Carson Isn't Big Ben Because the Bengals Aren't the Steelers

Fate has dampened the Bengals with another twist of lemon as they continue their fight to break even while a local quarterback has gone away and put his team into the Super Bowl picture. It would fi

Fate has dampened the Bengals with another twist of lemon as they continue their fight to break even while a local quarterback has gone away and put his team into the Super Bowl picture. It would figure.

The Bengals picked their quarterback from among all the available college players last year, then fed him, taught him right from wrong and still lose more than they win. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers waited until this year, chose Ben Rothlisberger from Miami University with the sixth selection, threw him to the wolves and have now defeated two unbeaten teams this late in the season for the first time in NFL history.

The Bengals' quarterback is a promising specimen with good looks, a solid build and a powerful arm. He's a Heisman Trophy winner, a top overall draft pick, and he comes with a highly-bred name, Carson Palmer. The Bengals have handled Palmer as well as they possibly could, covering him with playbooks and clipboards for a year so he wouldn't be crushed by the weight of defensive linemen. Now he's the man, but since he doesn't have experience or enough other men around him, he's only a man.

It looks to all the world like the Steelers made a steal from right in the Bengals' back yard while the Bengals work on their 15th consecutive season without a winning record. But Bengals fans shouldn't be confused, though many undoubtedly are.

At 7-1, the Steelers are winning more than the Bengals not because Rothlisberger is better than Palmer but because the Steelers are better than the Bengals.

Better by a mile and a half.

The Bengals absolutely are leaning on Palmer, while Rothlisberger functions as a very good caretaker. By local standards, Palmer is enjoying a comfortable stay under center as he learns the game, but it remains that the Bengals throw about as much as any team in the NFL. Palmer has thrown 279 times, fifth in the league and not far behind anyone except the league leader, Denver's Jake Plummer with 303 attempts. A rookie quarterback — it's more than fair to say that of Palmer — just can't win by himself in the NFL.

For rookie quarterbacks to win, you need a situation like Pittsburgh, where Rothlisberger makes a couple reads, never throws more than 25 times per game and often throws a good deal less (Palmer averages almost 35 attempts). The Steelers lead the NFL in rushing with 160.8 yards per game, compared with the Bengals, who are 20th at 102.1 yards.

Rothlisberger is fifth in the NFL passing ratings, which basically measure efficiency. For raw productivity, the Steelers are only 26th in the NFL with 196.8 passing yards per game.

Rothlisberger is handing off while Palmer throws downfield. Two rookie quarterbacks. You don't have to be Vince Lombardi to figure out which one is going to make more mistakes.

When Rothlisberger is called upon to throw downfield, he goes to Hines Ward, a consummate professional wide receiver and one of the few in high profile who understands that football is a team game. When Palmer needs to go downtown, it's going to Chad Johnson, who will either make an unbelievable winding catch or drop a ball in his hands while he's thinking about the recent public relations advice he received from Terrell Owens.

The Steelers support Rothlisberger in numerous other ways that are missing from Palmer's circle. Crucially, for example, the Steelers are the NFL's best team at stopping the run, giving only 81 yards per game, compared with the Bengals, who give up 149.6 rushing yards per game, worst in the league.

That isn't Rothlisberger beating New England and Philadelphia on consecutive weeks, even if he's doing a fine job. It's the Steelers being able to run and stop the run. Because of Pittsburgh's defense, Philadelphia was absolutely a one-dimensional offense last Sunday, since the Eagles are even worse than the Bengals at rushing the ball. That's how the Steelers put that 27-3 thumping on the Eagles at Heinz Field.

Once again, the Bengals are in the win column this week, which began with a date against the Dallas Cowboys and their ineffectual running attack that's barely scraping 100 yards per game. The Cowboys being the kind of team the Bengals can beat, the Bengals put them down 26-3 and raised their own record to 3-5, which isn't even approximately competitive for a playoff spot in the powerful AFC.

It's remarkable that anyone watches the Bengals play defense with so little bite against even mediocre NFL offenses, then concludes they'd be improved with Jon Kitna instead of Palmer at quarterback. Palmer, for example, fumbled inside the Tennessee 10 with a chance to win in the final moments last week. A rookie mistake? Probably.

But it's hard to forget Kitna being unable to make it happen on the goal line at the end of the first half last year against Cleveland, when the Bengals finished their season with a possible playoff berth on the line. Veteran leadership isn't everything.

The Bengals are a rebuilding football team. As such, they're the worst in the NFL at the game's most elemental task, stopping the run. When opponents can't run, stopping them isn't a problem. As it happens, two of the three Bengals wins, against Miami and Dallas, involved opposition that flat-out can't run. Against teams that can't run, the Bengals are pretty good.

The other victory, against Denver, was the kind of game the Bengals need more often if they're going to win with this defense. The Bengals went on top 20-10 at the end of the third period with Chad Johnson playing like the kind of receiver he says he is. At that point, the Broncos couldn't run, so they wound up rushing for only 123 yards, though they entered the game as the league's best rushing team.

Notice, of course, that Johnson showed up that week, making seven catches against Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey for 149 yards and a 50-yard touchdown. And Rudi Johnson showed up that week with 119 rushing yards, a rare performance.

When you have a rookie quarterback, a star receiver who's into self-promotion every week and playing every other week and then your other receiver, Peter Warrick, is out for the year, the requirements to run and stop the run are intensified.

But the Bengals' running attack comes and goes, while the rushing defense mostly goes. When the Bengals have won, they've either beaten down a bad running team or their offensive skill people showed up and forced a running team to throw at the end of the game.

Some folks think this Cincinnati defense is improving after the Dallas game, but it's hard to figure. They already proved two months ago, with a win against Miami, that they can stop a team with no running game.

We'll see improvement when the Bengals can stare down a good running attack. And that, like so many hopes involving the Bengals, is a vision for the future.

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