By Christina Rivers

The Cincinnati Bengals currently sit at the top of the AFC North with a 6-0 record ahead of their Week 8 meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who fell to 4-3 after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs on the road. They are one of five NFL teams that are unbeaten through Week 7 and are coming off of a bye. There are several reasons why they will be a tough team for the Steelers to host at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Bengals on offense

Offensively, the Bengals have been anchored by possibly the strongest offensive line of any team in the NFL this season. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Clint Bolin giving quarterback Andy Dalton blind-side protection, it has been right tackle Andre Smith who kept Justin Houston and Tamba Hali away from him. That level of confidence up front has allowed Dalton to move up to second in the league in passer rating (116.1) with 1761 yards and 14 touchdown passes.

Bengals on defense

On defense, the Bengals have been a harassment to every team they’ve faced this season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was leading the NFL in sacks (6.5) through week six leading the team that has a total of 17 during that same time period. Cornerback Adam Jones, mainly known for being a special teams threat, is playing the best he has in his career with help from Vincent Rey, the linebacker in place of Vontaze Burfict, who was placed on the PUP list.

Bengals to watch

One of the keys to the Bengals’ success this year is that they’ve had an incredible stretch (six weeks) without any serious injuries. Only safety George Iloka missed Cincinnati’s game against the Chiefs due to an ankle injury and sat slot cornerback Leon Hall (back) when they beat the Buffalo Bills before their week off. Expect the Bengals to be at full strength again. The Steelers have faced teams with stopping power on defense, but both Pat Sims and Brandon Thomson would love nothing more that to get to Ben Roethlisberger should he truly start as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin inferred he would on Monday.

Offensively, the Bengals have one of the strongest trios of receivers in A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Throw in yet another difficult tight end to cover in Tyler Eifert, and the Steelers defense will have plenty to focus on as they continue to mix and match defensive backs due to injuries.

Overview

The Bengals will prepare as if Roethlisberger will return and do so out of respect for how, in the last decade, he has created a 17-6 win-loss record against them. Roethlisberger has never missed a start against Cincinnati. “Every time this guy gets hurt, he makes this remarkable recovery,” defensive coordinator Paul Geunther said. “We’re going to have to beat the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback at some point in time this season…why not Sunday?”

Linebacker Chris Carter, who spent time with Pittsburgh from 2011-13 said, “He’s a tough guy. I respect the heck out of (Roethlisberger). I’m not surprised he’ll be coming back this week.”

Head coach Marvin Lewis may be showing a bit of psychological gamesmanship by talking about the return of Burfict. When he is healthy, Burfict is one of the best defensive players in the league. With a dominant defensive front and competitive backfield, Burfict would solidify the middle for the Bengals. Burfict didn’t work out on Monday, but he is only in the second week of his eligibility period for return.

The Bengals are favorites to win regardless of who the Steelers have at quarterback after Pittsburgh has been on a roller-coaster ride this season. They have been dominant in nearly every game they’ve played and even though they traditionally do not do well coming off of a bye week, they have seen what the Steelers are putting on the field enough in both past and present terms to be a challenge again in Week 8.

Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist 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 as well as a published author. Her work can be found on
Examiner.com.