Paul Daugherty, email@example.com
October 28, 2015
Steelers Week! isn't buzzing the way it once did. The Bengals aren't running around amped up on Wednesday afternoon, thinking about all the heroic things they're going to need to do to win Sunday at Heinz Field. Steelers Week! used to be about uptight bravado, from a young and talented team that wanted to be the Steelers when it grew up. Now, it's 53 men preparing for a business trip.
Put away the measuring stick. The Big Brother-Little Brother thing is dead. Has been, in fact, for a few years. It might still be a "manhood game'' as Willie Anderson called it a decade ago, or a "two-chinstrap game'' as Wallace Gilberry termed it Wednesday. But Little Bro is all grown up now.
Bengals fans don't quite believe it. They want to abandon their Chicken Little natures, they say, but only if the Bengals win Sunday at Heinz Field. As if a regular season loss in Week 7 would invalidate what we've come to know about the 2015 team.
Skepticism can be a valuable trait. It keeps us wary and grounded, and from becoming Charlie Brown. In BengalFan's case, it's mostly warranted. Any fan base that survived The Lost Decade and the quasi-prosperity of the post- T.ocho era deserves to be as skeptical as the law allows. But he's living in the past. The Steelers aren't stealing Cincinnati's lunch money anymore.
That will be true no matter what happens Sunday. It would take more than one loss to rattle the Bengals, who have a decided edge in talent over Pittsburgh, and have become the Steelers equals in temperament.
"As we've become better, the (perception) started rubbing guys the wrong way,'' Andrew Whitworth said. "We see them as a good team we have to beat, not a measuring stick for how good we are. We're just trying to collect wins and get into the playoffs.''
When the Marvin Era Bengals got good in 2005, they still needed the Steelers to tell them how good. Those Bengals were young; their cockiness betrayed a collective insecurity.
"The whole environment changed that week,'' recalled Whitworth, a rookie in '06. "You had to be superheroes to win. At least that's how it felt.''
The feeling lingered, to the point that Rey Maualuga, a rookie in '09, said this Wednesday about Steelers Week! back then:
"My rookie year, we beat them twice. I remember when we beat them here, one of our coaches was teary-eyed.'' And now: "All we're doing is preparing like we do every week.''
Put another way, by Domata Peko, another '06 rookie, "When I first got here, (Pittsburgh) was going to measure how good our team was. Not now. Now, we're going up there confident as hell. Ready to show them it's our division.
"People saying it's Steelers week, we gotta do this or that. Nah, man. We just gotta do our jobs.''
You could look at the recent head-to-head and chuckle. Pittsburgh has won three in a row and eight of 12. Last year, the Steelers outscored the Bengals, 69-38. The Bengals had a combined five turnovers and 13 penalties. Le'Veon Bell drilled them for 185 rushing yards and two TDs in one game. Antonio Brown wrecked them in the other.
But Pittsburgh had its center Maurkice Pouncey and its starting left tackle in each of those games. It has neither now. The Bengals lacked Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert. Pittsburgh's secondary was shaky then. It still is. It's 27th in the league in passing yards allowed. The Steelers don't tackle well.
And so on. Rarely have the Bengals been so well positioned to smash a lingering perception. If they don't? Well, this is the NFL. Bernie Sanders' league loves its Any Given Sundays. The Bengals haven't played a poor game yet. They're due. The Steelers were 2-2 without Roethlisberger. Now, he's back.
A Steelers win will arouse a skeptical fan's attention, even if it's not warranted. As Whitworth said, "Regular season games aren't a measuring stick. We beat New England two years ago. Are we better than New England? No. If you win this week and lose next week, are you any better off?''
The Steelers have never experienced Bengals Week!. They've always approached this game as just an important division contest. The same way the Bengals are approaching it now. As Wallace Gilberry put it, "I'm not anyone's little brother.'' Times have changed in Cincinnati, and for the better.