By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers visit the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday for a 4:15 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium:
STEELERS LT MAX STARKS VS. BENGALS DE ANTWAN ODOM: Based on recent history, going against the Bengals' top pass rusher has not been a particularly ominous task. In 2008, the Bengals finished with 17 as a team, and no one had more than three; in 2007, they again finished with 17, and no one had more than 3.5. In 2006, the Bengals, comparatively speaking, were a pass rushing machine, with 35 as a team and with Robert Geathers leading all individuals with 10.5. But after two games this season, the Bengals have tripled the Steelers sack total – nine to three – and their defensive end Antwan Odom leads the NFL with seven. "It's actually happening in a couple of ways," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Odom's prolific output to date. "A couple of his sacks have come in sub-package football where he is an interior rusher, where he's playing the defensive tackle position. He is very athletic to play inside. He has a relentless rush. Some of (his sacks) have been created simply because of hustle. Some of his edge sacks have come because he has a nice combination of rush moves. I think Green Bay was playing with a backup left tackle there the second half of that game and it showed. Boy, he went to work on that guy. (Odom) is an effort guy, he plays inside and outside. Regardless of how it has been happening, seven is a pretty impressive total two weeks into the season."
STEELERS CB DESHEA TOWNSEND VS. BENGALS WR CHRIS HENRY: It was his last chance, and Chris Henry since has said he realized it. Last season, the talented but enigmatic Bengals receiver was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, and the assumption was that the Bengals would sever ties with him as a result. But Bengals owner Mike Brown gave Henry a final last chance, and the bottom line is that the Steelers are going to have to deal with a very talented No. 3 receiver who has a history of making big plays against them. In two games against the Steelers in 2006, Henry caught three touchdowns passes, and in the 2005 AFC Wild Card Game he was on the receiving end of Carson Palmer's 66-yard pass on the second play of the game. At 6-foot-4, Henry is a difficult matchup for most cornerbacks, and when he's also on the field with Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles, defenses have a difficult choice to make as to how to deploy their coverage. When the Steelers have lost to the Bengals recently, Henry usually has been a part of it by contributing a big play or two.
STEELERS RUN DEFENSE VS. BENGALS RB CEDRIC BENSON: Once upon a time, Benson was the fourth overall pick by Chicago, but after three seasons in which the Bears judged his performance on and off the field to be lacking, he was released. Without a lot of teams willing to take a chance on him, Benson signed with the Bengals, and he has been making the most of this opportunity. He signed with Cincinnati on Sept. 30 and started 11 games during the 2008 season. He finished with 747 yards and averaged 3.5 a carry on the year, but he posted back-to-back 100-yard games during the final two weeks of the season. It seems that Benson now is completely acclimated to the way the Bengals want to run the football, and he looked every bit like the fourth overall pick in a draft last weekend when he rushed for 141 yards on 29 carries to help beat the Packers, 31-24. Benson has a nice blend of power to go with just enough speed to be threat to defenses, and if he gets the run game going the Bengals then are much more dangerous with Carson Palmer executing play-action fakes.
STEELERS WR HINES WARD VS. BENGALS OLB KEITH RIVERS: What happened in Cincinnati last season – Ward's block on Rivers that broke his jaw and sent him to injured reserve – was such as big deal that the league not only sent Ray Anderson to Pittsburgh for a mid-week seminar shortly after it happened and then a rule was passed during the offseason that has come to be known as the Hines Ward Rule. A similar situation might never arise again, but the play has been talked about in both locker rooms all week, and it has come to stand for a style of play that the Bengals believe they must adopt if they are to defeat the Steelers. Publicly, the principles are saying this "rematch" is no big deal, but both teams understand that a physical style will have to be played in order to win the game.
STEELERS KR STEFAN LOGAN VS. BENGALS PR QUAN CROSBY: Maybe it's because Logan raised expectations during a preseason where he averaged nearly 40 yards per kickoff return and brought a punt back 80 yards for a touchdown, but the wait continues for the Steelers' kick returning to be a positive factor in a game. Still, even if Logan isn't able to break one, it's still important that he out-perform the opposing returners, and in this case he could have his hands full with Crosby. In the Bengals' win over the Packers, Crosby's punt returns led to 10 points – a 60-yard return put the ball at the Green Bay 6-yard line, and his 29-yard return to the 29-yard line with 2:38 remaining set up a 40-yard field goal by Shayne Graham. Logan has a 39-yard kickoff return and a 19-yard punt return so far this season.