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Bengals-Steelers pregame stretch

December 21, 2012 - Ray Eckenrode

Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7)

Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Announcers: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms

Annoyance factor: If there’s one thing worse than listening to Nantz and Simms, it’s listening to Nantz and Simms while losing to the Chargers/Cowboys/Bengals/Browns so it continues to be an ugly December. You know the drill, fifth Steelers game, fourth in seven weeks. Nantz: Blah blah blah Brady blah blah Belichick blah blah helmet-to-helmet blah blah. Simms: Gobbledy gobbledy the football blah blah football team gobbledygook the right call blah blah looks like a fumble. Also, we apologize for the brain tumor crack last week, Simms does not make nearly that much sense and it wrong of us to imply he did for a cheap one liner.

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Weather – or not?: Partly cloudy, high 30s. It looks like the first real winterish conditions that either team has seen so far this season, which should be good for about 15 minutes of explanation from Simms about whether the quarterbacks are wearing gloves and what kind and what they said about them and what kind of gloves Simms wore when he played and...

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Referee: Mike Carey

Competence factor: As one of the two longest-tenured white hats working, Carey is highly regarded (although maybe a bit past his prime). His crew is known for a “let them play” style. After last week’s zero-penalty performance by the Steelers (Pittsburgh’s first since Super Bowl X in 1976), the law of averages might seem to be working against the black and gold this week.

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The line: Steelers -3.5

Smarts say: We would estimate that every Steelers line for the past five years has made sense to us – until the last two weeks. We think the number of Steelers fans you saw in Dallas might help explain why Pittsburgh wound up -3 in that game. It’s still a passionate rivalry and there are still a lot of public bettors using their hearts, not their heads. But we have no idea how the Steelers opened here as five-point favorites. Taking away the three points for home-field advantage and you’ve got an injury-riddled team on a losing skein as a favorite over a team that’s won five of its past six. Makes no sense. The over/under of 43 could be some like Steelers 24-20.

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Key matchup: Steelers #1* corner vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton

Because: Keenan Lewis has been playing at a Pro Bowl level in the Steelers secondary for the past two months, so, of course, he was injured late in the Cowboys game. It now looks iffy as to whether he’ll play Sunday, which is very bad news for Pittsburgh. Whoever matches up with Green will have to be healthy to have a chance of hanging with him. Dalton is the second half of this equation as he has a reputation for throwing less-than-stellar deep balls, something that might allow Pittsburgh’s secondary to be a little more aggressive on the short and intermediate routes. If whoever matches up with Green can limit him to around what Dez Bryant got last week (60 yards at a TD), that bodes very well for Pittsburgh.

Quick hits:

+ There’s been much ado about Pittsburgh’s playcalling this week after a frustrated Ben Roethlisberger tiptoed into that territory in the losing locker room after last weekend’s Cowboys game. Our initial reaction when we heard rumblings about the quarterback criticizing his coaches was that his points were valid but a public forum wasn’t the right place to vent them. But after we watched the actual tape of Roethlisberger’s comments, they weren’t nearly as bad as we imagined, as he clearly was including himself in the mild criticism and he clearly also mentioned several times that there were times when the team had the right play called and didn’t execute. And as far as the Cowboys game is concerned, that’s where the discussion should start and end. If Emmanuel Sanders hangs onto the first-quarter pass, if Mike Wallace doesn’t bobble a simple catch, if Antonio Brown doesn’t make any of the multiple mistakes he made, none of this week’s talk about playcalling ever happens. We’ve written in detail here in the past about the delicate science of playcalling and we’re going to need to see a lot more of Todd Haley’s offense run with healthy personnel before we think there’s a large enough body of work to begin discussing it again.

+ Also, the fan/media contention that Brandon Carr's game-changing interception last week occurred because he somehow knew what play was coming because he played for Todd Haley last year in Kansas City is preposterous. It’s not a sandlot game, where Ben Roethlisberger got in the huddle and said, “I’m going to throw a quick out to Mike.” NFL passing games are almost totally based on option routes where the receiver and quarterback have to be on the same wavelength in taking what the defense allows. If a cornerback is giving cushion, receivers run stop and out routes. If he’s biting on run fakes, the receiver runs a go route. If he’s looking for an interception, the receiver runs a double move. And each time, the quarterback has to mentally be on the same page. If he’s not, you get Neil O’Donnell’s performance in Super Bowl XXX. Anyway, back to Dallas where Carr backed off Wallace, Wallace and Ben both correctly read an out route and Ben threw the ball too far to the inside, end of story (and no matter what Phil Simms says, Roethlisberger himself said in the postgame he threw a poor pass). If the ball was where it was supposed to be, Carr tackles Wallace for a 12-yard gain and life goes on.

+ Don’t look now but the Steelers have five legitimate, promising, young offensive linemen and might be surprisingly close to turning a huge weakness into the building block for a new era. Of course, the “vets” of the group are Maurkice Pouncey (third year) at center and Marcus Gilbert (second year, remember him?) at tackle. David DeCastro made his first NFL start at guard last week and he was so solid it’s not hard to imagine him in that spot for the next decade. Mike Adams has been a pleasant surprise at right tackle and should give the Pittsburgh running game a boost if and when he returns to that position. Adams would replace Kelvin Beachum, who had another excellent game for the Steelers last week and has now played good enough long enough to be considered a legit factor in future plans as a swing tackle. However, all of the five have plenty of room to grow and there’s a question as to whether any of the tackles will grow into a blind side protector (Gilbert needs better footwork, Adams needs more upper body strength and leverage), all of which makes the hiring of a new offensive line coach (to replace UTEP-bound Sean Kugler) an important offseason priority for Mike Tomlin. Which brings us to Tunch Ilkin, who is being touted by some in the Pittsburgh media as the man for the job. We don’t know enough about Ilkin’s coaching skills to say whether he is or isn’t the right guy, but we do know this is a case where Tomlin should be looking for a coach who will mesh well with the talent he already has, rather than someone who’s going to try and have people conform to his system.

The pick: We were leaning toward picking Pittsburgh early this week, but then we were slapped back to reality when it became clear that Mike Tomlin’s Tuesday injury rundown was overly optimistic (likely no Mike Adams or Keenan Lewis) and that Rashard Mendenhall wasn’t done wreaking havoc with the Steelers team chemistry. (Also, that Adam Schefter report that Pittsburgh is very interested in re-signing Mendenhall had to come from the running back’s agent. Such a move makes no sense financially or competitively.) Anyway, maybe Pittsburgh will magically pull everything together or maybe Andy Dalton will wilt in the spotlight, but we’ve convinced ourselves this is a “what you see is what you get” game. And we see Cincinnati peaking at the right time and Pittsburgh spiraling toward 7-9 … Bengals 24-16.

Last week: Not only did we nearly the nail the final score exactly, but we were eerily prescient in reminding everyone that Pittsburgh’s corners were overmatched and guessing that Dez Bryant’s injury would keep him from contributing fully. That improves our season mark against the spread to 9-5.

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