Willie Anderson, the heart and soul of the first Paul Brown Stadium Bengals to win a division, fittingly takes the scepter Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) as Ruler of the Jungle when Joe Burrow's Bengals make their first run at the kingly Steelers in playoff season.
"Steelers fans always find a way to get in, but it will be loud Sunday for the Bengals," Anderson predicted. "The team is red hot right now in the city and there's a big stretch of games coming up with a lot riding on them."
For the first time in five years the 6-4 Bengals play the 5-4-1 Steelers while ahead of them in the AFC North in November and Anderson is getting nostalgic about head coach Marvin Lewis' first team in 2003. That team turned everything around for the Bengals and had them in first place in November on the way to building a program that won the division in 2005.
"I think they've found their way a little faster because that was Marvin's first year and these guys have been bubbling for a year or two," Anderson said. "It feels similar to '03. Like we did, they had significant wins against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. I think they have found their identity. They play with a bunch of energy. A bunch of young guys that love to play. They play with confidence from the quarterback to the wide receivers to the coach to the DBs and the defensive line. It's a well put together team."
No one is hotter than Willie Aaron Anderson, the best right tackle of the turn-of-the-century NFL. Just last week he was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's semifinal ballot of 25 players for the second straight year after recently being named to the Sports Hall of Fame in his native Alabama. Not to mention being a finalist for the Bengals' inaugural Ring of Honor class.
Plus, he's emerged as an influencer in the world of offensive line play. When the Bengals took him as a 20-year-old out of Auburn with the 10th pick in the 1996 draft, it was known as being a mover-and-shaker. But now it's "influencer," and that's what he does with his insight on Twitter and his hands-on counseling of players on all levels via his Atlanta-based Willie Anderson Offensive Line Academy.
It was Anderson's Pro Bowl dominance and locker room leadership that helped Lewis revamp the franchise as his 181 Bengals games in 12 seasons served as a bridge from Riverfront Stadium to the Paul. So he's got a good feel of how things morph and he senses it with Bengals director of strategy and engagement Elizabeth Blackburn and her staff executing a new and explosive brand of stagecraft at home games.
"This new era of Bengals is a pretty cool time," Anderson said. "They're doing a great job bringing guys back, keeping guys involved with the fans. I'm sure Elizabeth is spearheading the creativity of it all. We sweated and bled for this team and we want to be a part of it and enjoy the young kids today. It's a cool thing to be a part of that."
But, of course, the more things change the more they stay the same. Anderson was energized by the offensive line's play in the second half of last Sunday's win in Las Vegas when running back Joe Mixon took over with 30 carries on 123 yards.
"I've been saying it for 20 years," Anderson said. "In this division the bigs on both sides of the ball have to play big boy football."
Although the Bengals offensive line has had some inconsistencies this season, Anderson thought they took a huge step in Vegas.
"When they put the game on their shoulders in the second half and started running the ball they were really finishing," Anderson said. "Joe Mixon is a superstar, but he was running through some big holes. Those interior guys did a really good job in there. They were pounding the Raiders and got Joe going. It shows they can do it."
No. 28 also gets Anderson nostalgic. That was the number of Corey Dillon, the Bengals all-time leading rusher who ran behind Anderson for all 8,061 yards, including three 200-yard games.
"When you've got a superstar running back, it's OK to give it to him 30 times,' said Anderson, as Mr. Big rules The Jungle again on a day the Bengals look to their bigs.