What's happened to defending division champs?

On paper, the Cincinnati Bengals have improved. But the Steelers' opponent Monday night is struggling with a 2-5 record. Why?

Mike Tomlin wants everyone to Throw The Records Out The Window for Monday night's division rivalry game, and he makes a convincing case why the 5-2 Steelers should be wary of the Cincinnati Bengals in spite of their 2-5 record.

"They swept the division a year ago," Tomlin started. "Core players are still the same. Coaching staff is in place. They've got great familiarity with us. They've already proven this year that they're AFC North ready. They beat Baltimore at their place in Week 2."

As for the Bengal's coaching staff, all but the assistant strength coach and offensive quality control coach are back from last season.

On offense, everyone has returned from last season, except starting wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who's been replaced by Terrell Owens. And at 36, Owens has lost little. With 45 catches for 629 yards and 5 touchdowns, he's on pace for 103-1438-11, or the best season of his storied 15-year career.

"I think he's having one of his better years that I've seen in the last four or five," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

The Bengals also have their underrated tight end Reggie Kelly healthy this season, and have added to the position with first-round draft pick Jermaine Gresham, a 6-foot-5 blue-chipper who's caught 29 passes.

"He's a star in the making," LeBeau said. "He's got size, speed and athleticism, and he can block. They throw the screen to him and he can run after the catch. I think he's going to be a really, really excellent tight end."

The offensive line would return intact, except the Bengals promoted right tackle Andre Smith – the sixth overall pick of the 2009 draft – to the first team.

The Bengals also returned the three running backs – Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott, Brian Leonard – who took turns killing the Steelers in last season's sweep.

Defensively, nearly the same Bengals lineup from their game against the Steelers last Nov. 15 returns, plus former No. 1 pick Keith Rivers, who missed last year's game with an injury. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson is doubtful for this game with a knee injury. He'll be replaced by veteran backup Pat Sims.

All of the key special-teamers return, except kicker Shayne Graham, who's been replaced by Mike Nugent, and he's missed only 44 and 53-yarders in 16 field goal attempts this season.

With all of that stability, plus a few helpful additions, why are the Bengals 2-5?

"They've had a lot of turnovers," said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. "They just don't really seem to all be meshing right now. But I'm sure we're going to get their best shot Monday night and that's what we have to prepare for."

That's the scary part. These Bengals are the same team, but their season is on the line at home Monday night.

What do they need to rectify?

* Last year they averaged 129 yards rushing per game to rank 9th in the NFL. This year they're 20th.

* Last year they ranked 2nd and 21st in punt and kickoff returns. This year they're 27th and 30th.

* Last year they were 13th in covering kickoffs. This year they're 30th.

As for the turnovers, their plus-minus margin is the same this year as it was last year. The difference has been the timing of the turnovers.

In the last three games of their four-game losing streak, the Bengals threw an interception in the red zone with 2:43 left, down 8 to the Miami Dolphins; fumbled in the fourth quarter down 7 to the Atlanta Falcons, who then pushed the lead to 14; and threw two interceptions in the final 2:18 to blow a 7-point lead to the Tampa Bay Bucs.

It's clear these Bengals aren't playing as flawlessly late in games as they did a year ago when they rallied twice to beat the Steelers.

"You'd think they'd have a better record," said Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. "But sometimes things just don't fall your way, as we learned last year."


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