Who knows how it might have worked out for Dick LeBeau if his stint as the Bengals head coach were supported by the authorities granted to Marvin Lewis? All we know is this: LeBeau has returned successfully to his calling as a defensive coordinator with the Steelers.
That's bad news for the Bengals, who learned the hard way just how far is their climb to the top of the AFC North. The Steelers thrashed the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, 27-13, due to two factors: Lewis and LeBeau.
The sporting world is full of surprises, none more stinging now than Lewis' remarkable feat of bringing the Bengals to contention without fixing their run defense. He came to the Bengals as the great designer of defenses. But three years later run defense remains the area of this team that's no better than the days of 2-14 with LeBeau as the head coach in 2002.
Pittsburgh absolutely shredded the Bengals on the ground. Of course, that's the Steelers. It's what they do. It's also the Bengals and what they do.
This game, a chance for the Bengals to establish a new order in the AFC North, ultimately reiterated the one and only eternal verity of football at all levels -- you will not beat a good football team if you can't stop the run. You can beat teams coached by fellows who think they're geniuses because they dream up passing plays late at night with the lights out, but you will not beat football teams who come to the football game with a football mentality and the football skills to back it up.
Note several uses of the word "football" in the preceding sentence. Football is a funny game, decked out in phony complexity with odd pretensions about genius and innovation.
Football is a bulky philistine who wears expensive clothes, drives a fancy car and trains itself for adeptness at buzzwords and jargon. Once you burn the wardrobe and wreck the car, you're down to a naked ape who can either win a fight or can't. The mind-body problem is the true home of ideas. Football is the true home of blocking and tackling. If you can't block, you can't score. If you can't tackle, you can't keep the other team from scoring.
The Bengals can block, but they can't tackle. The Steelers can do both. That's why the Steelers can still whip the Bengals, who entered with five wins in their first six games. Not that ideas don't matter at all in football -- ideas matter everywhere. But when do ideas start to matter? Do the Bengals not have an idea of how to stop the run, or do they just not have the skill?
Bringing in all new guys, Lewis is cooking up a defense that humiliates opposing passers. The Bengals rank 10th in NFL pass defense and are actually much better than that because they lead the NFL with 14 interceptions. But their rush defense rates 27th in the NFL, giving up 132 running yards per game.
Carson Palmer is a better and more talented quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger's team beats Palmer's team because the Steelers run all over the Bengals.
Roethlisberger can beat Palmer just by taking the snap and handing the ball to Willie Parker. Roethlisberger threw 14 passes against the Bengals, completing nine for 83 yards. He handed off 47 times for 221 yards. Palmer can't beat Roethlisberger without being otherworldly. But then Palmer has to beat LeBeau, and that's tough sledding for a kid.
Bengals fans might think LeBeau a joke after that 2-14, and honestly his defenses during the Sam Wyche and Bruce Coslett eras didn't top the charts. But he's one of the very best. All one can figure is that the guys he's coached in Pittsburgh are better than the guys he coached with the Bengals.
LeBeau's zone blitz scheme made mush out of Palmer with its strange twists and unpredictable rush angles. Into the second half, Palmer threw no interceptions in his past 170 tries. He entered the Pittsburgh game with nine straight outings scoring 100 or better in the NFL's passing scores.
But Palmer threw two picks in one three-minute span against the Steelers. One of them came early in the third period with the Bengals trailing 7-6 after a huge break, an interception by Bengals corner Tory James. The other came on the Bengals' next possession. The Steelers turned those picks into 10 points and a 17-6 lead. And when the Bengals trail 17-6 in the second half against a team committed to the run, they lose because they can't make the other team go three and out.
The best way for the Bengals to stop a rushing attack is take a double-digit lead late into the third quarter and force the other team to throw. The Pittsburgh game revealed two turning points -- the consecutive interceptions in the third quarter and unfulfilled offensive drives when the game began.
If the Bengals turn those two opening drives into touchdowns, they win the game. Instead, a video replay decision took away Chad Johnson's touchdown catch on the first drive, which ended in a missed field goal. The second drive ended in a made field goal.
The Bengals remain in good shape for a playoff run. They should win this week against the Green Bay Packers, whose weak running game might now be non-existent with an injury to Ahman Green. Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis, who has destroyed the Bengals from time to time, averages less than 3 yards per carry this year. The Bengals play the Ravens twice in their next four games.
Later, the Bengals play two other weak rushing teams, Cleveland and Detroit. Chances are, the Bengals will win five of their next seven, perhaps clinching a playoff spot at 10-4.
If the Bengals haven't clinched a spot by then, it could get hairy. The Bengals close the regular season against two good running teams, Buffalo and Kansas City.
If the Bengals' run defense doesn't foil them in the playoffs, it could stop them on the way there.