We're used to the Pittsburgh Steelers playing smashmouth on both sides of the ball, especially defensively. With Casey Hampton(notes) in the middle, the Steelers have actually improved in their run defense since losing 3-4 end Aaron Smith(notes) for the year in mid-October with a shoulder injury. Pittsburgh's front seven has allowed opposing backs only 3.29 yards per carry, tops in the NFL, and only 14 percent of the yards against the Steelers have come after 10 yards, which means that this defense will shut down your rushing attack from any edge. This defense hasn't allowed a running back to put up 100 yards or more on them in 30 games, but when they welcome the Cincinnati Bengals to Heinz Field today, they'll be facing a back familiar with stopping such streaks.
On October 11, Bengals running back Cedric Benson(notes) broke Baltimore's 39-game streak of preventing any single back from gaining 100 yards or more against them with a 27-carry, 120-yard performance that announced Cincy's arrival in the "These guys are for real" division. Last week, Benson followed up with 34 carries for 117 yards in the Baltimore sequel. Benson can run over excellent 3-4 defenses, but the Steelers are a different story. Benson ran for 76 yards on 16 carries in a 23-20 Week 3 home win over Pittsburgh, but that was a case where the Bengals had to throw more in the second half to overcome a 20-9 deficit.
Today, the Bengals are looking to sweep the Steelers and basically tie up the AFC North unless something ridiculous happens down the stretch. If they are to do so, one of the most important aspects will be the performance of their unheralded but extremely effective interior offensive line. The Bengals made the Ravens pay for their A-gap blitzes and man coverage with deep passes to the perimeter because center Kyle Cook(notes), left guard Evan Mathis(notes), and right guard Bobbie Williams(notes) were able to block those blitzes with help from fullback Jeremi Johnson(notes) (maybe the best blocking fullback in the NFL right now) and tight end J.P. Foschi(notes). So, Carson Palmer(notes) had time to burn Baltimore's corners with sideline throws.
Cincinnati's ability to counter the devious blitzes of Dick LeBeau will make all the difference. The Bengals didn't have to deal with Troy Polamalu(notes) in the first matchup, and LeBeau will send Polamalu from just about anywhere -- from nose tackle to delayed blitz in a deep safety look. That offensive line is great when it comes to holding ground with power, but they'll have to employ more exotic concepts -- like passing from six-man lines and using blocking tight ends in motion -- to pull this off. For the first time in years, they have the personnel to make it possible.