Old School Showdown Looms

Steelers, Bengals might just line up with a fullback and slam the ball today.

Cameron Heyward was asked to comment on his neighbor in the locker room, Steve McLendon, this week, and so Heyward obliged.

But his glowing report was interrupted by McLendon, who seemingly had heard enough.

"Two minutes, boys!" McLendon bellowed from the stool next to Heyward's. "Meeting in two minutes!"

"Well, gotta go," said Heyward as he excused himself.

Heyward hopped to because McLendon is the boss these days.

With Brett Keisel on injured reserve, McLendon is not only the elder on the Steelers' defensive line, he's No. 4 in seniority on the entire defense.

It only seemed like yesterday that McLendon replaced Casey Hampton at nose tackle, but McLendon will be one of the key Steelers veterans today at Cincinnati, where they'll play their biggest game of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers at 7-5 are a game and a half behind the 8-3-1 Cincinnati Bengals for the lead in the AFC North Division. And to beat the Bengals, the Steelers will need a big game from McLendon, who's trying to play with a sore shoulder that has cost him "a hat" in four of the last six games.

In those four games, the Steelers have allowed 4.8 yards per carry, which, if extended over a full season, would be the franchise's worst run defense since the 1934 Pirates allowed 5.0 yards per carry.

Overall, these Steelers are allowing 4.45 per carry, the worst since the 1954 team allowed 4.72 per carry. So the healthy return of McLendon -- the nose tackle who'll have rookie Stephon Tuitt making his first start to the left and probably Jarvis Jones coming off IR to replace James Harrison to his right -- is of utmost importance.

"He's a guy who knows the system and a guy who's thrived at it," Heyward said of his on-field and locker-room neighbor. "You never have to worry about Steve being front-side, he plays with good pad level and good technique, and he can be disruptive in the pass game, too.

"When you have a guy like that coming back, that's what I expect. And he had better expect the same as well."

McLendon's shoulder passed the doctor's strength test this week, so he was allowed to practice. But he's still listed as questionable to play against a Bengals team that struggles at times throwing the ball with Andy Dalton at quarterback.

But the Bengals' run game is gaining momentum thanks to 235-pound rookie back Jeremy Hill.

Hill took over feature-back duties five games ago when Giovani Bernard went down with hip and clavicle injures. Hill has had a pair of 150-plus yard games since then, and he took over the team rushing lead with 683 yards at 4.7 per carry.

Bernard, a scatback type with outside speed, is back and healthy and averages 4.0 yards per carry.

But Hill -- running behind a line that's missing only right tackle Andre Smith from its opening-day lineup -- will be the focal point for the Steelers.

"I looked at him at his pro day. I took him to dinner. I got to know him a little bit," said Mike Tomlin. "We had a strong interest in his talents, because he is talented. He is big. He is powerful. He runs behind his pads. He also has the type of agility that makes him difficult to deal with for a big man."

And the Steelers must handle Hill with a NT who's questionable and with young defenders sprinkled throughout their front seven.

Of course, there's also the threat of a pass to A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu or tight end Jermaine Gresham to keep the Steelers from bringing help up into the box.

"It's most definitely going to be difficult not having guys like Brett and maybe James," said McLendon. "But it's an opportunity for the younger guys to step up and make plays. Those guys are absent right now. What happened to Keisel was football. What happened to James, same thing. The guys behind are the next guys up. Those guys need to step up and play big. They're just like me. If I'm able to play this week, I've got to play big."

By the same token, the Steelers and Le'Veon Bell are eyeballing a Bengals run defense that's underachieved this season. Missing only will-backer Vontaze Burfict from their opening-day lineup, the Bengals are allowing 4.2 yards per carry and are 25th in the league by allowing 125.1 rush yards per game.

Bell, the NFL's second-leading rusher with 1,046 yards, is on pace for 288 carries and 375 touches this season. Can he keep that pace? Can he continue to take the beatings he's taken of late?

"I feel over the course of my off-season I prepared for this," said Bell. "If I need to get the ball or be in the game or catch the ball, run routes, I'm always going to be ready, because I feel I've been training for this and I take pride in it."

So it's possible this game could revert to the old-school AFC North smashmouth football of days past. And there's little doubt the Bengals will look to take advantage of the youth stepping into the Steelers' already leaky front seven.

"Let 'em," said Heyward. "That's fine with us. We'll be ready."

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