When the Pittsburgh Steelers played a nasty, gritty, physical game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8, Ben Roethlisberger was coming back from a knee injury.
The crowd roared with anticipation as he took the field. Big Ben led the Steelers on a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a touchdown to Antonio Brown, his favorite target. After that, it went sour. The Steelers lost. Roethlisberger took responsibility. It was a tough, physical battle.
“I played bad football,” Roethlisberger remembered, via ESPN.
The day was one of his worst.
If the Steelers hope to gain a season split with the Bengals (10-2), his play will have to be stellar. Roethlisberger was intercepted three times while being held to just one touchdown pass during the Steelers’ first meeting with the Bengals at Heinz Field.
The defending AFC North champion Steelers (7-5) hoped that Roethlisberger’s return after missing four games with a sprained knee would kick-start them. After leading most of the game, they fell apart in the closing minutes of the physical contest.
But this is about more than revenge. Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium has immediate implications for the Steelers. In order to stay alive in the race for a wild-card spot, the game is another must-win battle. While the Steelers currently have the league’s hottest offense, led by Ben Roethlisberger’s 1,533 passing yards and 10 touchdowns in his last four games, the Steelers will need to be the more physical team Sunday.
The Steelers don’t like the Bengals. But players refuse to give out bulletin board material (do they still use those?) to make things worse. There’s enough bad blood and hostile feelings to fuel the next 10 matchups.
Markus Wheaton, one of the Steelers’ speedy receivers, said the Cincinnati games are especially physical. The players sometimes put in extra work in the weight room in preparation for the games. It can get really ugly. No one expects anything less.
The stakes are higher for Roethlisberger. He’s anxious to avenge the Steelers’ November loss to the Bengals. A win will keep the Bengals from clinching the AFC North title.
“It’s going to be hard to have much more than a divisional opponent in their place who’s arguably the best team in football,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ve got to believe at least coming from me it’s already going to be as competitive as it gets.”
Since that first game, Roethlisberger has been balling out of his mind. The Steelers’ signal-caller has thrown for at least 300 yards in his past four games, including back-to-back-to-back games of 350 or more. That little trick hasn’t been done since Matthew Stafford did it in 2011.
Since their 16-10 loss to Cincinnati, the Steelers offense has been spectacular, averaging nearly 36 points per game. Linebacker Arthur Moats says the Bengals are getting better and that has caused the intensity of the rivalry to heat up even more.
“They’re putting a good product out there every year and the division has been back and forth between us and them these last couple years,” Moats said. “I feel there’s definitely that bad blood. I feel that it’s going to make it that much better going forward.”
The Steelers should be able to have a huge day against the Bengals’ secondary. The injuries are finally starting to catch up with them. Adam Jones showed up to practice in a cast and riding a scooter. Leon Hall was also missing from practice with a back injury that has been nagging him the past few games. In their place will be rookies who haven’t been tested with the speed and skill that Brown and Bryant possess. Throw in the talents of Markus Wheaton and things begin to get shaky for the Bengals. Things will get ugly and physical.
Whatever happens Sunday, the show of bad blood will be one to remember.
[Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images]