This is the meanest, keenest, roughest, toughest division in the league. Anything can happen? Yes, the Cincinnati Bengals—after three years of frustration at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers—will win the division title. For three reasons: squabbling among the Steelers, a pussycat schedule, and deeper talent than the franchise has ever had.
The only crack team the Bengals face—other than two meetings with Pittsburgh—is Minnesota, and they routed the Vikings in a preseason game. The Steelers, on the other hand, play three toughies—Oakland, Baltimore and Dallas—in addition to the Bengals.
Nominally, this is Bill Johnson's second year as coach of the Bengals, but he was Paul Brown's top assistant from the team's inception in 1968, so he is thoroughly at home, as are most of his aides.
Two excellent first-round draft choices, Eddie Edwards ( Miami) and Wilson Whitley ( Houston), both defensive tackles, have shored up the Bengals' weak rush line. Edwards is the faster of the two and, thus, the better pass rusher, while Whitley is stronger and his quick lateral moves make him the better tackier. Elsewhere, the defense is sound. The linebackers, led by Jim LeClair, are solid enough so that the Bengals will play much more 3-4 than previously, and the secondary has two Pro Bowl-ers, Tom Casanova and Lemar Parrish. The only loss on defense is Tackle Bob Brown, whose bulk will be missed on goal-line stands but who was never a strong pass rusher or much for pursuit. The two rookies more than compensate for his loss.
On offense, the key player is, of course, Quarterback Ken Anderson, and if he goes down, the Bengals can probably forget about the playoffs. But the offensive line, featuring Center Bob Johnson and Tackle Vern Holland, has matured and cohered into a virtually impermeable unit; so Anderson should not have to worry too much about being sacked. Anderson, who receives each play by messenger from the sidelines, has compiled gaudy offensive statistics throughout his six seasons in Cincinnati, but has always been error-prone in games billed as "crucial." The other linchpin in the Bengal offense is Wide Receiver Isaac Curtis, who not only has sure hands but also can block and run. The Bengals hope to get the ball to Curtis more often this season by setting him on the weak side, rather than as a flanker to the strong side, thus making it more difficult for opponents to double-cover him.
Archie Griffin, who spent last season learning the pro system, now understands why he's doing what he does, and his game has improved immeasurably. Paired with Griffin will be one or another of Cincy's multitalented running backs—big Boobie Clark (245 pounds) or quick Lenvil Elliott; Griffin's Ohio State teammate, Fullback Pete Johnson, the leading scorer in Big 10 history (58 TDs) is an exceptional blocker and rarely fumbles. The only soft spot on offense is at tight end, where injury-prone Bob Trumpy is backed by a pair of rookies.
Although Pittsburgh has beaten the Bengals in five of six meetings the past three seasons, if Cincinnati gets a split this year it will gain the playoffs as Central Division champs.
It's hard to believe, but old age and That Ole Debbil Doubt are catching up with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Center Ray Mansfield and Linebacker Andy Russell have retired, after 14 and 13 years, respectively. Cornerback Mel Blount and Middle Linebacker Jack Lambert were teed off at Coach Chuck Noll and the Rooney family, and missed all ( Blount) or most ( Lambert) of the preseason. It's not that two such talented men really need a full camp to play well, but the worm of discontent has a way of infecting a whole squad in very short order. The fine tuning that Noll achieved over eight seasons could go off frequency in a hurry.
Anticipating Russell's retirement, Noll used his No. 1 draft pick for a replacement, and came up with Robin Cole, a 220-pounder from New Mexico. Like Lambert and Jack Ham, he has cornerback speed and is a hard, almost savage hitter. Another rookie, Dennis (Dirt) Winston from Arkansas, adds depth at linebacker in the event of injuries.
The secondary is where the Steelers may be hurting. With Blount playing surly and the other defenders looking weak, not just in preseason but also in the playoff game against Oakland, the worries that Pittsburgh may be vulnerable to long passes seem valid. The defensive line, on the other hand, is as tough as ever with Mean Joe, L. C. Greenwood and friends. The veteran starters have been bolstered by the maturation of two "new boys," John Banaszak and Steve Furness, who earned their spurs during the injury-plagued 1976 season.