Football

Bengals grind out a classic

CINCINNATI — The soulful sound of Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come wafted through the speakers in the winning Cincinnati locker room.

"It's been a long time, long time coming."

"A long time," repeated Bobby Williams, the veteran offensive guard, peeling off his ankle tape.

"But I know a change gonna come, yes it will."

"Oh, yes, it will," Williams said.

Sunday it came: Bengals 23, Steelers 20.

It's been a long time since Cincinnati experienced a win that felt this good, Carson Palmer taking his team 71 yards over 16 plays in the game's final five minutes to give the home team its first win over dreaded Pittsburgh since 2006.

But then maybe, just maybe, it's been a long time since the Bengals had players like these.

"A bunch of castoffs," said Marvin Lewis, the winning coach. "Grinders. Football players. That's the fun of it. Bringing together a group of guys that understand what a team is all about makes it enjoyable."

Grinders fall behind 13-0 to the defending world champs and keep grinding and fighting, and keep grinding and fighting, until it comes down to the end and there's 71 yards to go for the winning score and all of football thinks there's no way the Bengals will make the end zone because they're the Bengals, after all, but inside that huddle and on that sideline, the Bengals know they'll get there.

A grinder like this guy: Brian Leonard, 6-foot-1, 230-pound, third-year fullback out of Rutgers, acquired from the St. Louis Rams via trade.

"He's a football player," Palmer said.

Leonard's a football player who isn't fast. He isn't shifty. But he knows where to be, and when to be there, and on the game's biggest play, fourth-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 15-yard line with 36 seconds left, Leonard knew to be on Palmer's right flat, ready if needed.

"I'm the last progression on that play," Leonard said.

Yet he prepared as if he was the first. Leonard knew the down and distance. He'd checked the yard makers.

"I always look five yards beyond the sticks, because I know if I get there I've got the first down," he said.

With Palmer's receivers blanketed, his options dwindling, the quarterback checked down to his safety valve, who caught the football, broke a tackle, lunged for the extra yardage — "Extra effort," said Leonard. "That grinder mentality." — and picked up the first down.

Two snaps later, Palmer found Andre Caldwell for the winning score and Cincinnati had its first home win over Pittsburgh since 2001.

"That's why we got Brian," said Lewis afterward. "He fits that bill of what this football team is made up of."

"He converted the fourth down. He converted the extra point (two-point conversion), then he sprinted down to the other end of the field because he's on kickoff coverage," Palmer said. "That's the kind of guy he is: A football player making football plays."

Maybe, finally, this is a team like that. "We've got the type of team where everybody wants to play," said Lewis. "They find a way of joining in."

They were joining along with Sam Cooke after the game — Chad Ochocinco claimed credit for the selection — though not in a showy way. No full-throated sing-a-long, just grateful recognition.

"Oh there been times that I thought I couldn't last for long/But I now I think I'm able to carry on."

With that in the background, someone asked Brian Leonard if he was proud to be called a grinder.

"Absolutely," he said. "Absolutely."

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