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NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (5-2) at Cincinnati (2-5)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers weren't able to sustain success after winning an AFC North title the previous season. It's a trend the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals are on pace to continue.
The defending division champion Bengals hope to put an end to a painfully-long winless drought when the slumping club hosts the playoff-hopeful Steelers in a Week 9 Monday night showdown between AFC North rivals.
Cincinnati orchestrated one of the NFL's best turnarounds last season, bouncing back from a dreadful 4-11-1 campaign in 2008 to win 10 games and edge both Pittsburgh and Baltimore for the division crown. This year's edition started off with wins in two of its first three tests, but has since lost four consecutive times to fall three games behind both the Steelers and the Ravens in the current AFC North standings.
The Bengals have still been competitive during their lengthy skid, as all four of the defeats have been by eight points or less and the team had a second- half lead in three of those games.
Cincinnati held an eight-point advantage late in the second quarter of last Sunday's clash with Miami, but its offense went cold after halftime and the Dolphins put up 16 unanswered points to come away with a 22-14 victory. The Bengals mustered a mere 78 total yards and five first downs over the final 30 minutes, with up-and-down quarterback Carson Palmer completing just 8-of-22 passes for 52 yards during that span.
While the talented Bengals have been viewed as underachievers, Pittsburgh exceeded most insiders' expectations by compiling a 3-1 record while starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger began the season serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. The Steelers tacked on two more wins once Roethlisberger returned, but couldn't maintain the momentum in a 20-10 road setback to reigning Super Bowl champ New Orleans in Week 8.
Pittsburgh had its lowest offensive output this season with Roethlisberger under center, gaining a modest 279 total yards and 13 first downs against the Saints, while a usually air-tight defense was shredded for 305 passing yards by New Orleans triggerman Drew Brees and gave up a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
The loss, the Steelers' first in four away dates so far in 2010, placed Pittsburgh in a tie with Baltimore for the top spot in the AFC North with a 5-2 record.
Cincinnati fell to 1-2 at home with last week's verdict and has now dropped nine of its past 12 overall games, which includes a loss to the visiting New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs this past January, dating back to last season.
The Bengals also often haven't fared well when facing Pittsburgh in recent years, and especially so on their home turf. The Steelers had prevailed in eight straight trips to Paul Brown Stadium, including a win in the 2005 AFC Playoffs, before Cincinnati came through with a 23-20 decision during September of last season.
The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 47-32, but were swept in last year's home-and-home with their longtime division rival. As previously noted, Cincinnati was a 23-20 home winner when the teams met in Week 3, and completed its first sweep of Pittsburgh since 1998 with an 18-12 win at Heinz Field in Week 10. The Steelers had a five-game winning streak in the series entering 2009, including home-and-home sweeps in 2007 and 2008.
With a win on Sunday, the Bengals will have their first three-game winning streak over the Steelers since taking six in a row from 1988-90. That period also ranks as the last time Pittsburgh lost in Cincinnati in back-to-back seasons.
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 5-10 all-time against the Steelers, for whom he served as a linebackers coach from 2002 through 2005, while Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin is 4-2 against both Lewis and Cincinnati as a head coach.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Though it wasn't evident last week, the Pittsburgh offense has become a more balanced and dangerous outfit with Roethlisberger (754 passing yards, 5 TD, 2 INT) at the controls. The Steelers have averaged 239.3 passing yards in the three games the two-time Super Bowl champion signal-caller has started, an upgrade of more than 100 yards from the ones managed by substitutes Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch, and go-to receiver Hines Ward (27 receptions, 3 TD) has seen a noticeable spike in his numbers during Big Ben's tenure. One player who hasn't benefited from the switch is running back Rashard Mendenhall (603 rushing yards, 6 TD, 11 receptions), who hasn't eclipsed 84 rushing yards in any of Roethlisberger's starts after totaling 411 yards over the first four weeks as the offense's centerpiece. The third-year pro did rip off a 38-yard run for Pittsburgh's lone touchdown against the Saints, but was held to just 33 yards on his other 14 attempts. New Orleans also did a good job of taking away the big-play ability of wide receiver Mike Wallace (17 receptions, 4 TD), the NFL's leader in yards per catch (23.4 avg.) this season, and getting Roethlisberger out of rhythm by applying persistent pressure. The Pittsburgh field general has been sacked six times over the past two weeks and was taken down a league-high 50 times a year ago.
Roethlisberger may not have to worry about having inadequate time to throw on Monday, considering the Bengals have been horrendous at getting to the quarterback all season long. Cincinnati has produced a paltry six sacks through the first seven games, and two have come on blitzes by free safety Chris Crocker (40 tackles, 2 sacks). That dearth of a pass rush, not to mention a high ankle sprain suffered by standout cornerback Johnathan Joseph (15 tackles, 1 INT), has had a profound effect on a defense that comes in ranked 20th in passing yards allowed (221.3 ypg). Joseph is expected to return from his two-game absence this week, however, and will again team with counterpart Leon Hall (23 tackles, 4 INT, 7 PD) to provide the strength of a unit that hasn't come close to matching the level of play it did during last year's playoff run. The Bengals have particularly struggled against the run, having surrendered an average of 132.8 rushing yards per game over their present losing streak. Starting strong safety Roy Williams (17 tackles) hasn't been present for three of those defeats due to a sprained knee, but the brittle ex-Cowboy should be ready to go on Monday and assist in that area.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
No team has been able to effectively run the ball on the Steelers this year, so the onus will be on Palmer (1855 passing yards, 12 TD, 7 INT) to get the Bengals moving down the field with his erratic right arm. It's hard to gauge what to expect from the former Heisman Trophy winner, as he followed up a three-interception showing in a Week 5 loss to Tampa Bay with a brilliant 412- yard, three-touchdown display against Atlanta, then hit on an awful 17-of-38 throws for 156 and was picked off twice by the Dolphins last week. One constant contributor to Cincinnati's sixth-rated pass offense (265.0 ypg) has been wideout Terrell Owens (45 receptions, 629 yards, 5 TD), with the controversial veteran averaging nearly 120 receiving yards and scoring five touchdowns over the past four games, and flashy running mate Chad Ochocinco (39 receptions, 458 yards, 2 TD) and a pair of rookies -- slot receiver Jordan Shipley (24 receptions, 1 TD) and tight end Jermaine Gresham (29 receptions, 2 TD) -- give Palmer plenty of good weapons to work with. The Bengals also possess a quality running back in Cedric Benson (545 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 3 total TD) but have had a hard time getting him untracked, as the ex-Bears first-round choice has had only one 100-yard game this year after breaking that barrier a club-record seven times last season.
While the Steelers have routinely shut down opposing running backs, the past few weeks have shown that this is a team that can be thrown on. Brees was a sharp 33-of-44 for 305 yards and two scores in last Sunday's matchup, while Cleveland rookie Colt McCoy hung 281 yards on Pittsburgh in his NFL regular- season debut two weeks prior. The Steelers have generated a solid 20 sacks on the season, and outside linebackers James Harrison (49 tackles, 6 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (24 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will need to do their thing once again on Monday to protect cornerbacks Bryant McFadden (44 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and Ike Taylor (38 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD) against Cincinnati's formidable cast of receivers. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (74 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) will also be asked to blitz extensively in esteemed coordinator Dick LeBeau's aggressive scheme, and the fourth-year standout is also one of the pillars of a defense that's yielding a minuscule 58.9 rushing yards per game and 2.6 yards per attempt. A banged-up line anchored by sturdy nose tackle Casey Hampton (6 tackles, 1 sack) is slated to get unheralded end Brett Keisel (12 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) back from a hamstring strain that kept him out of the team's past two outings.
The Bengals are going to air it out early and often in this one, which makes Palmer a viable fantasy starter for this week and both Owens and Ochocinco strong receiver plays. That tactic will also increase the opportunity for a Pittsburgh defense that was already considered a starting lock to come up with sacks and turnovers, so use the group with confidence. Roethlisberger's been solid since coming back from suspension and is a decent choice at quarterback, though his upside would be limited somewhat if the Steelers decide to attack Cincinnati on the ground. Mendenhall remains a must-start regardless of the game plan, however, with both Ward and Wallace both having some value as lower-end receivers. Gresham offers some potential as a bye-week fill-in at tight end and give a thumbs-up to Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, as the Steelers tend to force a lot of field goal attempts. Lean towards sitting Benson, however, as he hasn't done much lately against defenses that are less accomplished than the one he'll be facing on Monday.
Cincinnati has to be regarding this game as its last stand, so it's reasonable to assume the beleaguered bunch will put forth its best effort against a division opponent on a national stage. That may not be enough, however, against a Pittsburgh team that's superior in several facets and is in no danger of letting down after losing their last contest and being swept by the Bengals a year ago. Cincinnati's going to need a top-level performance from Palmer to come out on top, and it's highly questionable the hit-or-miss quarterback will able to provide one. Using a back-to-basics method built on running the football and playing stout defense, look for the Steelers to avenge one of the losses that kept them out of the postseason last year.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 20, Bengals 13
11/05 14:12:20 ET