Notebook: Ben's bodyguard will be on hand ...

PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger's best friend will be with him on the field Sunday in Cincinnati, and we're not talking about his dog. "Having Marvel at left tackle, that's your blind side," said Roethlisberger. "I know I can count on him when it's time to pass block and pick up blitzes."

Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Marvel Smith missed the division-deciding game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 4, and, just as in the two previous games, the Steelers were beaten.

"It was tough watching it," Smith said. "It was back and forth, up and down the field the whole game. It was a tough fight. I don't see why it's going to be any different this time."

It should be different because of Smith. In the two games he played since returning from two sprained ankles, the Steelers scored 76 points. Those were the team's two highest-scoring games of the season.

"I feel like I'm getting better each game," he said. "I've tried not to miss a beat and just go out and do the things I was able to do earlier in the year and continue to improve. That's all I'm trying to do: get better every week so I can help the team."

Just being on the field is a good start.

MORE FODDER

After the last Steelers-Bengals game, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson said that "It's time for a change. … It was Pittsburgh; it's Cincinnati now, and it'll probably be that way for a while now."

The quote made its way to the Steelers' bulletin board yesterday. Kimo von Oelhoffen read it with amusement.

"He's funny. He's funny as hell," von Oelhoffen said. "They're excited right now. They're playing good football. Maybe they could handle it a little different and wait till after the game before they talk, but, no, they should be proud of themselves where they're at. But we've still got to play football."

For the most part, von Oelhoffen made sense. But the Bengals have lost their last two games by a combined 44 points and four games ago beat the visiting Cleveland Browns by a field goal. Are the Bengals really playing well?

"If you watched those games they didn't do anything," von Oelhoffen said. "They were very, very vanilla; very vanilla. They ran lead opens, lead closes, they didn't no-huddle. They were very vanilla."

Can teams just flip the switch and turn it back on?

"I don't know; tough question," he said. "They could've prepared and done a whole lot better if they wanted to. I don't think they wanted to."

UNIFORM CHANGE

Casey Hampton showed up at the practice facility with a new jersey. It was No. 10 with the name YOUNG stitched across the back.

Obviously, Hampton enjoyed his old school's win over USC on Wednesday night for the national championship.

"I watched with all my boys and went crazy," he said. "I jumped on the table, jumped on the bar. I lost it. I went absolutely crazy when we won the game. I know all the guys on the team. I work out with them in the off-season, so it was fun to see."

Hampton said Texas quarterback Vince Young should've won the Heisman Trophy over USC running back Reggie Bush. Hampton also believes Bush will take a backseat to his back-up, LenDale White, in the NFL.

"The Texas defense is fast but NFL defenses are faster," Hampton said. "I just feel like you aren't going to run outside like that on NFL defenses because everyone's the same speed. You saw that when (Bush) went against Texas. That makes you think about it."

LATERAL REDUX

Antwaan Randle El also watched the national championship game, and took an interest in Bush's fumbled lateral after a huge gain. Randle El's reaction?

"Catch it 48!!!" Randle El shouted in a locker-room reproduction.

Randle El, of course, made the same mistake in a game earlier this season.

"I'd do it again," he said. "I'd do it again with a softer toss."

INJURY REPORT

Reserve DE Travis Kirschke (probable/back) returned to practice but special-teams ace Sean Morey (probable/calf) sat out. In the only other change on the Steelers' injury list, reserve OLB Andre Frazier was upgraded to probable with his hamstring injury. … CB Deltha O'Neal, the NFL's co-leader with 10 interceptions, was the only player to miss the Bengals' practice Thursday. O'Neal has missed two practices this week, but is listed as probable with a knee injury.


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