WHERE: Heinz Field
WHEN: Thursday, 8:15 p.m. ET
SERIES: 78th meeting; Steelers lead series, 47-30, including 1-0 in postseason.
LAST MEETING: Steelers won, 38-10, at Paul Brown Stadium on 10/19/08.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Bengals RB Cedric Benson has to find a way to do some damage against the league's No. 1 run defense allowing just 68.9 yards per game. Pittsburgh rang up seven sacks in the first meeting and the Bengals are coming off a game in which they gave up eight more. It will be on QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to get rid of the ball quickly. The Steelers are minus two of their top three corners, but Fitzpatrick is without WR Chad Johnson, who was deactivated for breaking a team rule. ... The Steelers are getting back to relying heavily on the running game now that RB Willie Parker is healthy. He missed the first game, but backup Mewelde Moore still rushed for 120 yards and a pair of scores. Pittsburgh's biggest weakness is pass protection, but the Bengals have just 11 sacks – second fewest in the NFL. Cincinnati's young corners are playing well, but Roethlisberger will have time to sit in the pocket and wait for receivers to break free.
KEY INJURIES: Bengals: QB Carson Palmer (inflamed right elbow) is out; LT Levi Jones (back), LG Andrew Whitworth (ankle), DE Antwan Odom (shoulder), S Chinedum Ndukwe (foot) are all out. Steelers: TE Heath Miller (ankle) could return after missing two games; CBs Bryant McFadden (broken arm) and Deshea Townsend (hamstring) and LT Marvel Smith (back) are out.
FAST FACTS:The Bengals have allowed 38 sacks in 10 games after giving up a franchise-low 17 all of last season. ... Parker has averaged 113.7 in six career starts against Cincinnati.
*With offensive linemen Levi Jones and Andrew Whitworth out the Bengals will start Thursday's game with Nate Livings at left guard and rookie Anthony Collins at left tackle. They'll protect the blind side of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick against a defense with 36 sacks. ROLB James Harrison has 12 sacks. It's no easier on the other side, where LOLB LaMarr Woodley has 9.5 sacks. The Steelers sacked Fitzpatrick seven times in the first game between the teams this season, a 38-10 Pittsburgh victory. Collins is ready for the opportunity to play, despite being on the field for only six plays thus far. He has also seen limited action on special teams. He was inactive Sunday against Philadelphia and did not play in six Bengals games. Collins, who was working at left tackle Tuesday's practice, said he welcomes a trial by fire. "Might as well get it done. Might as well go hard and finish every block. Don't matter who your opponent (is), just go ahead and do your job," Collins said. He said he has gleaned valuable advice from veteran linemen, including Jones, Whitworth, Stacy Andrews and former Bengal Willie Anderson. "So I'm just going to go ahead and prove it this Thursday," Collins said.
*QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, starting his sixth game in place of injured Carson Palmer, posted his top passer rating of the year in the Philadelphia game, logging an 89.3 score with a career-high 29 completions, in 44 attempts, for a personal season high in yards (261). He threw for one touchdown pass and did not suffer an interception. In his last outing prior to Philadelphia, on Nov. 2 vs. Jacksonville, Fitzpatrick logged his first NFL win as a starter. He posted an 88.4 passer rating in the 21-19 victory, completing 21 of 31 passes for 162 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
*WR Chad Ocho Cinco has been deactivated from the game for violating a team rule. He caught a season-high eight passes against the Steelers in October, and he now he has more career catches against Pittsburgh (77) than against any other foe. He has 76 catches against Cleveland and 71 against Baltimore. His Pittsburgh total, however, includes the Steelers-Bengals postseason game following the 2005 season. He has played 16 career games against the Steelers and only 15 each against division rivals Cleveland and Baltimore.
*WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh has 726 receiving yards and is on pace for a career-high 1,162. That would be his third consecutive 1,000-yard season, making him the third Bengal to accomplish three in a row. Chad Ocho Cinco has an active streak of six 1,000-yard seasons (2002-07) but is on pace this year for only 613. Carl Pickens had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons from 1994-96.
*S Chinedum Ndukwe (foot) tore the ligament that supports the arch of his foot and will not play. He has been dealing with plantar fasciitis and had to leave the game Sunday against the Eagles.
*OT Marvel Smith and the Steelers are trying to determine if he needs back surgery. "I don't know at this point," coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. Smith will miss his sixth straight game because of back issues. He had surgery last December to remove a herniated disk that lodged on a nerve.
*QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown just one touchdown pass over the past four games and eight interceptions. However, he did throw for 308 passes Sunday with no interceptions. "It felt good. ... Look at all the guys who caught balls, numerous balls, and Willie (Parker) ran for over 100 yards," Roethlisberger said. "So it was a good game for us.".
*WR Hines Ward has back-to-back 100-yard games. Only once in his career, in 2002, has he had three in a row.
*LB James Harrison needs three sacks to tie the team record of 15 set by Mike Merriweather in 1987.
*K Jeff Reed needs 15 points to reach 700 and become only the third Steelers player to do so.
*S Troy Polamalu had no interceptions and no sacks last season for the first time in his career. He leads the Steelers with four interceptions this season.
*RB Willie Parker has three 100-yard games in five starts, and his average per carry has climbed to 4.0 yards.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
After an 0-8 start, the Bengals have not lost a game in three weeks. They defeated Jacksonville on Nov. 2, had a bye Nov. 9 and tied the Eagles on Nov. 16.
Now they go to Pittsburgh for a Thursday night game against the 7-3 Steelers.
Cincinnati is 1-8-1.
The Bengals played a full 75 minutes against the Eagles and have to turn around and play in four days.
"It's a tough game to swallow, and in a normal week, you have some time to heal physically," Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said after the tie. "But this is a short week, and it will be a physical game as it always is against the Steelers. But we'll be ready."
The Bengals are short-handed. Two defensive starters, end Antwan Odom (shoulder) and safety Chinedum Ndukwe (foot), are out. So are three starters on offense, left guard Andrew Whitworth (ankle) and left tackle Levi Jones (back) are injured while wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco has been deactivated for violating a team rule.
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has tried to stay positive throughout the long season -- even after the disappointing tie against the Eagles that he said felt more like a loss.
"Some guys, particularly on defense, did some good things we can build on," Lewis said. "But when guys play as hard as they did today and you don't get a win, it's a tough one. They played down to their socks, but it was a day where we obviously just didn't get enough points. We have to figure out a way to get some points. That's the thing that is stalling us now."
The Bengals are averaging only 13.8 points per game, 31st in the NFL.
Fitzpatrick started his sixth game of the year against Philadelphia, and he will start again at Pittsburgh. All of his starts have come in place of two-time Pro Bowler Carson Palmer, who remains out with elbow soreness.
"Our frustration level is high right now," said Fitzpatrick, who started in Cincinnati's home loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 19. "The defense played well (against the Eagles), and on offense, we had some opportunities in the fourth quarter and overtime that we didn't capitalize on."
The Steelers are passing more than running, unusual in Pittsburgh, and Willie Parker does not like it.
Parker had no basis to complain recently because after playing the first three games, he missed five of the next six with injuries. He's back now, however, and after rushing for 115 yards on 25 carries in an 11-10 victory against San Diego, he's ready to speak out.
"We have to capitalize more on the run so we can take out the passing," Parker declared afterward.
The Steelers have thrown 304 times this season compared to 276 runs, and that flies against their historic success. The only time they've had a winning season since 2000 when they've passed more times than run was 2002, when they became pass-happy under Tommy Maddox.
They passed more than they ran in 2006 and were 8-8. They passed more in 2003 and were 6-10. Every other year was a winner, and every time they ran more than they passed, except for that 2002 season.
While they appear to be headed for another winning season at 7-3, and while they likely will end up with more passes than runs, the grumbling has continued about their new offense under coordinator Bruce Arians.
Arians, the wide receivers coach under Bill Cowher, was promoted to coordinator last year when Mike Tomlin became head coach. He de-emphasized the blocking fullback the Steelers long had, and he uses more empty sets, one-back formations and two and three tight ends.
The result? Pittsburgh's offense ranks 25th, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10), and the NFL's No. 1 defense is carrying the team. The Steelers beat San Diego without scoring a touchdown, and they have not scored more than 23 points since the last time they played Cincinnati, a 38-10 win on Oct. 19.
Parker has called for a return to what he termed "Steelers football." He said the team did not play that way until near the end of the victory against San Diego. After Roethlisberger completed six straight passes, Parker ran five straight times. The last was a 4-yard touchdown run that was called back due to a penalty, and Jeff Reed came on to kick a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left for the win.
"That's the drive," Parker said. "Just keep calling run plays, keep calling run plays. The defense knows we're about to run, and they just can't stop it. That's Steelers football to me.
"It was really important. I think we came together for once in the game. We just made plays."
Coach Mike Tomlin, shortly after he was hired, said he believed in "smash-mouth" football on offense and defense. He's getting half of it, at least, but his offense looks more finesse than anything.
Whether the Steelers can continue to win that way as the weather gets cold – all of their remaining games are in the Northeast except for one trip to Tennessee – remains to be seen.
PREDICTION: Steelers, 27-16
Copyright (C) 2008 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved. Reprints, duplication or redistribution is prohibited without written permission from The Sports Xchange.