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NFL Preview - Cincinnati (6-2) at Pittsburgh (6-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Pittsburgh Steelers have been waiting quite some time for a rematch with the AFC North-rival Cincinnati Bengals, and will get their chance for redemption this Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
Pittsburgh just recorded its fifth straight victory since a 1-2 start by handing the Denver Broncos a 28-10 drubbing Monday night at Invesco Field. The Steelers started out slowly, owning a 7-3 lead at halftime, before two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger fired three touchdown passes in the second half to ignite Pittsburgh's offense.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers are starting to make fellow AFC contenders look over their shoulders as they continue to push towards another playoff run. The defending Super Bowl champions are tied with Cincinnati atop the AFC North with an identical 6-2 record and have since moved on from early losses to Chicago and Sunday's opponent, which registered a hard-fought 23-20 triumph over Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium back in Week 3.
The Steelers are coming off back-to-back wins over then-unbeaten Minnesota and Denver, and can attribute the credit to the return of a suffocating defense and precise passing from "Big Ben".
Now Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and his team will put their 4-0 season record at home on the line with a chance for sole possession for first place in the division. Tomlin, who described this upcoming matchup as "classic", can not afford to have his club fall two games behind the Bengals in the division race. If the Steelers can get past Cincinnati with a victory, the rest of the 2009 schedule appears to be pretty favorable for the Black and Gold.
Cincinnati has rarely been able to call itself a contender over the past decade or so, but will get a shot at proving to the league it's for real in a rough environment on the road. The Bengals have ripped off two straight wins over formidable opponents in Chicago and Baltimore and are off to their best start since the 2005 squad opened the season 7-2 and finished with 11 victories before losing to Pittsburgh in an AFC Wild Card showdown.
Cincinnati handled the division-rival Ravens for the second time this season last week, using a stingy defense and another solid performance from early MVP candidate Cedric Benson to deliver a 17-7 win. The reborn running back is second in the NFL in rushing at 104.6 yards per game, with Tennessee's Chris Johnson first with a 119.9 yards per game clip.
The win over Baltimore kept Cincinnati in first place with a 4-0 division mark and spirits high in the Queen City. Many pundits thought the Bengals' 4-1 start was a fluke, but the emergence of Benson and the improved play by the defense have solidified any doubts. Cincinnati's offense was horrible a year ago with Carson Palmer nursing an elbow injury, but now the quarterback seems like his old self, when he threw for 32 touchdown passes during the 2005 campaign.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis probably has his fingers crossed hoping that this is the year his team can surprise the NFL world. They have so far, but the true test starts Sunday in the Steel City.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 47-31, but had a five-game win streak in the series snapped with a 23-20 road loss in Week 3. The defeat was the first as a pro for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in his home state of Ohio. Pittsburgh swept home-and-homes against Cincinnati in 2007 and 2008, and the Bengals are 0-2 in the Steel City since last winning there in 2006.
In addition to their regular season advantage, the Steelers also scored a 31-17 road win over the Bengals in the 2005 playoffs.
Lewis is 4-10 all-time against the Steelers, for whom he served as a linebackers coach from 2002 through 2005, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 4-1 against both Lewis and Cincinnati as a head coach.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Palmer (1,832 passing yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) was bound to have a mediocre performance against the Ravens, one week after lighting up Chicago for five touchdown passes, but stood strong with 224 yards and a scoring pass with no interceptions for a second straight week. He has eight touchdown passes in his last four games and faces a tall task against Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu-led secondary. Palmer will try to lead the Bengals to consecutive wins over the Steelers for the first time since 1998. He has done well in his last six games against them, passing for 1,242 yards with 11 touchdowns and a pair of picks. Flamboyant wideout Chad Ochocinco (44 receptions, 639 yards, 5 TD) has been getting his mouth and hands ready for Pittsburgh, but must be prepared for what's coming. Ochocinco caught five passes for 66 yards against Baltimore and leads the team in receptions. He is averaging 95.3 receiving yards over his last four games. Andre Caldwell (29 receptions, 3 TD) and Laveranues Coles (22 receptions, 3 TD) are second and third, respectively, in receptions and will be more involved now that Chris Henry (12 receptions, 2 TD) is on injured reserve with a broken forearm. In other injury news, starting guard Evan Mathis is out after injuring his ankle last week.
Even in a losing decision, the Steelers were able to contain Palmer and the Bengals' receiving corps by holding the Southern Cal product to 183 yards passing with a touchdown. Caldwell caught the lone scoring pass and beat the likes of safety Ryan Clark (39 tackles, 2 INT) and cornerback Ike Taylor (38 tackles). The two defensive backs combined for 13 stops that day, while Taylor broke up five passes. The Steelers had eight passes defensed that afternoon. Polamalu (19 tackles, 3 INT) was not suited up for the first matchup, and his presence this time will change the entire outlook of the secondary. Fellow safety Tyrone Carter (13 tackles, sack, 2 INT) is coming off an impressive game against the Broncos, as he was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for picking off two Kyle Orton passes and returning one 48 yards for a touchdown. Carter was filling in for Clark, whose sickle cell trait is triggered when playing in high altitudes. Carter also had two tackles and a pair of passes defensed in the win.
Benson (837 rushing yards, 6 TD) has collected a career-high 837 rushing yards this season and posted 117 yards and a score on 34 carries against Baltimore. He has four 100-yard rushing games this year, including two against the Ravens, and has carried the ball an NFL-best 198 times in 2009. Benson has 71 touches over the last two contests and became the first back since 1997 to hit the century mark in rushing twice against Baltimore in a single year. Lewis was the defensive coordinator for the Ravens then. Benson has scored in four straight games and is aiming for his third consecutive game with 100 or more rushing yards. He has eight games left to set the Bengals' season record of six. James Brooks, Ickey Woods, Harold Green, Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson have all posted five 100-yard games in one season. Benson has enough beef up front, with a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters on the line that includes Bobbie Williams, Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland opening holes.
The Steelers have forced nine turnovers in three games and picked off Orton three times on Monday. They harassed Orton all night, with defensive end Brett Keisel (28 tackles, 3 sacks) recording two sacks. End Travis Kirschke (9 tackles) missed the game with a calf injury and is listed as questionable for Sunday's test. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons (29 tackles, 3 sacks) also missed the game with an injury, but at least the Steelers will have sack leader and linebacker James Harrison (48 tackles, 8 sacks) on the field. Harrison posted seven tackles on Monday, while leading tackler James Farrior (52 tackles, 2 sacks) contributed four stops. In the 23-20 loss to Cincinnati earlier this season, Harrison and Farrior had five stops apiece and helped contain the Bengals to 100 yards on the ground. Benson was slowed to 76 yards and a score on 16 carries.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger's second three TD-pass performance of the season led the Steelers past the Broncos on Monday night, and he finished 21-of-29 for 233 yards. His 70.6 completion percentage is tied with Colts All-Pro signal-caller Peyton Manning for the best in the NFL. "Big Ben" passed for 276 yards with a touchdown and an interception during the first meeting with the Bengals, and recorded 735 passing yards and four scoring strikes in the three most recent matchups in this series prior to that one. Roethlisberger has four games in which he's reached the 100 mark in passer rating, while the Steelers are 33-2 in such games over his career. He has thrown a scoring pass in eight straight games, and chucked a pair to Hines Ward on Monday. Ward (49 receptions, 646 yards, 4 TD) leads the team in receptions and receiving yards and owns three 100-yard games in four tries at home this season. Santonio Holmes (36 receptions, 590 yards, 1 TD) has scored only once in 2009, while tight end Heath Miller (43 receptions, 4 TD) is tied with Ward for the team lead in touchdown catches. Miller has also swiped a few catches from Holmes, last year's Super Bowl MVP, and is second on the team in that category. Rookie Mike Wallace (25 receptions, 3 TD) hauled in a career-high seven passes for 102 yards in the last meeting against the Bengals.
Cincinnati's less-than-stellar pass defense played tight last week and held Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to 195 yards while producing two interceptions. The Bengals are allowing 241.6 passing yards a game, and Roethlisberger will be ready to expose the secondary. Cornerbacks Leon Hall (41 tackles, 4 INT) and Johnathan Joseph (30 tackles, 4 INT) each had an interception versus the Ravens and are tied for the team lead with four. The tandem was able to contain the big three of Holmes, Ward and Miller earlier this year, but Wallace came away with the big numbers. Safety Roy Williams (28 tackles) was back at practice this week after missing the last three games with a forearm injury, while free safety Chris Crocker (38 tackles, 2 INT) will try to give Cincinnati nine interceptions in the last five weeks on Sunday. Much like the Steelers, the Bengals have a tough run defense and sit second behind Pittsburgh with an average of 83.9 rushing yards allowed per contest.
Steelers second-year back Rashard Mendenhall (573 rushing yards, 4 TD) has reached the 100-carry mark this season and is coming off his second 100-yard rushing performance of the year after amassing 155 yards on 22 carries against the Broncos. Mendenhall has filled in nicely for oft-injured veteran Willie Parker (187 rushing yards), who did not play against Denver. Guard Trai Essex has been limited in practice because of an illness, but Mendenhall has been proving he can run behind anyone. He's finally earned the confidence and trust in Tomlin after being relegated to just special teams duties in the first meeting with Cincinnati. Offensive tackle Max Starks has also been singing the praises of Mendenhall, who will get occasional breathers from third-down back Mewelde Moore (89 rushing yards) during the game.
Cincinnati outside linebacker Keith Rivers (43 tackles) is listed as doubtful for this game with a calf injury and will most likely be replaced by Brandon Johnson (32 tackles, 1.5 sacks). Rivers is second on the team in tackles behind starting middle linebacker Dhani Jones (52 tackles, 1 sack), and his speed and coverage skills will be missed. Rookie outside linebacker Rey Maualuga (32 tackles, 1 sack) had five tackles and a pass defensed in the first matchup between these clubs. Look for Pittsburgh to test the Bengals again across the middle, especially with Miller, whose size and speed can create mismatches for the linebackers. Defensive end Robert Geathers (21 tackles, 1.5 sacks) had a half-sack the last time he faced Roethlisberger, but has been limited in practice this week with a hip problem. End Frostee Rucker (6 tackles, 1 sack) was also limited in practice with a neck ailment. End Jonathan Fanene (15 tackles) is the Bengals' current leader with 3 1/2 sacks. Tackles Domata Peko (16 tackles) and Tank Johnson (13 tackles, 1 sack) will be in for another afternoon of banging heads up front and collapsing the pocket.
This AFC North matchup will be tightly contested and has many fantasy prospects from both teams to pick from. The Steelers have the most options since they're playing at home, which is why the defense must be in the starting lineup as usual. Roethlisberger is on pace to break Terry Bradshaw's single-season passing mark. Ward and Miller have been garnering the most attention from the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback and will be looked to quite often again as Pittsburgh tries to gain a measure of revenge. Mendenhall has the hot hand, and owners would be silly not to put the chiseled back in the lineup.
Cincinnati's Palmer, Benson, Ochocinco and the defense are all good selections despite playing in the Steel City. Ochocinco is the riskiest of those picks, since it seems both teams will try to pound the ball early on the ground. If you're looking for a last-minute lineup pick at receiver, Coles or Caldwell may help.
The Bengals were able to shut down Parker and Pittsburgh's running package the last time out, but this Sunday they have Mendenhall to deal with. That won't be a problem for a Bengals squad entering Heinz Field with a major chip on its shoulders. Cincinnati can put a huge stamp on the AFC North with another victory over the Steelers after sweeping the season series from the division- rival Ravens last week. Ochocinco may have had his plans to send a care package to the Steel City stopped by Lewis, but there's no doubt Cincy's top deep threat will be ready to mix it up with Pittsburgh's heralded defense. If Ochocinco has the gumption to talk trash to Ravens future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, Sunday's contest should be a walk in the park for No. 85. Benson, meanwhile, has spearheaded the Bengals' resurgence and is in another zone right now. Roethlisberger may have the Steelers in position to take the lead sometime in the second half, but the gutsy quarterback will falter in front of the friendly faithful.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 19, Steelers 17
11/12 18:02:24 ET