AFC's Hottest Teams To Square Off

The Steelers are looking to rebound from their last-second loss last Sunday against Cincinnati Bengals, who are riding a five-game winning streak.

If not for a touchdown with eight seconds left last week, the Steelers would be playing the Cincinnati Bengals today in a matchup of the two hottest teams in the AFC.

As it is, the 6-3 Steelers have won four of their last five games and the 6-2 Bengals have won five straight. No one else in the AFC has a current win streak longer than three games.

The only blemish between these two AFC North contenders in the last five weeks was the 26-yard touchdown pass that beat the Steelers in the final seconds last Sunday. Coordinator Dick LeBeau explained Baltimore's 92-yard final drive by saying, "We just didn't get off the field. But we will next time."

LeBeau's defense should have it easier today against rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, but Dalton, while not flashy, is one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the AFC.

Not only is the rookie sixth in the conference with a passer rating of 85, he's third in fewest sacks (12) and fifth in fewest interceptions (7).

The rookie quarterback doesn't make game-killing mistakes. In fact, the Bengals' red-zone percentage of touchdowns (52 percent) is better than the Steelers' (47 percent). And in the last three games they rank first in the NFL in fewest yards needed per point.

That reflects positively on not only Dalton, but also on a defense/special teams that's scored four touchdowns during the Bengals' current win streak, and a place-kicker, Mike Nugent, who's missed only one field goal this season.

These Bengals are quite efficient, even with a rookie quarterback at the helm.

"He's so far ahead of me when I was a rookie it's not even funny," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. "After my rookie year, [owner] Paul Brown and [coach] Sam Wyche were going into the offseason looking at each other cross-eyed."

Dalton's go-to receiver is also a rookie, and A.J. Green leads all NFL rookies in receptions (40), receiving yards (599) and receiving touchdowns (5).

"He's one of the better first-year receivers that I've ever seen," said LeBeau. "So quick, and he has speed and size."

The other receiver, Andre Caldwell (26-195-2) caught the game-winning touchdown to beat the Steelers in 2009 at Cincinnati. Tight end Jermaine Gresham (25-231-3) is a dangerous weapon when healthy, but he's questionable today with a hamstring injury that's kept him out of the last two games.

The Bengals' running game is familiar to Steelers fans. Cedric Benson (536-3.9) has played six games against the Steelers and averages only 3.3 yards per carry against them.

The Bengals' bedrock, though, is a defense that's on pace to set a franchise record for fewest points allowed. The Bengals are fourth in the NFL in fewest points allowed per game, second in rushing defense per game, and first in rushing yardage per play (3.3).

"[Mike Zimmer]'s a great coach and he's got them playing hard," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "They're very sound in everything they do. They had a couple of nice acquisitions in the offseason and they have a four-deep rotation at defensive end with excellent young pass-rushers."

Outside linebacker Thomas Howard and cornerback Nate Clements have been the Bengals' key acquisitions. Also helping was the move of Rey Maualuga inside to give the Bengals speed and power at middle linebacker. Defensive ends Frostee Rucker, Robert Geathers, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson make up the pass-rushing rotation.

"They have a quality, young, athletic group that's tenacious," said Steelers left tackle Max Starks. "They have veterans in the right places to keep the young guys at bay and on task."

And to keep them running with the big dogs in the AFC.


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