The Steelers are finishing up a three game stretch against teams with the best records in the league.
In the last two weeks, the Steelers handed Minnesota its first loss, and Denver its second loss. On Sunday, the Steelers could hand the Bengals their third.
The Bengals are heading to Heinz Field this Sunday for a showdown, and the Steelers will be looking to regain respect for what is theirs: the AFC North title and a seed in the playoffs.
The defense will be looking to regain respect lost after the shaky fourth quarter in Week Three that allowed the Bengals to score 14 points to win 23-20.
The Steelers have been a thorn in the Bengals' side in recent years, knocking them out of the opening round of the playoffs in January 2006, and later defeating them in an overtime loss to deny them a playoff berth the following season.
The Bengals (6-2) are looking not only to stay on top of the leaderboard but to do something they have never done: sweep another Division foe.
But they will face a different Steeler team (6-2) than the one they faced in Week Three.
The Steelers emerged from the win in Denver a different team and there were certainly some encouraging signs:
1) The offense showed the ability to overcome a slow start;
2) The emergence of a ground game;
3) A terrific passing game; and
4) A defense that scored more touchdowns than it gave up.
In addition, SS Troy Polamalu and RB Rashard Mendenhall did not play in the Week Three game versus the Bengals. Polamalu was out with a knee injury sustained from the season opener against the Titans, and Mendenhall was sidelined for not paying attention to details during practice.
The Passing Game
Monday night, the Steeler offense was off to a slow start and was held to 47 passing yards and zero touchdowns.
But in the second half, utilizing the no-huddle, QB Ben Roethlisberger orchestrated three touchdown drives and finished the day completing 21 of 29 passes with a passer rating of 116.0.
The offensive line continues to improve on pass protection. In the second half, the line kept Roethlisberger clean in the pocket so he could make throws to his favorite targets.
The offensive line must be mindful of the Bengals defensive line that can get consistent pressure on a quarterback.
Last week, the Bengals line forced four sacks and did not allow Baltimore QB Joe Flacco action downfield.
Bengals cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph continue to get better as each have four interceptions. Both picked off Flacco last week.
Against the Steelers in Week Three, Joseph has an interception return for a touchdown.
Roethlisberger must play smart Sunday to keep that Bengal secondary on its toes.
The Bengals offense comes into this game looking balanced as well.
Last week against the Ravens, Carson Palmer completed 20 of 33 for 224 yards and a touchdown.
His key targets will be wide receivers Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles. Wide receiver Chris Henry is out indefinitely after breaking his right forearm against the Ravens.
CB Ike Taylor will be assigned again to cover Ochocinco. Taylor has been very successful in covering big-time receivers.
In Week Three, Ochocinco caught five passes for 54 yards and zero touchdowns.
Cincinnati dominated the time of possession as QB Carson Palmer commanded the game-winning drive using his receivers over the middle.
An interesting matchup to watch will be Palmer versus SS Troy Polamalu. With Polamalu back, Palmer will find his presence a challenge.
Free Safety Ryan Clark will return to active duty after being sidelined for the Denver game due to health issues. Reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week Tyrone Carter subbed for Clark and had two interceptions.
The Running Game
Monday night, we saw the emergence of the Steeler running game. The offensive line broke open massive holes, pulling guards and tight ends for the featured running back Rashard Mendenhall.
There will be challenges for the Steeler running game against the No. 2 Bengals rush defense.
In Week Four, the Bengals allowed a 100-yard rusher, Cleveland RB Jerome Harrison.
Against the No. 1 rush defense Monday, Mendenhall rushed for 155 yards on 22 carries, a 7.0-yard average.
In addition, RB Mewelde Moore added 18 yards on four carries as the Steelers ran 29 times for 173 yards.
In the fourth quarter of the Denver game, the Steelers went to the ground game to run out the clock and protect the lead. We can expect this to be part of the game plan Sunday afternoon.
For Cincinnati, Cedric Benson (117 yards, 34 carries last week) is the first back to have two straight 100-yard games against Baltimore since Ricky Williams (2002-03) and the first since Jerome Bettis in 1996 and 1997.
Benson is enjoying his best season as a pro since he was released by the Chicago Bears.
He is second in the league in rushing and has exploited some of the better run defenses in the league. In Week Three, he rushed for 76 yards and one touchdown.
Benson will still have to contend with the No. 1 rush defense, which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 30 games, but will be without starters DE Aaron Smith, LB Lawrence Timmons, and possibly DE Travis Kirschke.
Against Cincinnati in Week Three, Kicker Jeff Reed missed a 52-yard field goal, (the third in two games) wasting an opportunity to put the game away. He is 0/1 on field goal tries greater than 50 yards.
Also against Minnesota, Reed missed a tackle that allowed wide receiver Percy Harvin to take a kick-off return to the house for a touchdown. That was also the last time Reed kicked field goals.
Even with Reed’s faux pas, the Steelers rank 10th in kicking with an average of 23.8 yards to the Bengals' 18th.
P Daniel Sepulveda dropped thirteen punts inside the 20 and averages 44.7 yards per kick (14th). The Bengals are 17th with a punt average of 43.7.
The Steelers rank sixth in the return game with a 25-yard average to the Bengals' 19.2 average and rank 31st in the league.
Monday, Steelers special teams held Denver return man Eddie Royal in check.
The Bengals Andre Caldwell has struggled on kick returns as well as the coverage unit. This could open the door to return man Stefan Logan who has yet to break one open this season.
The Bengals are 3-0 on the road, but have won those games by a combined 13 points.
The Steelers are 4-0 at home and have a 10-game winning streak at Heinz Field including playoffs.
The Bengals have not beaten the Steelers two consecutive times since 1998.
When Cincinnati has at least 25 rushing attempts in a game under Marvin Lewis, it is 26-1.
Head coach Mike Tomlin is undefeated against the AFC North at home (7-0).
When Polamalu has an interception, the Steelers are 16-3.
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