National Columnist

It looks like Bengals, Steelers have swapped identities

CINCINNATI -- For one night, if not for a whole lot longer, the Bengals have become the Steelers. And the Steelers, bless 'em, have become the Bengals.

Where this reversal of fortune goes from here, who's to say -- but where it went Monday night was into the victory column for Cincinnati, a 20-10 defeat of their AFC North nemesis in front of 64,585 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Steelers are 0-2, and 0-2 teams are in trouble. Since 1990, roughly 8 percent of the teams to start the season with two losses ended the season in the playoffs.

"We're a frustrated group right now," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We have work to do. We are going to embrace it and accept it, and understand that there is some misery that comes from the position we're in right now."

The Bengals put the Steelers in that position by winning the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and by being tougher -- not just physically tougher, but mentally. The Steelers were the team that got pushed around because they were the weaker team. The softer team. The more Bengal-ly team, if we're talking the luckless loser Bengals for most of the past 20 years and not the playoff teams of 2011 and '12.

The Bengals spent the first half Monday night being too cute with the ball, throwing 32 passes with just 10 carries -- despite averaging 5.3 yards per carry -- but in the second half, somebody took the fancy-schmancy playbook away from offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and gave him the meat-and-potatoes version. It was tied at 10 in the third quarter, but once the Bengals started pounding the ball, the Steelers were beaten.

The Steelers helped by committing two awful fourth-quarter penalties, both by veteran linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who wiped out a third-down stop by leaning into the neutral zone before the snap, then committed a personal foul on the Bengals' next possession.

What happened to the Steelers on Monday night is what used to happen -- what the Steelers used to do -- to the Bengals. The Steelers used to beat up the Bengals at the point of attack, wearing them down with tailbacks Willie Parker or Rashard Mendenhall or Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer.

Mix in a few Ben Roethlisberger passes -- he averaged a modest 212.7 passing yards during his previous 10 trips to Paul Brown Stadium, winning nine of them -- and the Steelers had the formula to beat most teams. And they definitely had the formula to beat the Bengals.

The Bengals often would help the cause, helping to beat themselves with Carson Palmer turnovers or Chad Ochocinco meltdowns, but those guys -- and those Bengals -- are gone. In their place is more of a blue-collar roster out of the Pittsburgh mode, with run-stuffing defensive tackle Domata Peko and pass-rushing ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson and a fourth guy, the best guy of the bunch up front, a defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) who does both.

The Bengals' defensive front and super-sized linebacker corps -- Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and former Steelers henchman James Harrison average 262 pounds -- battered an already banged-up Pittsburgh offensive line. The result was a Steelers team that ran for a very un-Steelers-like 44 yards on 16 carries, the most telling carry a third-and-2 play midway through the third quarter. The Steelers gave it to the 230-pound Redman, but by the time the Bengals front seven was finished demolishing Pittsburgh at the point of attack, the way was clear for Bengals safety George Iloka to make the play short of the first down.

After getting eight first downs in the first half, the Steelers didn't get another until there was 7:23 left in the fourth quarter. By then the score was 20-10, and confident Bengals fans -- really -- were heading for the exits. They had traffic to beat.

Unable to run, the Steelers tried to win it behind Roethlisberger and a whole bunch of smoke and mirrors. With tight end Heath Miller injured and star wideout Michael Wallace long gone to the Dolphins, the Steelers fed the Bengals a steady diet of Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. Roethlisberger targeted that trio -- because where else was he going to throw it? -- 28 times.

That's not going to get it done against many teams. Definitely not on the road against a legitimate playoff contender, which the Bengals are. After calling an inexplicable 34 passes in the first 31 1/2 minutes, Cincinnati's offense wore down the depleted Steelers in the second half. Power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (22 carries, 75 yards) had 15 carries for 41 yards in the second half, including a brutal 8-yard burst on third-and-6 with 4:04 left. On that play Green-Ellis followed the lead block of the 6-foot-3, 322-pound Peko -- who logged several plays at fullback -- for the game-breaking first down.

"I was just doing my job, man," Peko said. "Anyone with a different jersey, I was going after them."

When it wasn't Green-Ellis battering into the Steelers' front seven, it was 5-9 rookie Giovani Bernard darting in and out of traffic. He turned an Andy Dalton dump pass over the middle into a 27-yard scoring burst in the third quarter for a 17-10 Bengals lead. Bernard also had eight carries for 38 yards.

Another weapon for the Bengals offense is Mohamed Sanu, a bigger version of versatile ex-Steeler Antwaan Randle El. Sanu was a receiver at Rutgers who completed eight passes for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns in college. He has become the Bengals' Wildcat back -- he threw a 73-yard TD last season -- but showed his other two skills against the Steelers on Monday. He caught five passes for 40 yards and lined up at tailback another time, gaining four yards during the Bengals' final scoring drive of the game. On that possession the Bengals didn't score a touchdown but did run 14 plays, gain 53 yards, use up nearly seven minutes and finish with a field goal for a 20-10 lead.

That was the kind of fourth-quarter drive the Steelers used to make all the time -- and it was the kind of drive the Steelers used to make almost every time when the opponent was the Bengals and the stadium was Paul Brown -- but those Steelers are gone. Hines Ward is gone. Wallace. Mendenhall. Harrison. Maurkice Pouncey is hurt. So is Matt Spaeth and Larry Foote and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

The Steelers you have come to know and love -- or loathe, depending on your allegiance -- are gone. They are replaced by a whole bunch of Emmanuel Sanders and Felix Jones and nose tackle Steve McLendon and linebacker Kion Wilson. The Steelers were once indomitable. Now they are 0-2 and they are getting older, not better.

Into the void, at least for one night, stepped the Bengals.

 
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