Conflict proved to be a good thing for the old Oakland A’s, Billy Martin’s New York Yankees, and the ’85 Chicago Bears.
But more often conflict creates free-fall, which will define the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers if they can’t beat the Cincinnati Bengals in a game today that will likely determine a wildcard playoff berth.
The Steelers have lost two in a row and four of their last five. And after throwing a game-deciding interception in overtime, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger criticized offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s play-calling.
Roethlisberger walked into Haley’s office on Monday and apologized, and at the time Haley didn’t know why. That’s how little the media matters to him.
“There are going to be ups and downs and frustrations,” Haley said. “But it’s never been an issue of being on the same page.”
Are the Steelers still a team in conflict? Has the Roethlisberger-Haley dust-up faded? Or was it merely the projection of a hopeful media?
That’s the question for the scuffling 7-7 Steelers today as they host a red-hot 8-6 Cincinnati Bengals team that’s won five of its last six games.
“Well, your scuffles get over in a week and so can your hotness,” said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. “What happened last week doesn’t matter a bit for this game. We know we’re playing a very good team led by a great quarterback, and we’ve got to play well.”
The Bengals had fallen to 3-4 after a 24-17 loss to the Steelers in Cincinnati. And after their ensuing bye week they fell to 3-5 with an 8-point loss to the Denver Broncos.
And then the Bengals got hot. It has coincided with the increased productivity of a running game that was ranked 25th in the NFL after Game 9 but is now ranked 11th.
“It helps to have A.J. Green out there on the edge,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. “Teams are doubling him with a safety, giving us one less guy to block.”
That will certainly be the case for the Steelers’ defense today. It comes into the game without its No. 1 cornerback, Ike Taylor, and a No. 2 cornerback in Keenan Lewis who left last week’s game after aggravating a hip flexor injury and who missed most of this week’s practices after aggravating the injury on Wednesday.
Lewis promised to play, but there’s little doubt the Steelers will need a safety over the top to keep Green from beating them deep.
So the next point of emphasis for coordinator Dick LeBeau will be stopping BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who’s averaged 108.6 rushing yards in the Bengals’ last five games.
Green-Ellis has passed the 1,000-yard barrier for the second time in his career with 1,080. His feat of four 100-yard games in the last five hasn’t been accomplished by a Bengal since Paul Robinson did it in the franchise’s inaugural 1968 season.
Green-Ellis is a 220-pounder who leads the NFL with 14 third-and-1 conversions.
The Steelers held him to 69 yards on 18 carries in the previous meeting, and 9 yards on 5 carries last season when he shared duties with Kevin Faulk with the New England Patriots.
Conversely, the Steelers have gone cold along with their running game. They’ve averaged only 71 yards rushing the last four games, or since Willie Colon and Mike Adams were injured.
Colon is on injured reserve, replaced by first-round pick David DeCastro, and Adams is listed as doubtful this week, replaced by seventh-round draft pick Kelvin Beachum.
The rookies will line up on the right side against the strength of the Bengals’ defense, linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
“They are a matchup that is as good as any we’ve seen all year,” said Haley. “We have to play our best game up front, and handle them in the run and pass.”
Because the Steelers do not possess the manpower required to run the ball effectively, they’ll likely try to outscore the Bengals with their passing game.
So, the big question remains: Can conflict be a good thing?
“Yeah,” Haley said with a laugh. “You are talking to arguably one of the most confrontational, at least perception-wise.
“I think healthy conflict, discussion, banter, is good. It gets you to the right place. It gets everybody on the same page and where you need to be. Like I’ve said a number of times, when I make a call into Ben’s ear in the game, I am putting complete faith in him to make it a good call or the best call it can be. The same for him, when he hears my voice, he has to trust and believe that the play coming in is giving him and us the best chance to succeed. You develop that through these Sunday battles and battles against other teams. That’s where the trust and camaraderie develops. That’s what has occurred.
“There are going to be ups and downs because there is emotion, and there is a lot at stake every single week for all of us. We’ve put a lot of time, effort and sacrifice into this. That’s just the way it is. I think a little bit of healthy conflict is a good thing.”