We'll give him the nod to ask the first question.
Scott Brown: Coley, everything seems to favor the Bengals in this matchup. They are at home and the Bengals defensive line could have its way with an offensive line that is replacing a Pro Bowler at center (Maurkice Pouncey) with a player who will make his first start at the position in (Kelvin Beachum).
How much of a potential mismatch is there up front, and what should worry the Bengals about the Steelers?
Coley Harvey: Yeah, Scott, this is really setting up to be a potential nightmare scenario for Big Ben and the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense. If Steelers fans thought they kept seeing Ben Roethlisberger’s career flash before their eyes every time he dropped back against the Titans after Pouncey's injury, then who knows what they’ll be thinking this week. Tennessee a year ago averaged 2.4 sacks per game. The Bengals averaged 3.2. Cincinnati’s entire defensive line is back and arguably better than ever.
To their credit, though, the Bengals are taking Beachum’s insertion into the lineup seriously. They know that he will be that much more motivated to prove that he belongs and to prove to Roethlisberger that he is more than capable of protecting him against a front that includes Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins, veteran tackle Domata Peko and young, up-and-coming ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. To understand the motivations of a young backup offensive lineman, the Bengals actually don’t need to look any further than their own reserve tackle, Anthony Collins. Actually, speaking of Collins, are the Steelers aware of how the backup left tackle kept Chicago’s all-world defensive end, Julius Peppers, in check last weekend?
Brown: Wow, yet another thing that doesn’t bode well for the Steelers bouncing back in the second week of the season. The Steelers have to put consistent pressure on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton or it could be a long night for Ike Taylor. The veteran Steelers cornerback gets the, ahem, privilege of shadowing Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who had a monster game in the opener and is arguably as good as any wideout this side of Calvin Johnson. Nothing would help Taylor more than if the Steelers get to Dalton early and often.
As well as the defense played in the opener, it allowed Titans quarterback Jake Locker to complete some clutch third-down throws. It also didn’t force any turnovers. The Steelers must win the turnover battle if they are to beat the Bengals, and the defense has to do its part there.
Speaking of disruptive forces, we should probably get around to talking about James Harrison, as he is playing against the Steelers for the first time, which is a major storyline leading up to the game. Harrison is playing in a different scheme from the one he thrived in for years in Pittsburgh. How has he adjusted and how much of an impact do you see him making Monday night and beyond?
Harvey: James Harrison is still James Harrison. The guy who was a terror on the field in Pittsburgh and who was a real social butterfly in the Steelers locker room has brought his whole persona with him to Cincinnati. (Even Tomlin shared a good laugh with reporters in Cincinnati earlier this week when he realized on a conference call that we had met the sociable Harrison.) After his finger-flicking, camera-dodging antics on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” Bengals fans were completely won over. They may have hated the guy while he was in Pittsburgh, but now he’s one of their favorites. When it comes to the locker room, Harrison’s teammates respect him and believe in him. They are very optimistic that his presence will be a tremendous benefit to what was already a strong defense.
Now that it has been six months since Harrison was roaming the halls at Steelers headquarters, what are the folks in Pittsburgh saying about him? How much are people anticipating seeing him face his old club? Oh, and do you think the Steelers’ skill guys like Roethlisberger are ready to feel the hard-hitting justice Harrison used to dole out for them?
Brown: Harrison will always hold a special place in Steelers history. His ferocious style of play is one thing that linked the recent Steelers teams to the ones that dominated the 1970s and set a new course for a franchise that had once been synonymous with futility. Fans loved him. His teammates loved him. His coaches loved him.
I’m sure there will be plenty of pleasantries exchanged between Harrison and the Steelers players and coaches before the game and maybe after it. It will be all business between the lines. The Steelers know what they are up against in Harrison, and are very aware how motivated he will be to show his former team it made a mistake by releasing him.
Roethlisberger actually played against Harrison when the two were in college so that won’t be totally unfamiliar for the Steelers quarterback. One thing the Steelers have stressed is they can’t be too preoccupied with Harrison as there are plenty of other Bengals who can get to the quarterback. Geno Atkins, anyone?
OK, Coley, here is my final question: Do you see a scenario in which the Bengals don’t win Monday night?
Harvey: First off, great point about the former Miami (Ohio) and Kent State guys going at it like in their old college days. That’ll be another reason TVs across the Buckeye State will be tuned to ESPN on Monday.
As for your question -- yes. I do see a scenario in which the Bengals lose. One of two things can happen in the game, right? I’ll admit, it’s a pretty far-fetched scenario, but it definitely exists. Many of us did, after all, go into Cincinnati’s last game expecting the Bengals to roll to a one- or two-score win over the Bears. That didn’t happen. If the Bengals were to lose this week, it would likely be because of a scenario similar to what happened last week at Soldier Field: The opposing quarterback plays out of his mind. Jay Cutler did things against the Bengals last Sunday that he didn’t do all last season. And we all know Roethlisberger has the ability to put this team on his shoulders at any time. It would take a truly special performance, but if Big Ben can overcome the center issue, the Bengals' D-line issue and that whole playing on the road on a Monday night issue, then the Steelers can snatch away a big division win. If not, count this one a win for Cincinnati.