Steelers' reign at stake

PITTSBURGH – Since Bill Cowher became their coach in 1992, the Steelers have dominated their division.

Known by two names and permutated by franchise shifts and realignment, the AFC North division has been a breeding ground for eight division titles by the Steelers and a winning percentage of .627.

The only other team, of the mainstays, to have won a division title was Cleveland-Baltimore, and that franchise's winning percentage is .491 since 1992.

The third and final mainstay, the Cincinnati Bengals, haven't won a title during that time and have a post-1991 winning percentage of .341.

This division has been the Steelers' under Cowher, but all of that might change beginning this afternoon in Cincinnati, where the first-place Bengals (5-1) are looking to not only put distance between them and the Steelers (3-2), but turn the page on an era.

The Bengals are that young and talented. They have a young franchise quarterback in Carson Palmer, one of the game's best deep threats in Chad Johnson, inside (Rudi Johnson) and outside (Chris Perry) runners, and an offensive line anchored by high draft picks (Levi Jones, Eric Steinbach).

Defense has been the Bengals' problem of late, but last year's high draft picks, MLB Odell Thurman and DE David Pollack, are a step in the right direction.

The rookies haven't helped plug a run defense that still allows 4.9 yards per carry, but the pass defense is in place. Led by Deltha O'Neal's four interceptions, the Bengals lead the league in interceptions. Opposite corner Tory James is a Pro Bowler and part of the reason the Bengals lead the league in passer rating defense (52.0).

The Bengals are solid, but not great, yet, because of a run defense that overpursues at times and leaves gaping cutback holes, which Fred Taylor exploited for 132 yards in the Bengals' loss in Jacksonville two weeks ago.

The Steelers' Willie Parker is looking to rip off some big gains, and then there's Jerome Bettis, who's rushed for 1,725 yards in 18 career games against the Bengals. Both numbers are personal highs for Bettis, so it could be a big day for the Steelers' running game against the Bengals.

"They stunt and blitz a lot, so it's a matter of shutting down some of those stunts up front," said Steelers fullback Dan Kreider. "I think if we can stop some of the stunts there should be some holes to run in."

"It really comes down to calling the right play at the right time," said center Jeff Hartings. "Hopefully as veterans we can pick up some of those stunts and then have Willie see it, and with his speed we should hopefully take advantage of it."

The Steelers feel they'll score on the Bengals, particularly with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and flanker Hines Ward back in the lineup, but shutting down the Bengals' run-pass threat of Johnson & Johnson will be the challenge.

Last year, the Steelers chose to stop the pass first against the Bengals, which is why Rudi Johnson rushed for 123 yards on 14 carries in the first meeting between the teams. No back has rushed for 100 yards on the Steelers since, a span of 17 games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Because of injuries in the secondary, the Steelers will be forced to worry about the Bengals' passing game once again. Deshea Townsend, Ricardo Colclough and Willie Williams are all questionable with injuries. That leaves rookie Bryant McFadden on Chad Johnson's preferred side of the field. Late word is that Colclough might start and Townsend might be able to play dime for the Steelers, who'll double Johnson with safety Chris Hope over the top.

Does that open the wide gate for Rudi Johnson? Is the Steelers' run-defense streak in jeopardy? "If it's left up to us to stop the run," said linebacker James Farrior, "that's what we've got to do."

With only seven in the box?

"With seven," he said. "It worked out for us last year. We did win the game. But, Rudi did have 123. We were upset about that. But as for the defense as a whole, we feel we should stop the run with seven guys when the DB can't be up in the box. If that's what we've got to do, then that's what we've got to do."

It could mean the difference in the division race this season, not to mention the Steelers' long-standing reign in the Cowher era.

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