By Christina Rivers
Week 17 preparation has been a mixed bag of getting players healthy enough to get back on the field Sunday night and giving time to the fans. When the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field this weekend, the team is not only dedicated to win the game, but do so for their fans. Only three players are looking less-likely to be on the field for Pittsburgh.READ MORE: Jewish Communities Around Greater Pittsburgh Come Together To Celebrate Hanukkah
Veteran cornerback Ike Taylor returned to practice this week in a limited capacity, as did safety Troy Polamalu (knee). Tight end Michael Palmer, who entered the week 16 game against the Chiefs for injured Matt Spaeth, suffered a groin injury and was only able to practice (limited) on Friday. Outside of these three players, the team looks relatively healthy for the end of the regular season. In December, every football player will tell you that they are a bit sore and worn down from the wear and tear. The Steelers have been playing William Gay, Antwon Blake and Will Allen the past couple of weeks and are expected to keep the most-prepared and healthy players on the field against Cincinnati.
From a fantasy standpoint, it doesn’t look like the injury report will affect whether or not the Steelers will play to a high level. The Steelers will need a strong, solid performance against the Bengals if they are to not only win the game, but snatch the AFC North Championship up for grabs. Tackle/Guard Kelvin Beachum had some back pain this week, but it did not limit him from being able to get fully involved in practice. That means that the offensive line that had been playing at a much higher level in the second half of the season than earlier will have a full compliment of players. Linebacker Vince Williams tweaked an ankle but missed no on-field time.
Big games are expected from defensive end Cameron Heyward and rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant this week. Both men were the recipients of the Pittsburgh Chapter of Pro Football Writers of America’s annual awards for 2014 this week. In his fourth season in the league, Heyward is currently tied for the team lead in sacks this season and has established a single-season career-best 6.5 (sacks). Additionally, Heyward has played in 63 consecutive games for the Steelers. Heyward received “The Chief Award,” established in honor of Steelers founder, Arthur J. Rooney, Sr. The award is given to the player who has built an excellent spirit of cooperation with the media. Bryant, the fourth-round draft selection (in 2014), received the “Joe Greene Great Performance Award,” for being the Steelers’ top rookie. In nine games, Bryant has taken 25 receptions 528 yards for seven touchdowns. Five of his receptions have gone for at least 40 yards and his 94-yard carry after a reception for a touchdown (December 7) at Cincinnati was the second-longest passing play in franchise history.
The game plan is centered on a formula that Pittsburgh has found to work well. Personnel will be brought in and out of the game as play dictates, allowing the Steelers to substitute and adjust to what the Bengals show on offense and defense. Sunday will be the 90th game in the Steelers, Bengals series. With nearly their entire roster available, the Steelers look to go 30-15 at home against Cincinnati and sweep their rivals in 2014.
Pittsburgh will be targeting Bengals running back Jeremy Hill who has been attacking downhill, averaging 6.3 yards per-carry over the last two games. In week 14, the Steelers held him to 46 yards on eight carries and nearly shut down Giovani Bernard (six carries for 17 yards). Hill has had trouble securing the football and the Steelers could benefit from a defensive turnover in what should be a tight game.
The Steelers defense will also be focused on limiting the ability of quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton missed practice on Wednesday due to the flu, but returned on Friday claiming to be “100 percent”. His top target, wide receiver A.J. Green (right bicep) was injured against the Denver Broncos last Monday and was not able to return to practice at a limited ability until Friday. Dalton will likely target tight end Jermaine Gresham and receiver Mohamed Sanu in the open field.
The flu bug hit the Bengals hard this week. Dre Kirkpatrick may get the start at cornerback over Terence Newman who was replaced in the third quarter Monday and who has also been battling illness. SAM linebacker Emmanuel Lamur (hamstring) and wide receiver James Wright (knee) were limited all week and cornerback Adam Jones and safety Reggie Nelson have been hampered with illnesses, as well as left guard Clint Boling, kicker Mike Nugent. Tight end Tyler Eifert had season-ending shoulder surgery.
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The Steelers offense will need to be surgically accurate against a Bengals defense that is playing tight coverage and has produced 18 interceptions. Kirkpatrick returned an interception for a touchdown against the Broncos. Number 22 in total defense, the run defense has been where the Bengals allowed Pittsburgh to set the tempo in their first meeting this season. Pittsburgh tallied 193 yards on the ground and have allowed eight opponents to put more than 100 yards against them via rushing. The offensive line will not be facing a Bengals team that has been particularly disruptive with a league-low 20 sacks, but will still need to keep Roethlisberger protected and running the offense with precision.
Steelers Injury Recap
Michael Palmer (TE, groin)
Troy Polamalu (S, knee)
Ike Taylor (CB, shoulder/forearm)
Kelvin Beachum (T/G, back)
Matt Spaeth (TE, elbow)
Vince Williams (LB, ankle)
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.MORE NEWS: Police Investigating After Body Found In Vacant Lot In Washington
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on