(AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ reign atop the AFC North came crashing down during a five-game losing streak last season. That woeful stretch began against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers would love to let the Bengals experience what a five-game slide feels like Monday night.
After coming up short in one prime-time road showdown, Pittsburgh tries to bounce back at Paul Brown Stadium by extending Cincinnati’s four-game skid and keeping pace in a division race that doesn’t look like it will include the defending champions.
The Steelers (5-2) entered a Week 10 showdown against Cincinnati last season tied atop the North.
The Bengals won 18-12, completing a sweep of Pittsburgh and handing Mike Tomlin’s team the first of five consecutive losses – all by a touchdown or less.
Now, it’s defending division champion Cincinnati (2-5) that can’t seem to finish. The Bengals completed an 0-4 October by falling 22-14 to visiting Miami on Sunday, their fourth straight loss in a one-possession game.
“I don’t know if there’s a worse feeling than losing a bunch of games in a row,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “This is definitely a low for this group and a low for myself, but in no way are we packing it in.”
Cincinnati is tied for last in the division with Cleveland. Both teams trail Pittsburgh and Baltimore by three games.
The Steelers had a chance to take a one-game lead on the idle Ravens by winning in New Orleans on Sunday night, but failed to generate any offensive momentum in a sloppy 20-10 loss.
“You can’t make excuses. We have to play better,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We never got into any rhythm. This is definitely a gut check for us. We got knocked down a little bit and now it will be interesting to see how we will bounce back.”
Pittsburgh typically hasn’t had much trouble coming through in Cincinnati. A 23-20 loss there on Sept. 27, 2009 – in which it blew an 11-point fourth-quarter lead – snapped its eight-game winning streak on the shores of the Ohio River.
Roethlisberger is 6-1 in Cincinnati with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. His lowest passer rating in those seven games was 93.2.
He’s hardly the only reason the Steelers have had success on the road against the Bengals. Pittsburgh has run for 162.1 yards per game in its last nine visits, an average that must sound great to Rashard Mendenhall considering he’s been held to a 67.8-yard average in his last four games.
Cincinnati has surrendered 138.3 rushing yards per game in its last three contests.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have reason to be concerned with a pass defense that’s giving up 261.5 yards per game over its last four as teams are taking to the air to avoid the league’s top rush defense.
Even All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu hasn’t been without fault. After intercepting passes in each of Pittsburgh’s first two wins, Polamalu has been relatively quiet ever since. He was routinely out of position against New Orleans.
“I can’t tell you too many games that I walked away from satisfied with my performance,” Polamalu said. “In my mind, there’s more plays out there I should make. And this is not the only game I felt that way.”
Palmer, for one, doesn’t want to hear anything about his former roommate at USC struggling.
“He’s so much faster and plays at such a different speed than just about everybody on the field,” said Palmer, whose lone interception by Polamalu was returned for a touchdown. “There’s not many guys that can close on the ball as quickly as he can, or close on the run, or are as heady as he is.
“He’s probably the best defensive player in the game right now.”
Palmer, on the other hand, is going through one of the roughest stretches of his career. The seven-year veteran has 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but has repeatedly struggled to connect with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco and has had numerous potential picks dropped.
“Some of the things that have been good to us in the past and been our staples aren’t there for us,” Palmer said. “That’s not an excuse, that’s the NFL. You can’t rely on something that was good last week or last year.”
Both teams should get a defensive boost this week. Pittsburgh end Brett Keisel (hamstring) is expected back after a two-game absence, while Cincinnati cornerback Johnathan Joseph (ankle) and safety Roy Williams (knee) should also return.
The Steelers have outscored their opponents 115-43 while going 5-0 on Monday nights under Tomlin.