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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (2-10) at Pittsburgh (9-3)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Steelers showed last week how capable they are of finding ways to win regardless of the situation, while the Cincinnati Bengals continue to prove time and time again their knack of giving games away.
The two AFC North inhabitants that are presently at the opposite ends of the division spectrum will renew their rivalry this Sunday at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, where the first-place Steelers will attempt to send the stumbling Bengals to a 10th consecutive defeat.
Pittsburgh returns home off an incredibly gritty performance that resulted in a 13-10 victory over their main competition for this year's AFC North crown, the Baltimore Ravens. Overcoming a flurry of injuries to a number of key players and the hostile surroundings of a charged-up M&T Bank Stadium crowd, the Steelers rallied from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to seize control of the division's top spot and put themselves in the driver's seat for a possible first-round bye in next month's conference playoffs.
The Steelers trailed 10-6 with under 3 1/2 minutes left before changing momentum on a stellar individual effort from safety Troy Polamalu. The All-Pro defender came through on a blitz to sack Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and jar the ball loose, with teammate LaMarr Woodley scooping up the fumble and returning it to the Baltimore nine-yard line.
Three plays later, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found running back Isaac Redman on a third-down play for the go-ahead touchdown.
The uplifting win gave Pittsburgh a one-game edge on Baltimore for the AFC North lead with four left to play, and the team owns the same advantage over West front-runner Kansas City in the race for the conference's No. 2 postseason seed.
The Steelers did pay a price for their resolve, however. Roethlisberger sustained a broken nose on the club's initial offensive series, tight end Heath Miller (concussion) and tackle Flozell Adams (high ankle sprain) exited in the third quarter due to injury, and punter Daniel Sepulveda suffered a season-ending ACL tear in the first half.
Roethlisberger, also playing through a sore right foot after aggravating a previous injury in a Week 12 win at Buffalo, underwent facial surgery on Monday but will be on the field this weekend with a protective shield around his face mask. The standout signal-caller did not miss a play in last Sunday's triumph.
The outlook isn't as positive for Miller and Adams, both of whom are considered doubtful to participate.
Pittsburgh may not need all hands on deck to get past the error-prone Bengals, a team the Steelers defeated by a 27-21 count in Cincinnati back on Nov. 8. That loss was one of nine in a row for the defending AFC North title-holders, their longest skid since also dropping nine straight tests during a 3-13 campaign in 1998.
Seven of the Bengals' setbacks during their present drought have come by eight or less points, including a 34-30 verdict to reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans this past Sunday. The Saints scored the deciding points on a short touchdown pass from Drew Brees with 34 seconds left, just after the veteran quarterback baited Cincinnati lineman Pat Sims to jump offside on a 4th-and-2 situation to prolong the drive.
The Bengals also blew second-half leads in each of their two prior losses, allowing the New York Jets to score 23 points over the final two quarters in a 26-10 defeat on Thanksgiving night and surrendering 35 unanswered points to lowly Buffalo in a 49-31 decision in Week 11.
Cincinnati will be trying to avoid losing 10 straight contests for the first time since Sept. 5-Nov. 21, 1993.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular-season series with the Bengals, 48-32, after coming through with the previously-noted 27-21 win at Paul Brown Stadium back in Week 9. Cincinnati took both meetings between the clubs en route to its 2009 AFC North title, however, and completed its first home-and-home sweep of Pittsburgh since 1998 with an 18-12 decision at Heinz Field during Week 10 of last season. The Steelers had bested the Bengals five straight times prior to those two defeats from a year ago, including victories in Pittsburgh in both 2007 and 2008.
In addition to their regular-season advantage, the Steelers also scored a 31-17 road win over the Bengals in the 2005 playoffs.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 5-11 all-time against the Steelers, for whom he served as a linebackers coach from 2002 through 2005, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 5-2 against both Lewis and Cincinnati as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Though wildly inconsistent, the Cincinnati offense can create problems for the opposition through an aerial attack centered around the colorful wide receiver duo of Terrell Owens (71 receptions, 961 yards, 9 TD) and Chad Ochocinco (59 receptions, 4 TD). The 37-year-old Owens has remained an elite target for hit- or-miss quarterback Carson Palmer (3009 passing yards, 20 TD, 15 INT), as evidenced by the 10-catch, 141-yard, two-touchdown output he had against the Steelers last month, and Palmer himself is coming off one of his better showings of a notably erratic season. The former No. 1 overall pick hit on 23- of-33 throws for 249 yards and a touchdown against the Saints and had only his third turnover-free game of the year. A pair of rookies, tight end Jermaine Gresham (47 receptions, 3 TD) and slot receiver Jordan Shipley (44 receptions, 2 TD), have given Palmer two more good targets for a Cincinnati team that ranks 13th in the league in passing yards (235.7 ypg). The running game, a major element in the Bengals' 2009 success, has been a huge disappointment this season, with primary back Cedric Benson (837 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 7 total TD) averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry and experiencing fumble problems at times. Turnovers have been an issue for Cincy throughout the year, as the club has the second-most giveaways (25) in the AFC.
Benson figures to again be hard-pressed to get untracked this week, as the Steelers are yielding league-lows of 62.0 rushing yards per game and a meager 3.0 yards per attempt, while the four touchdowns the defense has surrendered on the ground are also the fewest in the NFL. Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons (103 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 TD) and James Farrior (83 tackles, 4 sacks) have been exceptionally stingy against enemy backs and get plenty of space to work due to five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton's (12 tackles, 1 sack) ability to tie up blockers, while outside linebacker James Harrison (79 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT) has been a force against the run as well in addition to his prowess as a pass rusher. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year heads up a group that's tied for the NFL lead with 36 sacks, while Woodley (39 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and Farrior, who's netted a sack in three straight games, have also thrived in coordinator and one-time Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau's blitz-happy scheme. Polamalu (60 tackles, 1 sack, 4 INT) is the headliner of the secondary and may the team's most important player, as he tops the Steelers in interceptions and is regarded as one of the game's best-run stopping safeties.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (2078 passing yards, 13 TD, 5 INT) will be under center on Sunday despite his banged-up status, and that's a good thing considering the offense wasn't nearly as formidable in the four games the sturdy quarterback was forced to sit out under suspension to begin the season. He's averaged just under 260 passing yards since returning from his ban, with wide receivers Mike Wallace (41 receptions, 868 yards, 8 TD) and Hines Ward (41 receptions, 4 TD) having benefited the most from Roethlisberger's presence. Wallace serves as Pittsburgh's main big-play threat and is averaging a league-best 21.2 yards per reception, and the second-year speedster burned the Bengals for 110 yards and a score on five catches in the teams' earlier meeting. With the reliable Miller (33 receptions, 1 TD) on the shelf, look for more three-receiver sets containing rookie Emmanuel Sanders (16 receptions, 2 TD) when the Steelers are in passing downs. A ground attack that ranks a respectable 10th overall in rushing yards (120.0 ypg) is led by running back Rashard Mendenhall (1007 rushing yards, 9 TD, 19 receptions), who churned out 99 yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts against Cincinnati in Week 9. The third-year pro should get plenty of work come Sunday, especially with Adams unlikely to play and regular left tackle Max Starks already done for the year with a neck injury.
The Steelers could very well find success running the football on an injury- plagued Cincinnati defense that's just 24th in rushing yards allowed (124.9 ypg) and has given up an unhealthy average of 152.3 yards on the ground over the team's last three losses. The Bengals also haven't pressured the passer well, having produced a league-worst 14 sacks for the year, but may have uncovered a gem in rookie end Carlos Dunlap (12 tackles, 4.5 sacks), a talented second-round pick who's come up with 3 1/2 sacks the last two weeks from his situational role. The unit's strength lies at the cornerback position, where starters Leon Hall (38 tackles, 4 INT, 9 PD) and Johnathan Joseph (31 tackles, 3 INT) form a quality duo that's combined for seven interceptions, but the secondary did lose a key piece when stabilizing free safety Chris Crocker went down with a season-ending knee injury three weeks ago. Veteran middle linebacker Dhani Jones (100 tackles) once again leads Cincinnati in tackles and will organize the front seven's effort to try to keep Mendenhall under wraps.
The safest source of fantasy points out of this matchup may come from an outstanding Steelers' defense that features a pair of IDP monsters in Harrison and Timmons, with Mendenhall a very low-risk choice at the running back position as well. Roethlisberger also merits starting consideration among Pittsburgh players, but keep in mind he's only thrown one touchdown pass over the last two games and won't have one of his security blankets in Miller. Wallace is a solid pick as well on the Steelers' side, while kicker Shaun Suisham is 6-for-6 on field goal tries in three games upon replacing the since-released Jeff Reed. Owens and Ochocinco are Cincinnati's top fantasy prospects, with both Shipley and Gresham offering some potential as lower-end alternatives at their respective spots, and Palmer could reward owners willing to take a chance on the sometimes-shaky quarterback with the Bengals likely to air it out on Sunday. There are better running back options out there than Benson this week, and stay away from the Cincinnati defense and untested rookie kicker Clint Stitser.
This could loom as a potential trap game for the Steelers, who are coming off a physical and emotionally-draining win over their biggest rivals and have a pivotal showdown with the playoff-contending New York Jets on the docket next week. Note that the Bengals have rarely been blown out over the course of their substantial slide and put a scare into Pittsburgh when these teams faced off back in November, with the Steelers needing to come up with a late defensive stop to survive. Cincinnati's still way too mistake-prone to recommend here, however, especially in a game where running the ball effectively will be crucial to the outcome due to the expected cold conditions. Since Pittsburgh stops the run better than any team in the league and is playing at home, go with the AFC North leaders in a contest that could be less of a mismatch than the records would indicate.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 23, Bengals 17
12/09 14:04:13 ET