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Pregame stretch:
Steelers at Bengals

September 15, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-1) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (0-1)
Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN

Announcers: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden
Annoyance factor: Does this thing go up to 11? You know our feeling here, it’s two smart guys who have become cartoon characters, which is apparently what ESPN and America want. Tirico is that unflappable, smarmy guy you just want to slap and Gruden is John Madden V2.0. When the Steelers play we get the added comedic value of listening to Gruden struggle to the ROTH-LIS-BURGER which instead becomes ROTH-ELS-BURGER.
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Weather – or not?: Mostly cloudy, mid 50’s, winds NE 8 mph. Those are about as perfect as conditions can get for a football game. Hopefully, the game will be that good.
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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, but called 12 penalties in the last Steelers-Bengals game, including the asinine unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Brett Kiesel for the bow-and-arrow sack celebration.
Blogger’s note: We write about officiating (and especially bad officiating) because we’re interested in it. But all of our discussion about it should be framed in this context: We do not believe officials EVER should be blamed for deciding a game. Officiating is just another human element in the game. Officials make mistakes, just like players and coaches make mistakes. Officiating (and officiating mistakes) should be openly discussed with a goal of improving the game as a whole (and helping us understand it better as fans). We think Mike Pereira had the NFL heading in that direction before he retired. We’re worried the momentum from that initiative is fading. A climate where officiating mistakes are either ignored or groused about endlessly, with no action being taken to fix them, is detrimental to the game.
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The line: Cincinnati -6.5
Smarts say: This started at -7 and we were thinking this would be -5, given Pittsburgh’s history of playing well at Paul Brown Stadium, but that doesn’t seem to be considered in this line. If we had money and gambled, we’d be tempted to take the Steelers and the points. Apparently, quite a few bettors agreed with those sentiments, given the half-point shift in the line since open. The over-under of 41 puts this in the neighborhood of 24-17 Bengals.
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Key matchup: Steelers CB Ike Taylor vs. Bengals WR A.J. Green
Because: The last time these teams played in Cincy, Taylor held Green to a single catch for eight yards, which led to Andy Dalton throwing for only 105 yards, which led to the Bengals becoming one dimensional, which led to a Pittsburgh win. If there’s any scenario where Pittsburgh can win again, it almost certainly involves keeping Green in check. In defeat last week, Dalton connected with Green nine times for 162 yards and two TDs. If they repeat those numbers this week, this one will be 34-10 Bengals.

Quick hits:
+ A lot was made last week about the role offensive coordinator Todd Haley played in Pittsburgh’s putrid performance Sunday. And while we’re not exactly thrilled ourselves with how things went, the problem is much larger than Haley. It goes directly to the top of the organization where Mssrs. Dan and Art Rooney decreed the Steelers WILL remain a run first team in the era of 55 passes per game. That led to Mike Tomlin hiring a RUN FIRST offensive coordinator who is calling RUN FIRST plays while the team drafted a RUN FIRST running back. The result Sunday was disastrous because they don’t have the personnel anywhere on their offense right now to RUN FIRST. Maybe that will change when Le’Veon Bell returns, but we can’t imagine it will change dramatically.
+ You’ll note we mentioned Bell’s return and not Jon Dwyer’s. That’s because although we were among those critical of Dwyer’s release, we’re not delusional in thinking he’s the answer. He simply is the most productive running back (that’s a FACT, not an opinion) on the roster again and he does not statistically fumble more than average or more than anyone else on the roster.
+ Which brings us to this: Our sports culture always – ALWAYS – celebrates the players when things go right and blames the coaches when things go wrong. That will be your first instinct as things continue to go wrong for the Steelers this season, but it will be the exact wrong instinct. We see and hear many, many Steelers fans who simply cannot accept this basic premise, which is becoming clearer and clearer every time Pittsburgh plays: The Steelers do NOT have enough good, let alone great, players to compete at an elite level in the NFL right now. As a matter of fact, we’d say don’t have a single great player playing at present (the only one they have on the roster is Heath Miller). Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu have shown they CAN play at that level, but neither of them has played there in quite a while. We’d peg their current level of play as “very good” and put in that category as well the following: Shaun Suisham, Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. In the category of “good” players we’d include Maurkice Pouncey, Antonio Brown, Brett Kiesel, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark. That leaves half the starters as average, below average or, in one specific case (rhymes with Twiggy Wood), worse. Here’s the cold, hard truth kiddos: The Steelers got into this mess with consistently average, bad or just plain horrendous drafts between 2006 and 2012 (2007 and 2010 being exceptions) and most likely the only way they’re getting out of it is with two, three or even four good drafts in a row. In other words, buckle up.

The pick: Have we mentioned the Steelers have a history of playing well in Cincinnati? That includes last year, when they won a game they had no business winning by a 24-17 score. So, we would not be shocked if Pittsburgh won here. But we don’t expect it. The Bengals offense has too many weapons and their defense has three pass rushers better than anyone the Steelers saw last week when they couldn’t protect the quarterback (The Bengals recorded 50 sacks in 2012 compared to the Titans’ 39)…Bengals 27, Steelers 21.
Last week: Everything we predicted could go wrong with the Steelers in 2013 went wrong last week, but it wasn’t the week we predicted it to happen, leaving us 0-1 straight up and against the point.

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