Bengals Killers Readying For Action

The Steelers are pointing to Sunday's home game against the Bengals for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's return, but many of his Pittsburgh teammates have performed well without him.

The Bengals picked up a half-game in the AFC North Division standings without even playing as Pittsburgh's Sunday loss put the 4-3 Steelers two and one-half games behind 6-0 Cincinnati, three in arrears in the loss column.

Heading into Monday, Cleveland was third in the division standings at 2-5. Baltimore stands at 1-5 with a game tonight at Arizona.

The Steelers have won three straight against the Bengals following last year's sweep, with wins in Weeks 14 and 17. They have beaten Cincinnati in eight of the past 10 meetings.

However, it's a new year, and the Bengals could push their division lead to three and one-half games, four in the loss column, with a victory Sunday at Heinz Field. Cincinnati is coming off a refreshing bye week.

The game holds obvious importance for Pittsburgh, which appears to be gearing up for the return of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Sunday that he expects Roethlisberger (knee) to start against the Bengals. Big Ben said he was "pretty close" to playing this week against the Chiefs, so it appears that the plan is to re-debut their Bengals killer against the Bengals.

It could be a game-time decision. As recently as Friday, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports said Roethlisberger was "pretty limited" at that day's practice.

Pittsburgh of late has been going with Landry Jones, who was 16-of-29 passing for 209 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions Sunday in the loss to the Chiefs. First replacement Michael Vick suffered a hamstring injury while filling in for Roethlisberger, beginning Week 4. Inexperienced Tyler Murphy backed up Jones on Sunday.

Pittsburgh slowly, inexorably is getting its stars back. Roethlisberger was yet to line up with the projected starting offense this season, and he never will because of Steelers injuries elsewhere. He injured his knee Week 3 after completing 75.3 percent of his passes for 912 yards and four touchdowns.

Running back Le'Veon Bell was making his return that week after serving a two-game NFL suspension to start the season. He's averaging about 4.5 yards per carry since his debut. He's on pace for well over 1,000 yards rushing on the season, despite the two lost contests, with his usual load of receiving yards. DeAngelo Williams led the NFL in rushing after two games as his replacement.

Another Bengals killer, wide receiver Antonio Brown, has been his usual productive self, averaging about 13.5 yards per catch. He's on pace for 1,400 yards receiving. Bell and Brown both bolted to 100-yard days against Kansas City, but turnovers did in Pittsburgh, where the touchdowns are down across the board, no doubt due to the absence of their quarterback.

Tight end Heath Miller, who has had his share of big moments vs. Cincinnati, has been averaging three catches per game and 10 yards per catch with a touchdown despite primarily serving as a sixth offensive lineman since Roethlisberger went down.

Receiver Martavis Bryant wasn't around when Big Ben was slinging it for over 300 yards per game to start the schedule. Bryant made a big splash in his season debut Week 6 with six catches for 137 yards, good for a 22.8-yard average, with a pair of touchdowns. That picks up Bryant where he left off last season, and Roethlisberger isn't back yet.

Pittsburgh scoring has been down with its star quarterback out of action. The Steelers are averaging 22.5 points per game through Week 7. Last year, they averaged 27.2 points per game over the full season. The Steelers are 2-1 this season with Roethlisberger, 2-2 without him.

They have been able to hang in there at 4-3 thanks to Bell and Brown, and a rejuvenated Steelers' scoring defense. Last year Pittsburgh gave up an average yield of 23 points per game. This year, opponents are averaging 18.7 points.

The potential problem on offense, in addition to any further Roethlisberger setbacks, is the banged-up offensive line, which lost starting center Maurkice Pouncey before the season and starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum last Sunday with a torn ACL. Cody Wallace is starting in place of Pouncey. Rookie Alejandro Villanueva is in Beachum's spot.

So far, the Steelers have been able to churn out yardage despite these and other injuries to key offensive pieces, including the man who makes them go -- Roethlisberger.

What will they be like with Big Ben rejoining them? We may find out Sunday.

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