Notebook: The not-so-secret weapon

The Cincinnati Bengals' starting safety tandem was wiped out by injuries by the second week of the season. Replacements Kevin Kaesviharn and Ifeanyi Ohalete have been the weak link of the NFL's 26th-ranked pass defense.

Heath Miller is well aware.

In two games against the Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie tight end has nine catches for 102 yards.

Miller had his best game of the season in that first game against the Bengals – the game in which the Steelers passed only 14 times. Miller caught six of those passes for 58 yards and a touchdown.

At the time, Miller was in the midst of his tear. The next week he scored his fourth and fifth touchdowns in four games, but that's been it for Miller in the end zone. He finished the year with 39 catches for 459 yards (11.8 avg.) and six touchdowns.

It was enough to earn the first-round pick the Steelers' Rookie of the Year award, but in the NFL voting Miller finished a distant second with one vote behind runaway winner Cadillac Williams, who had 47 votes.

"I think Cadillac had a good year and is very deserving," said Miller. "Anytime you can come in as a rookie and rush for a thousand yards and have the type of impact he had on the Bucs, you deserve it."

But Miller may have made an equal impact on the Steelers.

"Earlier in the year they didn't take him seriously," said Hines Ward. "The first time we played Cincinnati, he caught a post on their strong safety, whereas now he's an integral part of this offense and he has to be held accountable."

After Miller's hot streak ended, Ward's production in the red zone picked up. He caught six of the Steelers' final nine touchdown passes.

"Teams stopped singling him," Ward said. "They were trying to overload the receivers' side, leaving him one-on-one backside. But teams stopped doing it. You had to give him more attention."

Ward said teams began using their fastest safeties to cover Miller in the second half of the season, which means the Bengals may as well not cover Miller at all.

EXPERIENCE FACTOR

The Steelers' 22 starters have combined to start 70 playoff games in their respective careers. The Bengals' starters have combined to start eight playoff games.

Will the Bengals' inexperience be a factor this afternoon?

"No," said Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "One reason is their quarterback. (Carson Palmer) controls that offense. That quarterback does an excellent job of making his reads, reading the defenses, and scoring points. That won't change. He, from what I know and have seen and have heard, is a professional and he will do what it takes to win."

Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu agrees that experience won't matter.

"No, not really, just given the rivalry that we have," he said. "That to me is more important. We want to be the dominant team in our division, you know what I mean? So I don't think that that plays a role; maybe in some other games but in this game definitely not."

What about the increased speed level we've heard so much about?

"I didn't notice it," Polamalu said. "But the meaning of things is different. We know how every play counts and you really feel that, but I don't approach the game any different, and personally I don't feel the speed is any different."

"The speed isn't faster. It's not," said von Oelhoffen. "And people aren't stronger. Now, people finish blocks more. They finish the end of the play a little bit better, but it's the physical health of the team that matters. It's how many guys you have that feel good to play football at that time."

Both teams are healthy coming into the game. Every starter not on the injured reserve list is expected to be available.

FLIP THE SWITCH

The Steelers played their best game of the season two weeks ago when they whipped the Cleveland Browns 41-0. The Steelers scored on four of their five first-half possessions.

"Whatever the reason leading up, it was a crisp week of practice," said Ward. "We went in there and we really wanted to beat Cleveland, and from every phase of the game it was almost flawless."

The following week against Detroit, the Steelers were sloppy in pulling out a 35-21 win after falling behind early.

"Leading up to that last game, there were distractions," Ward said. "You say it's not a distraction, but we just thought San Diego would win (the night before) and they didn't. Then Sunday you have to go out and we're supposed to beat Detroit. Then you keep looking at the scoreboard seeing what Kansas City's doing. Then you see Kansas City winning and you say, man, we can't lose this game. In the second half you started to see guys getting focused and paying better attention to details."

Can they flip the switch so easily today?

"It's playoff time," he said. "Loser go home. We understand that. Plus, we're playing Cincinnati. They won our division. It's redemption time. We get that opportunity and we feel good because we won in Cincinnati. They won here but we turned the ball over. If we don't turn the ball over maybe the outcome's different, and if we don't give up the big returns maybe the outcome's different. You look at those things and you say: What can I do to make sure that don't happen again? If we do that, the focus will be there and we'll be fine."


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