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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (2-3) at Cincinnati (3-3)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't accustomed to losing.

So you'll not blame them if their reaction to a 2-3 start this year is especially jittery.

Pittsburgh started at least 6-2 in each of coach Mike Tomlin's first five seasons, reached the postseason in eight of the last 11 years, made three Super Bowl appearances and won two championships.

But, heading into Sunday night's visit to AFC North Division rival Cincinnati, it's the first time they've reached game six of a season with a losing record since Tomlin replaced Bill Cowher. They opened 2-6 in Cowher's second-to-last season in 2006 after winning the league title in 2005.

"The panic button, we're tapping on it," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "We ain't got two hands on it, but we're kind of nibbling on it a little bit. We can't lose no more, that's the approach. Five, six losses you ain't going to be in the playoffs."

Losing record or not, they're not far off.

Pittsburgh had fourth-quarter leads in each of its three losses, including a seven-point lead against Tennessee with 4:20 remaining before 10 straight Titans points yielded a 34-31 defeat. The Steelers also lost on a last-second kick in Oakland on Sept. 23 and gave up 17 straight points in a season-opening loss in Denver on Sept. 9.

"It comes down to playmaking,'' Tomlin said, "and we haven't made enough significant plays."

On the injury front, linebacker LaMarr Woodley could return from a strained left hamstring and center Maurkice Pouncey might play after a right leg injury sustained against Tennessee.

Still questionable to participate, however, are safety Troy Polamalu (calf), linebacker Chris Carter (hamstring) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle). Also, rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu was suspended for two games after a weekend arrest. The status of running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle) is also in doubt.

Mendenhall scored four touchdowns in two 2011 games against Cincinnati.

The Bengals have lost four straight to Pittsburgh, and two games in a row in 2012 after winning three straight. They gave up 21 fourth-quarter points in a 34-24 defeat in Cleveland last Sunday.

"It's not time to jump ship,"' offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "'We're 3-3 just like everybody else in our conference. At the end of the day, it's not about wins and losses, it's about who makes the playoffs. Our goals are all still right there in front of us. Somebody that's 3-3 has to go win some games and get in the playoffs. Why not us?"

Against the Browns, quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns, but was intercepted three times.

"We've got to fix it. Obviously we are not playing consistently enough for the ability of the guys that we have," coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're almost too nice at times and we've got to have more of a killer instinct."

Against the Steelers last November, Cincinnati rallied for a 17-17 tie in the third quarter but lost, 24-17. In the rematch a month later, Pittsburgh won, 35-7.

Dalton completed 26 of 54 passes against Pittsburgh in those games. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger didn't surpass 250 yards against the Bengals in 2011, but had three touchdowns and an interception. He is 7-1 lifetime at Cincinnati.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Racking up yardage against the Cleveland Browns wasn't the problem for second- year quarterback Andy Dalton - the three interceptions, however, were.

It's not likely to get any easier this week against evil defensive genius Dick LeBeau.

"LeBeau is a master at messing with young quarterback's minds," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "His defenses are very demanding, both from a physical and mental standpoint. A key ingredient in this particular matchup is the (non-)availability of Troy Polamalu, as he can act as the true wild card with his ability to align all over the formation and at any level of the defense. But Dalton is wise beyond his years in deciphering and reading defense and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has done an excellent job of keeping him under control."

Dalton has yet to get through a 2012 game without an interception, but he's got a high-end security blanket in second-year receiver A.J. Green, who's scored in every game since the opener and lit the Browns up for 135 yards and two touchdowns last week.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Maybe the Steelers aren't what they've been in recent years. Or, maybe they're just a few plays from being 5-0. Either way, it's much easier to see a close game breaking in their direction than against them.

Even without Polamalu, LeBeau is still capable of concocting a game plan that'll keep Dalton on edge. And few QBs in the league are better down the stretch that Pittsburgh's Roethlisberger. Until people look up and actually see the Steelers two games below .500, the assumption remains that they're simply too good to fail.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 23, Bengals 20

10/18 11:22:09 ET