Everybody is well aware of where Geno Atkins is on the football field. They don’t need Atkins to wear one of those bright orange “Geno 911” shirts to keep track of him. He tends to find ball carriers quickly enough.
Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers are bound to keep a closer eye than usual on Atkins Monday night when the Bengals host them.
“He’s one of the best d-linemen in the game so you’ve got to know where he’s at,” said Roethlisberger. “For me, I know he’s going to be within three or four feet every single snap so it’s not going to be hard to find him usually.”
There were question marks aplenty for the Steelers and their offensive line coming into this season but losing All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey on the eighth play of the season and replacing him with second-year player Kelvin Beachum, who started last week’s season-opening 16-9 loss against Tennessee as a tight end, only compounded their issues.
The Steelers were shutout from the end zone against Tennessee until there was just one minute, 23 seconds remaining in last Sunday’s game. They managed just 195 yards on offense, their lowest total since 2010, and 32 yards rushing. For the first time in Mike Tomlin’s career as Pittsburgh’s head coach the Steelers failed to pick up at least one first down rushing.
Jerome Bettis used to have 10 first downs before he stepped out onto the field against the Bengals.
That’s why no one on the Cincinnati side is expecting a repeat performance Monday night. Especially with both teams coming into the game 0-1.
“They’re still going to come out fired up and ready to play,” said Atkins. “Beachum replaced him, and I think he did a pretty good job from watching the film. You still have to come out on your ‘A’ game because they’re going to be fired up to come out and play, especially a Monday Night Football game.”
Pouncey was lost for the season with a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee when right guard David DeCastro dove in an attempt to block a Tennessee defensive tackle Sammie Hill but instead hit and took out his own teammate inexplicably. Beachum has played all three line positions for the Steelers besides lining up as an extra tight end. He hadn’t practiced at center last week but moved in when Pouncey was injured.
Beachum started at right tackle last December when the Bengals clinched a playoff spot with a 13-10 win at Pittsburgh.
“He’s kind of our do-it-all guy,” said Roethlisberger.
Four of the five offensive line spots for the Steelers are filled by players drafted in the last three years. Left guard Ramon Foster, an undrafted player who has been a starter the last two seasons, is the lone exception. DeCastro was a first-round pick last year, while right tackle Marcus Gilbert (2011) and left tackle Mike Adams (2012) were second-round picks. Beachum was drafted in the seventh round last year.
As last week’s game showed, the youth movement on the offensive line is very much a work in progress. The Steelers also lost running back LaRod Stephens-Howling for the season with a right knee injury. It forced them to re-sign Jonathan Dwyer, who was part of their final preseason cuts.
It should be an advantage for the Bengals. Past games against the Steelers, especially those in Cincinnati, have repeatedly proven that looks can be deceiving. Dwyer made his first career start last season against the Bengals in a prime time game and rushed for 122 yards on 17 carries.
“It always seems like every year that they usually rotate guys in and out of their O-line because of injuries,” said defensive tackle Domata Peko. “I know they’ll be ready to go and us too. We didn’t have our best game (against Chicago), so we’ve got to bounce back. It’s a big week for us.”
The Bengals held Chicago to 2.9 yards per rush in last Sunday’s 24-21 loss at Soldier Field. The longest run they allowed was an 18-yard pickup by quarterback Jay Cutler scrambling out of the pocket. Roethlisberger might not be as shifty as Cutler but he has made a living keeping plays alive, escaping sacks and finding open receivers.
“He’s probably the strongest quarterback,” said Atkins. “You’ve got to make sure you rally. If not you can be on him and he can still get the ball off. You’ve got to make sure you grab his arm. He’s one of the strongest quarterbacks in the league.”
The Bengals have beaten the Steelers in the past when they were able to contain Roethlisberger, or force him to scramble the way they wanted him to scramble. Josh Brown’s game-winning and playoff-clinching 43-yard field goal at Heinz Field last year was set up when Reggie Nelson intercepted a Roethlisberger pass, a throw he made on the run.
The matchup of the Bengals defensive line against the Pittsburgh offensive line on paper goes to the Bengals. If it goes to them on the field Monday night, they’ll stand a much better chance of evening their record after two games.
“The whole front seven, and that’s no disrespect intended for the secondary, but that front seven really gets after it and those are the guys that are hitting me most of the time, so those are the guys I have to be aware of,” said Roethlisberger. “They create a lot of mismatch problems, a lot of issues in the backfield in the run game and the pass game. It’s definitely something we have to have our antennas up about.”