On the Steelers: Bengals defense has hype for good reason


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Monday night, it will be Old & Slow vs. the Next Great Thing, the Steelers' aging defense vs. the new kids on the NFL block, the Cincinnati Bengals defense.

The only thing that kept the Bengals from playoff contention more often was a defense. They always seemed to have the offense, but those defenses had little bite to them.

Things changed dramatically last season, and many now believe that ravaging Cincinnati defense has surpassed the aging one in Pittsburgh.

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The PG's Dan Gigler, Jerry Micco and Gene Collier take stock of the Steelers and, more positively, the Pirates. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 9/12/2013)

Many in Pittsburgh would disagree, especially those who populate the Steelers locker room.

"Nah, I don't believe the hype," said Ziggy Hood. "I know what our defense can do out there on the field. We'll find out come Monday night."

Added fellow defensive end Cameron Heyward: "Let them say what they want, they'll find out on Monday."

The toothless Bengals defenses ranked 26th in 2011, 15th in 2010, 29th in 2009 and 21st in 2008.

That all changed last season when they lived up to their nickname. The Bengals leaped to sixth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed, and their 51 sacks were one off the NFL lead. While the Steelers defense finished first in the NFL for the second consecutive year in fewest yards allowed, they had only 37 sacks and their 20 forced turnovers were 10 behind the Bengals.

Cincinnati made the playoffs for the second year in a row and many pick them to win the AFC North this year, much of it based on that improved defense.

"Cincinnati's defense is extremely talented, a very good defense," Steelers safety Ryan Clark conceded. "In the 2013 season, though, both defenses are 0-1 and that's what matters.

"To those who want to compare the recent history or the recent past, look at the numbers, what do the numbers say? I don't know if there's a lot of No. 1 defenses in Cincinnati in the last five years. There are a lot of them over here, though."

Cincinnati's front seven in their 4-3 formation is considered among the best in football and features defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko, end Carlos Dunlap, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

Former Steelers star and NFL defensive player of the year James Harrison has switched from the right to the left side to be the third starting linebacker in Cincinnati.

"They have a solid and athletic front four," said Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.

Cincinnati's defense stymied the Steelers in the 15th game of last season at Heinz Field by sacking Ben Roethlisberger six times and forcing three turnovers, including Leon Hall's 17-yard interception return for a touchdown. Reggie Nelson's late interception of a Roethlisberger pass set up the winning field goal with four seconds left. That 13-10 victory gave the Bengals the wild-card playoff berth instead of the Steelers.

"Yeah, but did they win the Super Bowl?" Clark asked. "Neither did we, so who cares about Week [16] from last year. I'm not interested in it. Leon Hall made a play. I believe in that game we had two picks, a recovered fumble. If we're comparing it like that, I feel we did our part, as well.

"We just have to win the game. Last year doesn't count, what we did in the past doesn't count. All that counts is Week 2; in Week 1, both defenses were good enough for their teams to lose."

Harrison's departure

Harrison turned down $3.7 million from the Steelers in a pay cut from his scheduled salary of $6.57 million for 2013 and they released him. He signed with the Bengals for two years and $4.45 million.

"No surprise," Harrison said of the inglorious end to a spectacular nine-year career with the Steelers that included four Pro Bowls and one NFL defensive player of the year award.

"I knew when we first started talking and negotiating that things didn't look like I was going to end up there. We couldn't come to an agreement that was comfortable to them or comfortable to me, so we parted ways. It's just a business."

Harrison said he has no second thoughts about turning down the Steelers, would not acknowledge he took less to play with the Bengals and "there are only a few people that know exactly what was going on in those negotiations."

Clark once took less money to return to the Steelers as a free agent, spurning a better offer from the Miami Dolphins. He said Harrison's situation is not the same and that pride on both sides got in the way of Harrison's return.

"He was still part of this team and he wanted a deal to be worked out," Clark said. "It wasn't that he wouldn't take the pay cut, he was trying to take the pay cut and get it done in a way that was to his liking, that would make the deal worth it for him. You can't fault the man for that.

"When one side, James, says this is what I'll do and nothing else, and this side, the organization, says this is what I'll do and nothing else, then nothing gets done.

"I think pride enters into it both ways. The thing we all want as players -- another organization can turn on the film and say 'Ryan Clark does X,' but you feel like the people in this building know what you do beyond that film, they know what you bring beyond that, they know what you give and sacrifice beyond that.

"It is tough, and in some ways hurtful, when they make those types of decisions."

Dealing with the pressure

Heyward continued his excellent preseason play in the regular-season opener when his three quarterback pressures were second only to Brett Keisel.

Heyward spelled Keisel more often, playing on 29 of his defense's 68 downs.

"I have a new role and I'm just trying to roll with it," said Heyward, the team's first-round draft choice in 2011. "There's a little bit more trust and we want to keep everybody fresh. It's a long season. If we can keep everybody fresh going into the latter part of our season, it's only going to make us a better team."

The Steelers coaches credited their players with 13 quarterback pressures to go with LaMarr Woodley's sack.

"We're going to keep guys in shape," Heyward said. "With our rotation, we should be getting pressure every down.''

Quick hits

• Cornerbacks Cortez Allen (ankle) and Curtis Brown (ill) did not practice, joining halfback Le'Veon Bell (foot). Nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) was added to the injured list and was limited in practice, as was tight end Heath Miller (knee) and kicker Shaun Suisham (hamstring).

• Elias Sports Bureau, which has the official say on NFL stats, changed Isaac Redman's fumble into the end zone Sunday to a fumble on the handoff by Roethlisberger.

Steelers

For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published September 13, 2013 4:00 AM


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