KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:15 ET
TV: NBC, Al Michael, John Madden, Andrea Kremer
SERIES: 38th meeting. Steelers lead the series 24-13, including one playoff victory. They are 24-13 in Pittsburgh but have lost the last two home games against the Bengals. In fact, the past seven games between the teams have been won by the visitor. The Steelers have won nine of the past 12 and 12 of the past 16.
PREDICTION: Steelers 30-24
KEYS TO THE GAME: RB Rudi Johnson runs with a low center of gravity, which the Bengals hope gives him advantage in what promises to be sloppy conditions at Heinz Field. Just because they play twice a season hardly means Cincinnati has Pittsburgh's blitzing defense figured out. But if the Bengals can protect QB Carson Palmer, the Steelers will have difficulty keeping tabs on WRs Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. ... With the same starting linebacking unit the past three games, the Bengals have allowed an average of just 59 rushing yards. Cincinnati will find out quickly if that's indeed a sign of improvement or a blip on the radar. Steelers RB Willie Parker has averaged 119 yards on 4.76 yards per carry with six TDs the past five meetings. And with the Steelers concerned about protection for QB Ben Roethlisberger, Parker figures to be a big focus out of the gate.
KEY INJURIES: Bengals: RB Chris Perry (ankle) was left on the physically unable to perform list and will not play this season; RT Willie Anderson (knee) is uncertain. Steelers: WR Santonio Holmes (ankle), SS Troy Polamalu (knee) and OT Marvel Smith (back) are uncertain.
FAST FACTS: The Steelers are 4-0, winning by an average of 18.0 points against the AFC North this season. ... Chad Johnson has passed Carl Pickens as the franchise's all-time leader with 537 receptions.
--RT Willie Anderson (knee) did not participate in practice Thursday and is still a question mark for Sunday night at Pittsburgh. He has missed six games.
--WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (back) practiced Thursday after missing the Wednesday practice. He will start.
--LB Landon Johnson (back) was limited in practice Thursday after practicing fully Wednesday. He will start.
--CB Deltha O'Neal (knee) participated fully. He did not practice Wednesday.
--WR Chad Johnson (knee) did not practice. He has not practiced on Thursday for most of the season. He is the reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week after catching three touchdown passes against the Titans.
--RB Kenny Watson (hip) was added to the injury report Thursday as having been limited in practice. He will play Sunday night.
--WR Santonio Holmes did not practice on Wednesday and it appears he will miss his second straight game with a high ankle sprain.
--SS Troy Polamalu did not practice on Wednesday and it appears he will miss his second straight game with a sprained knee.
--OT Marvel Smith did not practice on Wednesday and was nowhere to be found at the Steelers training facility. He missed Monday night's game with back problems that have plagued him much of the season.
--OT Max Starks likely will make his second straight start at left tackle in place of Smith. Starks was praised by his coaches for his play there Monday. He lost his starting job at right tackle to second-year man Willie Colon in training camp.
--WR Hines Ward, who again leads the Steelers with 46 receptions, needs 202 yards to pass John Stallworth, who owns the team's career receiving yards lead with 8,723.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
There is a lot of respect among the Bengals for the Steelers defense.
The marquee matchup of the Sunday night game is the Bengals' No. 5-ranked offense against the top-ranked Pittsburgh defense.
The Steelers are always strong defensively. And this season is no exception. After 11 games, Pittsburgh is first in points, totals yards and passing yards allowed at 13.2, 229.2 and 152.l a game. Oh, they're also second against the run at 77.1 yards a game. The Steelers have allowed just two individual 100-yard rushers in their past 61 games, including the postseason against elite competition.
"They understand defense there," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said of the Steelers. "It's an organization built on defense."
The defensive superiority is built on draft day. Of the 11 defensive starters, only Farrior and outside linebacker James Harrison were not drafted by the Steelers.
They have found four of their current starters in the fourth round (cornerbacks Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor, end Aaron Smith and linebacker Larry Foote), one in the fifth (linebacker Clark Haggans) and one in the seventh (end Brett Keisel).
"They really draft well. They draft people to play the defense they have," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, a former Steelers wide receivers coach. "And they know what defense they're going to keep playing over the years. And they keep drafting guys to fill those spots."
Harrison, as the outside right linebacker, is having a Pro Bowl season in his first year as a starter. He leads the Steelers with 8.5 sacks, 3.5 coming in a 38-7 victory against Baltimore on Monday night, Nov. 5. The Steelers released long-time star Joey Porter to make room for Harrison, who also had three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception against the Ravens.
"What Harrison did during the Monday night game a couple of weeks ago was phenomenal," Palmer said. "They have phenomenal players with great talent. They're well-groomed in the system. It's hard to say it's just the system."
Bengals left tackle Levi Jones will see plenty of Harrison and Keisel.
"They've been developing them," Jones said. "You could watch Harrison killing the last couple of years on special teams. They do that. They put guys on special teams and let them earn their keep. They did it with Keisel, too. He came out in the draft with me (2002)."
Fullback Dan Kreider's career is in jeopardy after he tore an ACL in his knee Monday night in the slop at Heinz Field, where the surface has been kept grass for "safety" reasons.
Kreider, who turns 31 in March, was said to have a hyper-extended knee but an MRI later showed the tear. The Steelers replaced him on the roster with tight end Jon Dekker.
Kreider made his fourth start of the season Monday - all in the past five games after he regained his starting job from young Carey Davis, who won the job from the veteran in training camp.
Kreider has been a key to the Steelers consistently remaining among the best running teams in the league. He joined them as a free agent rookie from New Hampshire in 2000 and earned the club's rookie of the year award. He went on to start 67 regular-season games and eight more in the playoffs.
No one challenged him for his job until the Steelers decided to run an offense with a different twist this season, hoping to use Davis more as a receiver and runner than a blocker. When that did not work out, they went back to Kreider and the I-formation more often in the past five games.
Davis again moves up to become the starting fullback. Dekker will dress Sunday for the game against Cincinnati, his first in the NFL, as the team's tight end. He remained on the practice squad in 2006 as a rookie from Princeton.
Dekker's signing means that Max Starks will no longer serve as the blocking No. 3 tight end and will concentrated solely on his position at offensive tackle.