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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (6-3) at Cincinnati (6-2)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the Pittsburgh Steelers won't exactly be limping into Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium this Sunday, there should definitely be some lingering effects from their hard-fought game from a week ago.
That could play right into the hands of the Bengals, who've been thriving on wearing teams down and beating them late.
One week after a loss to the rival Ravens dropped them out of first place in the AFC North, the Steelers try to avoid falling even further behind this weekend against the division co-leading Bengals.
Out to avenge a lopsided road loss to Baltimore back in Week 1, the Steelers fought tooth-and-nail with the Ravens at Heinz Field last Sunday. Things looked to be in Pittsburgh's favor when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace for a 25-yard touchdown pass with 4:59 remaining to take a four-point lead in the back-and-forth affair.
However, Baltimore's Joe Flacco engineered a 92-yard drive in the closing moments and overcame some drops by his receivers to find Torrey Smith for a 26-yard score with only eight ticks to go, lifting the Ravens to a 23-20 victory.
Pittsburgh had a four-game win streak end despite an high-impact return by linebacker James Harrison, and fell a half-game behind both the 6-2 Ravens and Bengals in the division.
"That's a tough defeat for us," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We tip our cap to Baltimore. They finished better than we did. We didn't make enough plays to win the game."
The Steelers probably can't wait for their Nov. 20 bye, as they are in the midst of a five-game stretch against teams either leading their division or tied for first place. The string began with a win over AFC East front-runner before last week's loss to the Ravens. Following this road contest in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh gets a week off before visiting Kansas City and then hosting the Bengals in a rematch.
Pittsburgh has won nine of its last 12 on the road, while Roethlisberger is 7-1 at Paul Brown Stadium in his career.
The Bengals look to reverse that trend on Sunday, as they carry their longest winning streak in 23 years into this meeting. Following a 24-17 victory over Tennessee in Week 9, Cincinnati has won five straight for the first time since the 1988 club opened the season 6-0.
Rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green continued to impress in the win. Dalton threw a career-high three touchdown passes and hooked up with Green seven times for 83 yards.
"Lots of people say Andy and I don't look like rookies," Green said. "We just take every rep and try to make it better each week."
After falling behind early, the Bengals outscored the Titans 17-0 in the second half while limiting them to just 95 yards of offense. Dalton's five- yard touchdown pass to Andre Caldwell with 10:52 left in the game put the Bengals in front for the first time, and gave the rookie quarterback his third fourth-quarter comeback of the season.
Cincinnati, which hasn't lost since Sept. 25 at home to San Francisco, is outscoring its opposition 87-43 in the fourth quarter and 156-59 in the second half on the season.
"I'm just going to keep it to myself," head coach Marvin Lewis said when asked about the fourth quarter success. "I don't want to jinx it. As I said last week, I think our guys, we keep learning, we keep having a good understanding of what's happening. Our guys are able to tune in and make adjustments, make corrections, make revisions, move forward with new things and keep attacking."
Cincinnati is beginning its own mini-gauntlet, as it visits Baltimore next weekend.
The Steelers took a 49-32 lead in their overall regular-season series with Cincinnati after sweeping last year's home-and-home set between the divisional foes. The defending AFC champions recorded a 27-21 win over the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium in Week 9 and followed up with a 23-7 home triumph last December, Pittsburgh's seventh victory in its last nine meetings with Cincinnati. The Bengals' lone two positive results over that span took place in 2009, when the team posted a 23-20 home decision as well as an 18-12 win at Heinz Field that year. The Steelers are 8-1 in their last nine regular-season stops at Paul Brown Stadium.
Pittsburgh also prevailed in its lone postseason encounter with Cincinnati, topping the then-AFC North champion Bengals by a 31-17 count on the road in a 2005 AFC First-Round Playoff en route to an eventual Super Bowl title.
Lewis is 5-12 all-time against Pittsburgh, for whom he served as a linebackers coach from 1992 through 1995. Tomlin owns a 6-2 mark versus both Cincinnati and Lewis during his tenure as Pittsburgh's head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh's ninth-ranked offense (389.1 ypg) certainly had its chances last weekend, racking up 392 total yards to mark the sixth time this season that the club has posted at least 390 net yards. Roethlisberger (2632 passing yards, 15 TD, 8 INT) also became the first Steelers quarterback in team history to have three consecutive games of at least 300 yards passing, notching 330 on a 20- of-37 completion rate against Baltimore. His touchdown pass to Wallace (47 receptions, 6 TD) was his lone one of the game, however, and he was also picked off once. With teams looking to prevent Wallace from making the long and deep plays, Antonio Brown (39 receptions, 1 TD) snuck in five catches on 11 targets last Sunday and went over 100 yards receiving for the second time in three weeks. He also saw more time with Emmanuel Sanders (18 receptions, 2 TD) out and Hines Ward (26 receptions, 2 TD) suffering a concussion on a hit by Baltimore's Ray Lewis. While Ward is expected to play in this game, Sanders is out for a few weeks after having knee surgery on Monday. Tight end Heath Miller (35 receptions, 2 TD) made five catches for 73 yards against the Ravens, leaving him eight receptions shy of Elbie Nickel's all-time club record for a tight end of 329. Pittsburgh's ground game was limited to only 70 yards by Baltimore, with Rashad Mendenhall (473 rushing yards, 4 TD) leading the way with 52 yards on 13 carries. That included a one-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
Points off turnovers has been key to the Bengals' success this year, and they enter this game tied for seventh in the league with a plus-4 turnover differential. Cincinnati also ranks tied for second in the NFL with nine fumble recoveries and had scored a defensive touchdown in three consecutive games before last Sunday. However, they did hold an opponent without a second half touchdown for the third time this year in the Tennessee and rank fourth overall in points allowed per game at 17.5. Cincinnati's second-ranked run defense (84.5 ypg) held the Titans to 78 yards on 20 carries, while the pass rush was able to post two sacks, both by defensive end Carlos Dunlap (15 tackles, 3 sacks). Dunlap's efforts gave the Bengals 20 sacks on the season. Cornerback Nate Clements (33 tackles), meanwhile, accounted for a turnover after he stripped Tennessee tight end Jared Cook of the ball and recovered the fumble. Clements also had seven tackles, while linebacker Thomas Howard (48 tackles) led the team with nine stops. Clements and fellow corner Leon Hall (30 tackles,1 INT) will have to keep an eye on Wallace and will need deep safety help from Chris Crocker (23 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Reggie Nelson (50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), while ends Robert Geathers, Michael Johnson (16 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT), and Frostee Rucker (15 tackles, 3 sacks) will look to step up the pass rush. Cincinnati is also hoping for the return of middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (38 tackles), who has sat out the last three games with an ankle injury.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Defensive turnovers have also been key to the Bengals' offense, which is 14th in points scored per game (24.4) despite owning just the 22nd-ranked unit in total yards in the NFL. Cincinnati has also scored on 92 percent of its trips to the red zone. Dalton (1696 passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT) has had plenty of time to make plays, as he has been sacked just twice over his last two games and Cincinnati's 13 sacks allowed are tied for the fifth-fewest in the league. While Green is one of Dalton's favorite targets, he spread the scoring wealth against the Titans, finding Caldwell (26 receptions, 2 TD), wideout Jerome Simpson (26 receptions, 2 TD) and rookie tight end Colin Cochart in the end zone. Cochart and Donald Lee saw more time on the field with Jermaine Gresham (25 receptions, 3 TD) missing his second game in a row due to a hamstring issue, though he could be available this week. Though Green (40 receptions, 5 TD) didn't get in on the scoring party, he still leads all NFL rookies in receptions, receiving yards (599) and touchdowns. His chemistry with Dalton has the quarterback on the verge of becoming the first rookie signal-caller to win six straight games since Vince Young in 2006. Dalton is also 159 passing yards shy of passing Greg Cook (1,854 in 1969) for the most by a rookie in team history. Cincinnati did rush for over 100 yards last weekend, getting 78 on 20 carries from Cedric Benson (536 rushing yards, 2 TD). He was returning to action following a one-game suspension.
Dalton and his offensive line figure to be tested mightily by Pittsburgh's third-ranked defense this weekend. The Steelers are allowing 280.2 yards per game and are also third in defending the pass at 184.7 yards per game. The return of Harrison (31 tackles, 5 sacks) was a big spark to the unit, as he had eight tackles and recorded all three of the club's sacks. One of those sacks resulted in a forced fumble as Harrison returned with a vengeance after sitting out four games due to a broken orbital bone. While Baltimore is the only team to score more than 20 points in a game versus Pittsburgh this season -- the Steelers rank fifth with 18.0 points yielded per game -- the unit did hold the Ravens' Ray Rice-led ground game to only 67 yards. It was the sixth time Pittsburgh held an opponent under 100 yards rushing this season. While Harrison returned, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (36 tackles, 9 sacks, 1 INT) missed his first game since Nov. 9, 2008 because of a hamstring issue and inside veteran James Farrior (45 tackles, 2 sacks) sat out his second in a row with a calf ailment. Still, Pittsburgh has managed 23 sacks this year, second most in the AFC. Linebacker Larry Foote (40 tackles, 1 sack) had a team-high 10 tackles versus the Ravens, while cornerback William Gay (35 tackles) had six. Harrison has three sacks in his last four games versus the Bengals, while safety Troy Polamalu (56 tackles, 1 sack) matched a career-best with two interceptions in the last meeting between the clubs, taking one 45 yards for a score. Pittsburgh has just two picks this year, including one by safety Ryan Clark (57 tackles, 1 INT).
KEYS TO THE GAME
With the Bengals' ability to score late and wear teams down, the Steelers will need to keep Cincinnati off the board early. Last week versus the Ravens, Pittsburgh stopped Baltimore three times at the one-yard line to hold the club to a field goal. It was the first time in three games that the Steelers allowed points on an opening drive.
Dalton has been on a nice run, but he'll need to be in top form versus the Steelers. Pittsburgh has held six of the nine quarterbacks it has faced this year to a passer rating lower than 87.0. It has also held six of those nine signal-callers under 200 yards passing.
Like the Saints of a few seasons ago, the Bengals get a healthy number of scores from their defensive and special teams units. Four of Cincinnati's touchdowns have been scored by those groups, including three from the defense.
Few would have expected a Bengals-Steelers matchup this year to have a huge impact on the standings, but that is the remarkable case this Sunday. Pittsburgh should be hungry and focused following last weekend's disappointing loss, and a trip to Cincinnati isn't likely to rattle this veteran unit. The Steelers have been able to overcome a slew of defensive injuries the past few weeks to stay competitive, and some pressure could be off given Cincinnati's offensive numbers. However, that lack of depth could favor the Bengals late in the game, allowing them to pull off in what some would see as an upset.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 16, Steelers 13
11/10 16:08:11 ET