By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers (2-3) know how important their first AFC Division game of the season is. The feeling is that the game against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3) at Paul Brown Stadium Sunday is a “must win” situation. Taking a forward-looking approach, the Steelers will keep five players on the bench this week; S Troy Polamalu (calf), T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), LB Chris Carter (hamstring), running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Issac Redman (ankle). The Steelers are 0-3 in away games, and have dealt with a rash of injuries all season, but feel they have the personnel to win the nationally-televised game, scheduled for 8:20 p.m. EDT.
Center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) had limited time in practice and is questionable for Sunday’s game. Linebackers Lawrence Timmons (foot) and Brandon Johnson (hamstring) were upgraded to probable and both fully practiced on Friday. Although QB Ben Roethlisberger experience a minor ankle injury in practice on Thursday, he was able to return fully on Friday.
Responding to questions about the nature of the injury following Friday’s practice, Roethlisberger said, “This is a lot of overkill for nothing. I knew I would be fine…I just rolled it, nothing big.”
With Mendenhall and Redman out, the offensive backfield will be dominated by Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch. Chris Rainey will most likely see some snaps as well. Dwyer leads the group with 24 rushes for 70 yards (2.9 avg.). Batch is the lone back in the group to have scored a touchdown and has 16 carries for 34 yards (2.1 avg.). Rainey’s contribution this season has been seven carries for 15 yards (2.1 avg.). Dwyer and Batch are both decent bye-week fill-ins, considered to be RB3/flex options. Fullback Will Johnson could factor in more this week as an additional option to aid the rushing game.
The good news is that the top three wide receivers for the Steelers are healthy. In the first five games of the season, Mike Wallace has put up decent fantasy numbers, near 76 total points, and has 21 receptions for 345 yards and four touchdowns. Wallace is considered a must-start in many leagues. Antonio Brown has 29 receptions for 346 yards and a single touchdown. Emmanuel Sanders has 17 catches for 186 yards, his longest going for 55 yards. With the offensive backfield struggling, Roethlisberger will be more likely to use the passing game to win Sunday.
One of Roethlisberger’s traditionally favorite targets, Heath Miller, is doing well this season. In five games Miller has 25 receptions for 237 yards and four touchdowns. While fellow tight ends David Paulson and Leonard Pope have not factored into the scheme as often, this could be a breakout game for Miller.
The offensive front for Sunday will be stalwart LT Max Starks , LG Willie Colon, C Maurkice Pouncey, RG Ramon Foster and RT Mike Adams (in for Gilbert). Don’t rule out the possibility that Kelvin Beachum and Doug Legursky could see playing time as well, especially Legursky if Pouncey isn’t quite up to speed.
With Polamalu out, Ryan Clark, who has done a good job filling in at strong safety, will get the majority of the playing time in the defensive backfield. Ryan Mundy will be opposite Clark at safety. It may be a defensive backfield by committee against Andy Dalton and the Bengals with a mixture of Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Will Allen.
LB Larry Foote leads the Steelers defense with 37 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries. Expect Dick LeBeau to let loose the hounds with James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds. Worilds has three sacks and Woodley, since his return, has two sacks and one fumble recovery.
The Bengals will be without RB Brian Leonard (rib) and may replace him with Daniel Herron. WR Armon Binns (ankle) and CB Dre Kirkpatrick and LB Roddrick Mucke are classified as questionable. Slot receiver Andrew Hawkins (back), DB Devon Still (shoulder) and RG Kevin Zeitler (elbow) are probable.
Probable: LB Lawrence Timmons (foot), LB Brandon Johnson (hamstring)
Questionable: C Maurkice Pouncey (knee)
Out: S Troy Polamalu (calf), T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), LB Chris Carter (hamstring), RB Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles), RB Issac Redman (ankle)
Probable: a 75% chance the injured player will be medically cleared for the game
Questionable: a 50% chance the injured player will be medically cleared for the game
Doubtful: a 25% chance the injured player will be medically cleared for the game
Out: there is no chance the injured player will be medically cleared for the game
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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.