Jim Owczarski, email@example.com
September 16, 2016
Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is hit as he comes down with a pass reception in the first quarter of the NFL AFC wild-card playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016. (Photo: Sam Greene)
PITTSBURGH — In Cincinnati, it is impossible to not look at the long road to the Northeast, about 300 miles, down the passages of Interstates 70, 270 and 79, where the mist hangs between the hills early in the morning, and wonder how different it truly is.
Pittsburgh is a river town, but for those who root for the Bengals off these particular banks of the Ohio, it’s like peering through the looking glass. The orange is muddled to yellow within the color spectrum; the Ohio bleeds out into the Allegheny and Monongahela.
It’s a distorted look, yes. Much different, if it’s further filtered through the lens of football history. Yet, over the last five years, it seems like there are fewer differences than there used to be.
“What’s that saying, familiarity breeds contempt, or something like that,” Steelers safety Mike Mitchell said. “It’s one of those things.”
Which is perhaps why Bengals-Steelers have become a pair of games so notorious they are debated nationally across all media forums, where the league office on Park Avenue in New York is compelled to send mid-week instructions to officials, where its fans rage over which team breaks which rules most.
But the players insist there isn’t anything more than the line of scrimmage between the locker rooms.
“Hate? Nah,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “An animosity between us? I don’t think there’s animosity.”
Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth shook his head in agreement, and he and Mitchell both felt off-field exchanges added an unusual and unnecessary element to the games a year ago.
“I don’t think there’s any personal vendettas,” Whitworth said. “I think last year the only thing that got out of hand was the one social media instance. Other than that, I don’t think things have really gotten out of hand.”
Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is in his 14th season, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in his 10th. Both men have talked about how 2016 is literally a new year. That means Sunday will feature new teams. The players in both locker rooms have echoed as much to the mass media this week.
But it’s not really that cut and dry.
Continuity is what is preached in both places. It clearly has started at the top, and has filtered deep into the rosters. Lewis says the Steelers' defense has been the same since he left in 1993, and Todd Haley has been coordinating the offense since 2012. The Bengals' defense has looked largely the same since 2008, its offensive roots dating to 2011.
Then there are the players.
Ten of the Bengals’ starting defenders in its base 4-3 defense on Sunday have already played 105 career games against the Steelers. Defensive tackle Domata Peko is into his second season against the Steelers, suiting up for his 21st game on Sunday.
Nine core players on the Bengals’ offense have played a total of 67 career games against Pittsburgh, with Whitworth leading the way with 19.
Where orange turns yellow, there are similarities.
Nine of Pittsburgh’s offensive starters have combined to play in 94 games against the Bengals. Eleven of their top defenders have played in 101.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is getting set for his 25th game. Sunday will mark James Harrison’s 22nd, Lawrence Timmons’ 19th and William Gay’s 17th.
“It’s been chippy the last couple years, man, so I wouldn’t expect anything different, but this is what makes football great when you’ve got rivalries like this,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said, smiling, lifting his arms into the air. “This is what you watch when you’re a kid, like, man, I want to play in that game. I know there’s going to be a (expletive) load of people watching us this Sunday saying that ‘I wish I was in that.’ I don’t think it’s a hatred thing at all.”
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the average length of an NFL career has dipped to under three seasons.
Yet, on the eve of Sunday’s contest, these teams will likely have 44 players out of the active 92 (48 percent) running onto the field for at least their third year against one another:
2005: Greg Warren
2006: Whitworth, Peko
2008: Pat Sims
2009: Ramon Foster, Michael Johnson, Rey Maualuga, Kevin Huber, Clark Harris
2010: Pouncey, Antonio Brown, Adam Jones, Vinny Rey, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Mike Nugent
2011: Dalton, Green, Clint Boling, Cameron Heyward, Marcus Gilbert
2012: Kevin Zeitler, David DeCastro, George Iloka, Dre Kirkpatrick, Robert Golden.
2013: Giovani Bernard, Markus Wheaton, Jarvis Jones, Vince Williams, Margus Hunt, Rex Burkhead
2014: Ryan Hewitt, Will Clarke, Darqueze Dennard, Jeremy Hill, Russell Bodine, Stephon Tuitt, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Mike Mitchell
That list does not include three other players who are not playing Sunday in Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict (2012) and Tyler Eifert (2013), and Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (2013).
“It’s the same dudes,” Foster said. “And we’ve all, on both sides, grown up together.
“I think the competition of seeing each other is really amazing. I don’t know if there’s any other conference that has type of comparison.”
Such personal and schematic continuity is why Bengals-Steelers looks different — sounds different — than any other rivalry in the league.
Sure, wrinkles are added. There are some personnel variances. But in these games, it’s purely man against man, snap after snap.
“It really is just mano a mano and trying to win and beat each other,” Whitworth said. “It makes it tougher on each other. It’s one of the reasons why I think we get so banged up. We know each other. We’re both trying to beat each other to the spots we know each other is going to. It’s just constant collisions all day.”
That familiarity also adds emphasis to technique, but Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson also had to admit that yes, “Some plays you just gonna have to whoop the man across from you,” he said. “And then some plays be like you know you what’s coming and you better prepare to play it.”
Another — and perhaps the most important — reason behind such on-field viciousness is that, since 2011, the highest of stakes are always on the line. Since the re-boot of the Bengals' franchise that year, the team has gone 52-27-1, winning 65 percent of their games.
“You’re familiar with each other and we both have good teams, so it’s going to be a lot of competition within that. That’s just the mixture,” Johnson said. “That’s what that mixture provides.”
The Steelers have handed the Bengals seven of those losses, helping themselves to a 49-31 record in that same timespan for a 61.3 winning percentage.
The two teams have alternated winning the last three division titles and have combined for eight playoff appearances.
“It’s a big picture is what I’m trying to get you to see,” Mitchell said. “That’s why these games are so nitty gritty…”
He began slapping the top of one hand into the palm of the other for emphasis.
“And they’re so physical because each team feels like they gotta have it because the games are so important.”
“I think it’s that competition, that will to want to win,” he said. “Animosity, I don’t think so. I think it’s the spirit of the competition and the fact that they are no longer the old Bengals – they’re a team that’s trying to compete and win a championship."
But the Bengals are aware that when they peer through that looking glass, there are spaces in Pittsburgh they have not yet seen on their own side. The Steelers have beaten the Bengals twice in the postseason in Lewis’ tenure, have won two Super Bowls and lost a third in that time.
In a media scrum, Foster referenced the Steelers’ drive for a seventh Lombardi Trophy this year. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.
And that difference is reason enough for the added physical nature of this rivalry.
“I said this last year and I don’t think anybody actually wrote the quote down: Let’s just say anytime, no matter what profession you’re in, no matter what it is in life, if you keep seeing the same face, or same company, or same organization, kind of in your way of your goals, there’s naturally going to be some rivalry there,” Iloka said.
“In the season we’ve all got the same goal and we know regardless of how we may be cool or not cool off the field, our goals directly affect our goals. Their goals directly affect our goals…”
He clapped the top of one hand into his palm for emphasis.
“So, there you have it.”