By Christina Rivers
A mere 283 driving miles from Pittsburgh, along the Ohio River, Paul Brown Stadium will be filled Sunday with plenty of black and gold. The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) will engage the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3) in their first divisional play where they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games in the series. While they see each other twice every NFL season due to their AFC North ties, neither team believes they can afford to lose this matchup. That makes every single play worth watching.
Relying on the fact that since Paul Brown stadium opened in 2000 and that they’ve been able to win there 11 out of 13 times, including a 2005 playoff victory, won’t help the Steelers. They have spent practice time this week making sure that players understand their individual matchups and assignments.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green desire a favorable link Sunday, but against the AFC North, they are 0-5 historically. So far this season, Dalton has struggled at times to get balls into the hands of his receivers instead of the defenders. Dalton has already thrown eight picks in 2012. As of week five, the Steelers have had two interceptions; one by Ryan Clark and another by Lawrence Timmons. Neither resulted in a touchdown, but the Steelers defensive backs are hungry. Dalton has completed 142 of 215 passing attempts for 1,726 yards and 12 touchdowns, but has been sacked 17 times for a loss of 102 yards. Green has 43 receptions for 628 yards and six touchdowns. His longest catch resulted in a 73-yard touchdown.
Bengals offensive coach Jay Gruden defended his quarterback by saying, “You see what type of player he is…it happens to great ones. If he’s going to play here for ten more years or however many more years, he’s going to throw a few more.”
“There have been some decisions to throw the ball when I probably shouldn’t have, but other have been tipped balls and things like that too,” Dalton explained. “So I know when I can take my chances, I know when to take my shots. Hopefully the interceptions will go down.”
The Steelers have Dick LeBeau, a powerful weapon against quarterbacks in the league who are unpredictable and rattled by the blitz. With LaMarr Woodley back in the lineup to help James Harrison, LeBeau will undoubtedly throw everything he can at Dalton. Marvin Lewis once coached with LeBeau in Pittsburgh and said, “(The Steelers) can add a wrinkle here and a wrinkle there. One guy is doing something different, but the other ten guys are still doing their jobs the same way…(they) can do it at a very high level and high speed.” Lewis continued, “That’s the impressive part – how they continue to add and manipulate the game plan week to week to week. (LeBeau) works hard to take away strengths for you and make you do things that he may not rate as your best strength.”
When asked about Green, LeBeau said, “He is tremendous at getting the ball. He runs very good routes. They are going to scheme things at him and give him plenty of chances.”
In addition to practicing to shut down Green’s routes, the Steelers focused on limiting tight end Jermaine Gresham from being able to match up with linebackers and safeties. Gresham has 25 receptions for 306 yards and two touchdowns this season. He has been effective at stretching out plays, especially when one-on-one in the middle with linebackers. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote will see a lot of playing time this week. When Foote was asked about the game, he said, “We need to gain some ground. We need a win…it’s going to be a hard-hitting game.” Foote has recorded 37 tackles in 2012 and added two sacks and two forced-fumbles.
Although Bengals receiver Andrew Hawkins is being “rested”, he’s still slated to play on Sunday. Hawkins was limited Wednesday with a back injury. Against the Cleveland Browns last week, Hawkins had five catches for 35 yards in a game in which he played 72 percent of the offensive snaps. “Hawkins is a little banged up,” Gruden said. “He’s in on special teams and we’ve been in so much three-wide receivers in the last week that I think he just wears down a little…come Sunday he’ll be fine.”
To compliment Hawkins, the Bengals plan on inserting fifth-round pick Marvin Jones and Ryan Whalen into the mix. Jones had two receptions for 21 yards late in the Cleveland game and has a total of three catches this year. Armon Binns and Brandon Tate have struggled over the past two weeks. Binns recorded two fumbles against the Dolphins and had difficulty getting open against the Browns. Tate missed Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown during a 19-yard interception return for a touchdown that resulted in a 34-17 lead in a game the Browns won.
The Steelers’ defensive backs have been called out for being exposed this season. LeBeau said, “A cornerback has to have a very short memory. I don’t think you can single out any player. We have to do a better job, get off the field and get our offense the football…It’s an 11-man situation, no question about it.”
“Ike (Taylor) plays all the best receivers in man, so he’s tough,” Green said. “He plays everybody man, so I’ve got to be able to work him because he’s a great corner.”
The Bengals picked up center Jeff Faine a mere ten days before their season opener after Kyle Cook went down with an ankle injury. Faine is surround by Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler. Boling and Zeitler had never played an NFL game at guard until the Bengals’ opener. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis went a full 31 days between carrying the ball in preseason play and a regular season game. Zeitler has been working on pass protection. Meanwhile, Lewis understands that the Bengals’ running game isn’t producing like he wants. They’re 21st in rushing and their 100 rushes of three yards or less are eighth most in the NFL. Green-Ellis has a record of 3.4 yards per carry. “We like him but he missed all of training camp and you learn (there) how to block for different guys and adjustments,” offensive line coach Paul Alexander said. “The bottom line is if they all screw up one play, at the end of the day you are not good.”
Green-Ellis saw the Steelers three times as a Patriot. In the single game he carried more than five times, he was only able to gain 87 yards on 18 carries. The Bengals have only gained more rushing yards on the Steelers once, when Rudi Johnson amassed 98 yards on 21 carries. “If we go out and execute I think we’ll be all right,” Green-Ellis stated. “We have to be ready not only in the running game but also in the passing game and be ready to pick up some blitzes because we know they’re going to be coming.” When asked about playing with a new unit and timing issues, Green-Ellis said, “Me missing a lot of time, almost the whole preseason…that’s one thing, but we’re into week seven and we’ve got to go out there and play well together…get the problems that we have and get them fixed and move forward.”
Ben Roethlisberger is 7-1 at Paul Brown Stadium. An Ohio native, Roethlisberger is excited for the game. “It’s Sunday Night Football, so it’s going to be fun,” he said. “We usually have a ton of Steelers fans when we play so close to home, so we’re really looking forward to going to Cincinnati this week.” The Steelers offense, led by Roethlisberger, has converted 51.9 percent of third downs which is the best in the league.
“We know if we want to do anything and go to the playoffs, it starts in our division,” receiver Antonio Brown said. “This week we have an opportunity to start in our division and get some things cleaned up.”
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.