AFC North: Bengals-Steelers

Rapid Reaction: Bengals 23, Steelers 20

September, 27, 2009
9/27/09
7:16
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker


CINCINNATI -- The Bengals are fighting for respect this season, and they made a tremendous step in the right direction with one of the most thrilling victories for the franchise in recent memory.

Cincinnati overcame a 13-point deficit in the first half to beat the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-20, before a raucous crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw a 4-yard touchdown pass with 14 second remaining to receiver Andre Caldwell to seal the win.

The victory snapped an eight-game winning streak for the Steelers (1-2) in Cincinnati, and it also puts the Bengals (2-1) in sole possession of second place in the AFC North. Both teams are currently chasing the undefeated Baltimore Ravens (3-0) in the division.

This is the second straight week the Steelers blew a fourth-quarter lead, as questions certainly linger about their early-season performance. The Bengals, meanwhile, are on a two-game winning streak and are living up to their billing as one of this year's surprise teams.

Steelers survive and advance

November, 21, 2008
11/21/08
1:31
AM ET
 
 Chris Gardner/US Presswire
 Ben Roethlisberger completed 17 of 30 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown in the Steelers' win Thursday night.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers brought their "B-minus" game to Heinz Field Thursday night. But that was more than enough to beat up on the lowly Cincinnati Bengals (1-9-1).

Pittsburgh continued its trend of surviving and advancing with a 27-10 victory over the Bengals to improve to 8-3. It was the second win in five days for the Steelers.

Perhaps style points are not important this time of year. But for three quarters the Steelers struggled in two phases of the game -- offense and special teams -- against an inferior team at home.

But the Steelers will take the win, and there were plenty of smiles in Pittsburgh's locker room Thursday night. The Steelers stretched their lead to 1 games in the AFC North.

So, in many ways, it was mission accomplished.

"It was by no means perfect," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the performance. "I thought we stumbled out the gate a little bit both offensively and defensively. They got up on us but the guys didn't blink. We stuck to the plan."

Here is what else we learned Thursday night:

Steelers still searching for offensive identity

In the past, everyone knew what they were getting from the Steelers' offense. Pittsburgh was going to run the football effectively and make big plays in the passing game if opponents decided to stack the box.

This year the Steelers seem unsure. They started Thursday's game running the football, then abandoned it after one quarter. Pittsburgh threw the ball a lot in the middle quarters until it got the lead in the final period, then it went back to the running game again to milk the clock.

The plan seemed sporadic against a subpar Bengals defense, which the Steelers torched for 38 points in their previous meeting.

With the Steelers' offense, there's nothing you can count on consistently week to week. Sometimes the Steelers are a run-first team. Sometimes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws 41 times. Thursday they were somewhere in between.

(Read full post)

Rapid Reaction: Steelers 27, Bengals 10

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
11:21
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- It wasn't pretty, but the Steelers will take it.

Pittsburgh pulled away in the second half to take a 27-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday night at Heinz Field. The performance wasn't all that impressive. However, Pittsburgh improved to 8-3 and maintained an inside track on an AFC North division title.

The Bengals were scrappy even without star receiver Chad Ocho Cinco, who was deactivated Thursday for violating a team rule. It was a one-possession game until late in the third quarter when the out-manned Bengals (1-9-1) finally wore down.

Pittsburgh still didn't look sharp in two phases of the game -- offense and special teams -- which has to be a concern. This was the easiest game left on the Steelers' schedule, as back-to-back contests await against the New England Patriots (6-4) and Dallas Cowboys (6-4).

A victory is a victory. But the Steelers will have to play better against tougher competition down the stretch to maintain their winning ways.

Steelers gradually pulling away

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
10:36
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- It took three quarters, but the Steelers are finally asserting their will against the Cincinnati Bengals.

In a grinding, defensive struggle, tailback Gary Russell scored on a 2-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to give Pittsburgh a 20-7 lead. It was the first touchdown of Russell's career.

The Bengals have played hard for three quarters but appear to be wearing down and are simply out-manned on the road. The Steelers' defense has been stellar since giving up a first-quarter touchdown drive and will likely force Cincinnati to throw the ball a lot to try to overcome a double-digit deficit.

Bengals-Steelers: Halftime notes

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
9:40
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers lead the Cincinnati Bengals, 10-7, at intermission.

Here are some halftime observations:

  • Pittsburgh went away from the running game really quickly. After three first-quarter possessions that resulted into zero points, the Steelers started throwing on first down often and going with empty backfields. It's apparent through the first half that Pittsburgh is still struggling to find out where its offensive strengths are. The Steelers have just 25 rushing yards on 14 carries in the first half.
  • The Bengals are showing they have nothing to lose by bringing a lot more pressures than they did in their first meeting against the Steelers. In the October meeting, Cincinnati played conservative defensively in an effort to try to avoid the big play. Thursday, the Bengals are blitzing early and often.
  • Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes had his best first half in recent memory. He caught three passes for 59 yards as the Bengals are electing to single-cover Holmes. His longest reception came on a 27-yard reception that set up a 37-yard field goal by Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed.
  • The replacements for Chad Ocho Cinco are playing well in the first half. Glenn Holt started and caught a nice skinny post in the first quarter for a 10-yard touchdown. Chris Henry has been the third receiver and caught two balls for 25 yards.

Happy returns for Miller

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
9:08
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Miller

PITTSBURGH -- Steelers tight end Heath Miller is making a difference on offense in his first game back from an ankle sprain.

Miller already has a pair of catches for 17 yards early, including a 3-yard touchdown catch from Ben Roethlisberger that tied the score at 7-7.

With the score, Miller moved into a tie for third place on the Steelers' all-time touchdown list for tight ends with 20.

Bengals setting the trap?

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
8:48
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- The Cincinnati Bengals have come to play in Heinz Field.

The Bengals jumped on the Pittsburgh Steelers early with a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to receiver Glenn Holt to take a 7-0 lead. Holt, ironically, replaced Chad Ocho Cinco in the starting lineup Thursday night after Ocho Cinco violated a team rule.

Cincinnati is playing very methodically to start off the game. The Bengals have won in Pittsburgh two of the past three years and are trying to duplicate that formula again for the upset.

Fifty years of LeBeau

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
8:05
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Thursday night the Steelers honored long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for an astounding 50 years of NFL service as a player and coach.

LeBeau was a former defensive back for the Detroit Lions from 1959-72 before joining the coaching ranks. Today he is arguably the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, as his 3-4 Steelers units are annual mainstays in the top 10 in total defense.

Thursday night LeBeau will coach against a team he was once head coach for in the Cincinnati Bengals (1-8-1).

Let's see what these AFC North rivals have in store for each other.

Bengals-Steelers inactives

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
7:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Here are the inactives for Thursday night's game between the Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals:

Steelers
CB Bryant McFadden
CB Deshea Townsend
CB Roy Lewis
LB Bruce Davis
OL Tony Hills
OL Marvel Smith
DE Orpheus Roye
QB Dennis Dixon

Bengals
S Chinedum Ndukwe
LB Eric Henderson
OL Scott Kooistra
OT Levi Jones
OL Andrew Whitworth
WR Chad Ocho Cinco
DE Antwan Odom
QB Carson Palmer

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

In the midst of an obviously dismal season, the Bengals can point to at least one positive: the play of their starting cornerbacks. Former first-round picks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are developing nicely and should be the cornerstones of Cincinnati's defense for years. Both players are quite athletic, physical and built well enough. Each has some versatility in their abilities to play a variety of coverages and support the run.

Though Hall is in his second NFL season (Joseph is in his third), he probably is the more technically sound of the two. Hall had a rough rookie year but closed the season on a strong note and continues to show improvement. He isn't quite as explosive or athletic as Joseph, but his route recognition is sound and he is a good tackler against wideouts and running backs alike. Joseph is more of a risk-taker, the corner who eventually should make more big plays and will be better equipped to neutralize an opponent's No. 1 receiver.

If you haven't heard of either player, there's probably a reason, even beyond Cincinnati's disappointing 1-8-1 record. The Bengals' pass rush is abysmal (11 sacks), and the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has forced Hall and Joseph (combined one interception in 2008) to cover their men longer than what is considered ideal. Still, the duo has been quietly effective. The Bengals are holding opponents to a respectable 6.5 yards per pass attempt and have given up fewer big pass plays (20 yards or more) than all but a handful of teams. Hall and Joseph deserve a lot of the credit for those figures, which are all the more impressive considering how little help they get from the pass rush.

It also adds to the interest in Thursday's game, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh. The Steelers' offensive line is responsible for one of the league's worst sack rates, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger -- for all his playmaking ability -- has a tendency to hold the ball too long and make risky throws. Something has to give.

Hall usually will line up over Santonio Holmes, with Joseph covering Hines Ward. Ideally, a two-deep shell designed to prevent the big play will enable the Bengals' young corners to get physical with the Steelers' receivers at the line of scrimmage. But if Cincy can't stop Willie Parker and the run game with its front seven -- which seems unlikely -- a an extra defender in the box may be necessary. That's when things would get interesting for Hall and Joseph. They would undoubtedly play some off coverage and Cover 3 in that situation. But on a team with nothing to lose, they might also be asked to play some press man in front of a single-high safety look, with coordinator Mike Zimmer sending more blitzes than usual. Roethlisberger has thrown 41 passes in each of the Steelers' last two games and, despite avoiding a turnover last week, can be pressured into throwing to the wrong team.

For the Bengals to keep up with the Steelers on Thursday, Hall and Joseph must be on top of their game -- and maybe get their hands on a pass or two.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Week 12 Audibles: Trap game for Steelers?

November, 20, 2008
11/20/08
11:09
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin was in rare form this week.

At times it was difficult to tell whether the Pittsburgh Steelers second-year coach was describing the 1972 Miami Dolphins or 2008 Cincinnati Bengals.

Steelers Reversing A Tough Trend?
Since 2002 only three teams that entered the season with -- or tied for -- the NFL's toughest strength of schedule made the playoffs. The Steelers have the NFL's toughest strength of schedule this season.
YearTeamW-LPlayoffs
2008Steelers 7-3?
2007 Raiders 4-12No
2007 Bills 7-9No
2006Giants 8-8Yes
2006 Bengals8-8No
2005Dolphins 9-7 No
2004Dolphins4-12No
2003 Cowboys 10-6 Yes
2003 Jets 6-10No
2003Eagles12-4 Yes
2002 Bills 8-8 No
2002 Chargers 8-8 No
*Elias Sports Bureau

Tomlin boasted about Cincinnati's numerous "Pro Bowl-caliber players." He constantly praised the Bengals' offense that is ranked last in the NFL. Tomlin also talked up a defense Pittsburgh torched for 38 points in October.

Although to the casual observer some of it came off as lip service, the message Tomlin was getting across was clear: Every game is dangerous in the NFL.

"For whatever reason, they are what they are from a record standpoint," Tomlin said of the 1-8-1 Bengals. "But we respect those guys and we will respect this matchup. This is a division football game."

If there was ever a definition of a trap game, Thursday night's 8:15 ET matchup between the Steelers and Bengals would be it.

Pittsburgh (7-3) aim
s to earn another AFC North title and possibly a bye in the first round of the playoffs. Cincinnati has nothing to lose and will try to relish the role of spoiler for the third straight game, despite receiver Chad Ocho Cinco being deactivated Thursday for violating a team rule.

The placement of the game on a short week also is tough for Pittsburgh. It comes after a pair of tough home games (loss to Colts, win over Chargers) for the Steelers and before two huge showdowns against the New England Patriots (6-4) and Dallas Cowboys (6-4).

It also doesn't help Pittsburgh that Cincinnati is playing its best football of the season.

The Bengals are the only AFC North team that has yet to lose a game in November. They earned their first win against Jacksonville Jaguars (4-6), ruining the Jags' playoff hopes on Nov. 2. Following a bye, Cincinnati tied with the Philadelphia Eagles (5-4-1) last weekend, dealing another tough blow to a playoff hopeful.

Pittsburgh cruised against Cincinnati during a 38-10 Week 7 rout at Paul Brown Stadium, but the Bengals are playing better now. Cincinnati also has found a way to beat Pittsburgh in two of its past three visits to Heinz Field.

"We acknowledge that they're a team in transition," Tomlin said. "They're a team that's different from the one that we played just a few weeks ago. It appears that they're finding a rhythm in all three phases."

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is 2-2 in its past four games and has been inconsistent, particularly on offense.

Teams are dropping back in coverage and taking away the big plays. In Week 11's 11-10 victory over the San Diego Chargers, Pittsburgh had a 300-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger), 100-yard receiver (Hines Ward) and 100-yard rusher (Willie Parker) but failed to get in the end zone.

The lack of touchdown production has a lot of Pittsburgh fans uneasy. The Steelers are ranked No. 25 in total offense and have been carried by their top-ranked defense for most of the season.

If the scrappy Bengals can find a way to hold the Steelers to field goals in this game, it could put Cincinnati in position to pull off the upset in the fourth quarter.

"All that matters is we win the game, to tell you the truth," Roethlisberger said. "It doesn't matter if we win 50-0 or 1-0 or 11-10. A win is a win no matter how we get it."

An interesting subplot Thursday night will be the game within the game between Cincinnati's defense and Ward. The Steelers' leading receiver set the tone on the opening drive of the last meeting with a crushing block that broke the jaw of Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers, ending his season.

There was talk of retaliation amongst the Bengals when the incident first occurred, but that talk has since tailed off. No Cincinnati players mentioned it publicly this week and Ward said he wasn't sure how the Bengals will react, but he said he will be ready.

Pittsburgh entered the season with the NFL's toughest strength of schedule. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Steelers can become just the fourth team since 2002 to make the playoffs with that distinction.

If Pittsburgh wants to accomplish that feat, the team will have to avoid these type of dangerous trap games the rest of the season.

"They're dangerous," Tomlin said of the Bengals. "But so are we."

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