Steelers try to tighten AFC North race against Bengals

(SportsNetwork.com) – The Cincinnati Bengals ran the gauntlet on the road, but
they don’t have an easy task waiting for them back at home.

The Bengals try to avoid losing ground for the top spot in the AFC North this
Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium, where they play host to a Pittsburgh Steelers
club that is just one of many giving chase for the division crown.

Cincinnati departed on a three-game road trip following an ugly 24-3 home loss
to Cleveland back on Nov. 6, but managed successful runs through New Orleans,
Houston and Tampa Bay. That gave the Bengals road victories over three
consecutive weeks for the first time in franchise history.

The Bengals did not allow more than 13 points in any game over the swing and
that was the key in Sunday’s 14-13 triumph over the Buccaneers as an ill Andy
Dalton struggled with three interceptions and just 176 yards passing.

However, Dalton did run for a five-yard score late in the second quarter to
get the Bengals on the board and hooked up with wide receiver A.J. Green for a
13-yard scoring strike with 2:04 to play in the third quarter that was the
difference.

Dalton, in fact, literally left it all out on the field, and in the locker
room.

“He looked bad before the game,” said offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. “I
never heard him say a word to anybody. The last I saw him before we took the
field, he was bent over a trash can in the locker room.”

Dalton, though, didn’t blame the illness for his struggles.

“I’m not going to make any excuses for the way things started out,” said
Dalton, who threw all three of his interceptions in the first half. “(The
virus) obviously isn’t something you want to deal with, but I’m not saying
that’s the reason. Obviously I’ve got to play better in these games coming
up.”

That’s because Cincinnati has limited room for error. At 8-3-1, it leads the
AFC North, but has a trio of 7-5 teams right behind it in Pittsburgh,
Cleveland and Baltimore. The Bengals visit the Browns next weekend and close
the regular season at the Steelers following a tough home test with Denver.

The Steelers have won six of their last eight versus the Bengals, but were
defeated 35-32 by the New Orleans Saints last Sunday. Saints quarterback Drew
Brees completed five touchdown passes to five different receivers.

Ben Roethlisberger threw for 435 yards on 32-of-58 passing with two late
touchdowns to wide receiver Antonio Brown, but was also picked off twice for a
Pittsburgh club that had won four of five coming in.

“Just one of those days, a lot of balls were coming out high,” said
Roethlisberger. “I had to make throws early on that I didn’t make tonight and
I usually do.”

Running back Le’Veon Bell led his club with 159 yards on eight receptions and
had 95 yards rushing with a score on 21 attempts, while Brown ended up posting
97 yards on eight grabs.

Bell’s receiving yards and yards from scrimmage (254) were both career highs.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The focus of Cincinnati’s defense should be Bell, who has emerged as one of
the top dual-threat backs in the NFL. His 65 receptions this season are a
franchise record by a running back and he also is just 54 yards shy of
becoming the first Steelers back to hit 1,100 in a season since Rashard
Mendenhall in 2010.

Overall, Bell is the first player in team history to record consecutive games
with 200 yards from scrimmage and he leads the AFC with 1,689 scrimmage yards,
getting 643 of that through the air.

Of course, this late in the season one has to wonder how 22-year-old’s body is
handling all of the touches, especially since the Steelers released LeGarrette
Blount on Nov. 18. Bell took all but two of Pittsburgh’s rushing carries
versus the Saints and was targeted 11 times by Roethlisberger.

“We have some other guys that are capable, but obviously he’s going to get the
bulk of the carries,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “He’s a highly
conditioned guy. He’s a mentally tough guy. He’s a competitor. Personally I
think he’s built for it and he’s excited about having an opportunity to do it
for us.

Roethlisberger agreed that Bell needs to be a big part of Pittsburgh’s
offense.

“He’s one of the best players in the game,” the quarterback said of Bell. “I
know that we need to get him the ball and that’s running and passing. He
played 80-something snaps in that football game and that’s kind of unheard of
for a running back, especially to take the beating that he does. So as long as
he stays healthy that’s what matters to me.”

While Bell may be the only top-level option in the ground game, Roethlisberger
does have an excellent receiver to look towards in Brown, whose 11 touchdown
catches this season are one shy of the club record held by four different
players.

Brown gets plenty of attention, having notched at least five catches and 50
yards in an NFL-record 28 straight games. He leads the NFL with 1,258
receiving yards.

Despite those options, Roethlisberger has just four touchdown passes to five
interceptions over the past three games.

“He hasn’t been as accurate as he had been,” Tomlin said of Roethlisberger.
“Some of it is due to some pressure created in the pocket. Some of it is due
to game circumstances. Some we are lacking a little cohesion in some
instances. None of those things really happen in a vacuum when you’re talking
about quarterback play.”

Dalton will hope a return home will settle his stomach as the Bengals are
13-1-1 in their past 15 regular-season home games. In his past 15 at home,
Dalton has thrown for 3,471 yards with 26 touchdowns.

Though he was sacked only twice, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis wasn’t happy with
the play of his offensive line, one that is still trying to replace the
injured Andre Smith, on injured reserve due to a triceps injury.

Marshall Newhouse started in Smith’s place versus Tampa Bay and played all but
19 snaps, with Clint Boling seeing the rest of the time there.

“Not good enough. Not as good as we need,” said Lewis of the offensive line.
“We had a couple guys play pretty well, but as a group we didn’t play as well
as we need to play. We need to play better.”

While Newhouse could start again this weekend, the Bengals did sign 31-year-
old veteran Eric Winston this week. Winston started all 16 games last season
with Arizona, but was cut by Seattle after its preseason finale this year.

The Bengals rank just 25th against the run, giving up 125.1 yards per game and
has two key players dealing with injury in linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee)
and defensive tackle Domata Peko (elbow).

Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds has 2 1/2 sacks in his last three games for
Pittsburgh’s 12th-ranked defense.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The AFC North is very much up for grabs and it could very well be decided in
Week 17 when the Bengals visit the Steelers. That makes drawing first blood in
this matchup key for an edge down the road, assuming both clubs take care of
business afterwards.

The Steelers rank third in the NFL with 417.3 yards per game on offense, but
Roethlisberger only has an 87.1 career passer rating in this series and just
one 300-yard passing game. That makes shutting down Bell key for Cincinnati.

“All of our division games are important games, we know. This is a very, very
important football team this week,” said Lewis. “It’s at home, so the fans
will be out and excited big time and have a lot of fun on Sunday. It’s a
really important game for us.”

A healthier Dalton and a home-field edge should allow the Bengals to take care
of business this week.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Bengals 27, Steelers 24