NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (1-1) at Cincinnati (1-1)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Cedric Benson has done everything asked of him for the Cincinnati Bengals. He will try to stick to the plan again this Sunday in a tough task against the AFC North-rival Pittsburgh Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium.
Pegged to be washed up -- no pun intended -- after being arrested as part of a boating party scandal a few years ago as a member of the Chicago Bears, Benson got a second chance to revive his career with the Bengals midway through last season. Since then, the former first-round pick out of Texas has planted himself back on the NFL map, and Cincinnati couldn't be happier for his revamped dedication.
Benson has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of his last four games dating back to last season, and was instrumental in Sunday's 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. While quarterback Carson Palmer seemed to be back to his old Heisman Trophy form, Benson racked up 141 yards on a season-high 29 carries and helped Palmer improve to 14-3 when he hands the ball to a 100-yard rusher. The offense clicked with Benson taking pressure off of Palmer despite a balky ankle, especially after the Bengals averaged 3.2 yards per carry in a Week 1 loss to Denver.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski planned against 3-4 defenses in the first two weeks, and it doesn't get any different with Pittsburgh's similar style on the upcoming docket. Benson understands that defenses know when he will usually get the ball, and it's his job to make tacklers miss.
The defending champion Steelers rarely miss, setting up a true test of strength. Bratkowski has been using a lot of tight end sets to help the ground game, and won't stop now after all the success the idea has garnered. He can only hope his players carry the momentum from a huge win at Green Bay and disperse it evenly versus the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers.
Pittsburgh is still trying to get over Sunday's 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears and gave up 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to fall to 1-1 for the first time since 2006. Much of the blame can be put on the defense, which has just two sacks in two games this season. The lack of pressure hurt the six-time Super Bowl winners, and they hope it doesn't carry over into Sunday's divisional matchup. Cincinnati has improved this year and could easily be 2-0.
The Steelers went 6-0 against division foes last year and have won 11 of their past 13 games against AFC opponents following their 13-10 overtime victory against the Tennessee Titans in Week 1. Pittsburgh's offense has struggled to put up points in two games, while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has the team's lone touchdown run. He understands that the passing game must also improve, and even said so himself this week.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin hopes his team can avoid losing consecutive games for the first time since the 2007 campaign, a stretch of 20 regular- season contests. The last time the Steelers lost back-to-back games was from December 9-16, 2007.
The odds are in Tomlin's favor this Sunday, especially since Pittsburgh is 5-2 in its last seven road games. The Steelers went 6-2 away from Heinz Field last season.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 47-30, and have won five straight over Cincinnati since last losing a game in the series, at home in 2006. Pittsburgh was a 38-10 road winner when the clubs met in Week 7 of last season, and earned a 27-10 triumph at Heinz Field in Week 12. Pittsburgh is s home-and-home, including a 24-10 home decision in Week 13.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Steelers also scored a 31-17 road win over the Bengals in the 2005 playoffs. Including that win, Pittsburgh is 8-0 in Cincinnati since last losing in the Queen City in 2001.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 3-10 all-time against the Steelers, while Tomlin is 4-0 against both Lewis and Cincinnati as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (584 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) looks to improve to 6-0 all-time at Paul Brown Stadium, where he has thrown for 11 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 112.5 passer rating. Roethlisberger finished 23-for-35 for 221 yards with one touchdown and one interception (80.8 passer rating) against the Bears. Big Ben has also been sacked six times this season. His top target, Santonio Holmes (14 receptions, 214 yards) has just one touchdown catch in two games. The reigning Super Bowl MVP has been getting the yards, but needs to get into the end zone. Holmes is averaging 96 receiving yards a game in his past four against Cincinnati. Fellow wideout Hines Ward (14 receptions, 160 yards) is still searching for his first score of 2009 and will also be watching his back for Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers, who suffered a broken jaw after taking a high block from the veteran receiver last season. Ward said this week he would do the same again if given the chance. He needs 60 receiving yards on Sunday to join the exclusive 10,000 club for his career, and can also become just the 21st player in NFL history to record 800 receptions (814) and 10,000 receiving yards in a career.
Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom (10 tackles, 7 sacks) posted five sacks against the Packers last week and leads the NFL in that category. Odom tied Eddie Edwards for most sacks in a game in franchise history, as Edwards notched five back in 1980 before sacks were an official stat. Odom wreaked havoc all day, something he will try to do again with Roethlisberger under center. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has his team prepared for what Tomlin's offense has to offer, and hopes Odom can get the quarterback again and already match his career-high of eight in a season, set in 2007 with Tennessee. Sunday's six sacks by the Bengals marked their most since they had seven in the 2006 season opener in Kansas City. Roethlisberger has not been sacked in the past three games against the Bengals and just twice in the last five matchups between the clubs. Cincinnati didn't pick off Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers last week, but finished with four passes defensed. In secondary news, Tampa Bay picked safety Corey Lynch off the Cincinnati practice squad this week, and the Bengals replaced him with rookie CB Rico Murray.
The Pittsburgh ground attack has struggled this season and starter Willie Parker (66 yards) is not helping the situation. Parker, who had a season-high 47 yards on 14 carries against the Bears, finished 2008 with 791 yards on 210 attempts and rushed for more than 100 yards four times. He played against the Bengals once last year and was held to 37 yards on 14 touches. Second-year back Rashard Mendenhall (45 yards) has only carried the football seven times this season, while Mewelde Moore (21 yards) also has seven carries on the year. Moore also has seven catches for 43 yards in two games for the Steelers, who managed just 36 rushing yards in Week 1 and rebounded for 105 against the Bears. The Steelers rank 28th out of 32 teams in rushing yards.
While Odom needs 1 1/2 sacks against the Steelers to set the NFL record for the most through the first three games of a season, all eyes will be on Rivers (11 tackles) and Ward this Sunday. Rivers, who is hoping to get a good lick on Ward as a measure of revenge, posted six tackles last week and is one of three good linebackers on the Cincinnati squad. Rookie Rey Maualuga (12 tackles, 1 sack) had the sixth sack of the game in Green Bay and brings great speed to a chiseled frame. Middle man Dhani Jones (12 tackles) is the third Cincinnati linebacker who will be looked on to keep Pittsburgh's running game grounded for a third straight week. However, the Steelers have had a 100-yard rusher in each of the past five games at Paul Brown Stadium, and six of their seven most recent visits there.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer (432 passing yards, 3 TDs, 4 INT) threw for three touchdown passes in Green Bay, but his two interceptions led to 14 points. He will not get away with that kind of performance this week versus the Steelers. Palmer, who ranks third in the AFC with 92 touchdowns since 2005, has played fairly well against Pittsburgh at home. In his last two matchups with the Steelers at PBS, Palmer has thrown for 456 yards with three TD's and no interceptions. He has been sacked five times this year and could be without guard Nate Livings, who is nursing a knee injury, on Sunday. Rookie tackle Andre Smith is still out with a foot problem. Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (9 receptions, 180 yards, 1 TD) was able to do his "Lambeau Leap" last week and finished with four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. He averages 20 yards per catch this season and just became the first Bengal with 9,000 career receiving yards. Fellow wideout Chris Henry (2 receptions, TD) got reacquainted with Palmer last week, while offseason signee Laveranues Coles (3 receptions, TD) is still getting adjusted with his new team.
Pittsburgh had trouble defending the pass Sunday in Chicago and did not record any interceptions. Perhaps the knee injury to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (6 tackles) is more serious than originally thought. Polamalu went down in the Week 1 win over Tennessee and missed last week's loss. Backup safety Tyrone Carter (4 tackles) suffered a thigh contusion against the Bears, but returned to the game after the injury. He is expected to start in Polamalu's place again this week, and will be replaced by Ryan Mundy (6 tackles) if he can't go. Palmer will try to establish the pass game early, so the secondary must be healthy and ready. Cornerback William Gay (12 tackles) had a career-high 10 tackles at Chicago. Tomlin's defense has two sacks through two weeks in 2009, after finishing first in the AFC and second in the NFL with 51 sacks in 2008. Star defensive end Aaron Smith (4 tackles, sack) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (8 tackles) have to apply pressure up front.
Benson (217 rushing yards, 1 TD) missed practice earlier this week after suffering a minor ankle sprain against the Packers. He sustained the injury in the first quarter, but was able to play the entire game and had a big day. Benson faces an even tougher test with defending champion Pittsburgh headed to Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers have nasty linebackers who will do anything to stop the revival of Benson. Cincinnati hasn't had a 100-yard rusher against the Steelers since Palmer's first start against Pittsburgh on October 3, 2004. The Bengals may have a shot against the 3-4 defense, as offensive line coach Paul Alexander seems to have his unit back on track after they contributed to the lowly 3.2 yards per carry in the loss to Denver.
Pittsburgh is aware of Benson's success this season and will try to break out all the stops to make Cincinnati one-dimensional. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's stop unit has been among the best at holding its opponents to the fewest rushing yards in the league. This season, the Steelers are giving up 64.5 yards per game on the ground after allowing 80.3 rushing yards per game in 2008. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 20 regular-season games, and have allowed only three in the past 84 games, including the playoffs. The Steelers have a talented group of linebackers who will try to keep Benson's numbers down. Keyaron Fox (15 tackles) leads the defense in tackles, while stars James Farrior (14 tackles, 1 sack) and James Harrison (11 tackles) will be swarming to the ball on Sunday. Harrison has two forced fumbles already in 2009 after leading the NFL with seven last season. Fox has started in place of the injured linebacker Lawrence Timmons in both games this year, although Timmons is listed as probable for Sunday despite his ankle problem.
Benson, Palmer and Ochocinco are definite starters, even though their numbers could take a hit when the rivalry with Pittsburgh renews. Palmer has put to rest any speculation that his elbow is still bothering him, while Cincinnati's offensive line has dominated in the ground game the first two weeks. Ochocinco reached the end zone last week in Green Bay for the first time this season, but faces an even tougher challenge with the Steelers in town. Roethlisberger, Holmes, Parker and the Pittsburgh defense are safe starts this week for fantasy owners. Both Holmes and Parker are bound for a breakout game, while the defense has a sure shot at creating turnovers and possibly a touchdown. Roethlisberger is a must-start unless you have either Brady, Brees or Peyton Manning.
The Steelers haven't started 1-2 since losing three of their first four games of the 2006 season, when they ended 8-8. Unfortunately, they could match that mark Sunday against an improved Bengals squad determined to prove to their division rivals that they're not pushovers. Cincinnati is riding the momentum of a hard-fought win over favored Green Bay at Lambeau Field and will try to stop a five-game losing streak in the series. The Bengals need big games from their top three weapons (Benson, Palmer, Ochocinco), and Palmer must attack Pittsburgh's secondary right away. The Cincinnati defense will try to keep Pittsburgh's run game grounded again, with Odom aiming for an encore performance from his sack-filled day last week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 23, Steelers 17
09/24 18:44:18 ET