The Steelers-Cincinnati Bengals game Sunday features a team with a balanced offense, bolstered by a strong running game, and an attacking, blitzing defense that bounces quarterbacks off the turf.
What is unusual is the description applies to the Bengals, who look more like traditional Steelers teams than do the current Steelers.
Cincinnati averages 118.5 yards rushing per game compared with the Steelers' 70.5. The Bengals, with nine sacks, rank No. 1 in the NFL in sacks per pass play compared with the Steelers, who have just three sacks.
"Well, they don't look like the Bengals of old, they don't look like the teams that come out struggling sometimes," linebacker James Farrior said. "They look like they know what they're doing. They're playing hard, they're playing a lot better than they were last year, so it's going to be a different challenge for us."
The Bengals thought they ended their long list of failures against the Steelers when they beat them at Heinz Field in 2005, wiped their shoes with Terrible Towels and went on to win the AFC North Division title.
The teams went in opposite directions after that game. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that season after winning a playoff game in Cincinnati, then added another Lombardi Trophy last season. The Bengals have not had a winning season since and, appropriately, appeared this year on the HBO show "Hard Knocks."
The Bengals, though, have a different look after two games and a 1-1 record.
"B.A. made a good point today," Steelers tackle Willie Colon said, referring to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "This is the first year they've had all their starters back and ready to go. They never were a bad team. They just were always lacking a key guy here and there. Now that they're fully loaded, they kind of feel it's their time."
With quarterback Carson Palmer back to where he was physically before Kimo von Oelhoffen's hit to his knee in that 2005 playoff game and Cedric Benson rushing for 217 yards in two games and a 4.3-yard average, the Bengals' offense has been way ahead of the Steelers'. And the Bengals' ability to dump the quarterback has brought them the Blitzburgh ripoff name of "Blitzinnati."
Brett Keisel and fellow end Aaron Smith lead the Steelers' defense with a combined 13 quarterback hurries/pressures out of 36. But three sacks are not nearly enough.
"We have to do a better job of getting to the quarterback and getting him on the ground," Keisel said. "I don't think we did that great of a job last week."
Mike Tomlin said he desires a balanced offense and notes that two games into the season does not a trend make.
Nevertheless, the Steelers have played two close, low-scoring game, each decided by three points. And they are as far from a balanced offense as they have ever been.
The Steelers have run the ball 34.9 percent of the time. The lowest they ran over the course of a full season in this decade came in 2003 when they did so 44 percent of the time. That was the Tommy Gun offense in which coordinator Mike Mularkey and coach Bill Cowher decided that Amos Zereoue fit better as their starting halfback than Jerome Bettis. That strategy resulted in a 6-10 record.
Last season, the Steelers got off to a fast start and ran 45.3 percent. In 2007, they ran 51.1 percent. Their high-water mark came in 2004 when they ran 61.1 percent and went 15-1 with their rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
"This is an awful slow one because I think of the switch in the styles of defense we'll play," Arians said. "These 4-3 penetrating teams, they're a big change and it takes time."
The Bengals are the third opponent to play a 4-3 (San Diego brings a 3-4 Oct. 4) and Arians believes the Bengals do not take a back seat to the Titans or Bears front.
"They might be the best we played so far," he said. "That linebacker play has improved tremendously."
Unlike safety Tyrone Carter, who was fined $5,000 for his tackle of tight end Greg Olsen in Chicago, linebacker James Harrison was not fined for his hit on quarterback Jay Cutler even though he was flagged for the play and told the hit was low and late.
"He said that I lunged into his knees," said Harrison, who asked the official why he was penalized. "I'm telling you what he told me. That's why he threw the flag. I said I got dragged down."
Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year in 2008 who has no sacks in two games, said he was held eight times in Chicago without drawing a penalty.
"I've had officials tell me if you were closer I would have called it," he said. "Well, if [the blocker] wasn't holding, I would have been closer. If he wouldn't have held me, I probably would have sacked [Cutler]."
The Steelers are shooting for Troy Polamalu's return Oct. 11 against. If he can play by then, he will have missed three full games because of an injured left knee.
He also is not undergoing the therapy that Hines Ward took on his knee before the Super Bowl. Ward, who also had a medial collateral ligament injury, was treated using a hyperbaric oxygen chamber that is supposed to stimulate the production of red blood cells and promote faster healing. Polamalu does not believe it works, believing it can cause harmful side effects.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com .