The Bengals and Steelers were developing one of the more hotly contested rivalries in the league in 2005, but it quickly fizzled out as Cincinnati went into the dumper. There's plenty of animosity left, but the most important thing confronting the Steelers this week is not to look beyond the Bengals.
After they play at Cincinnati, where they have won seven straight, they play a grueling four-game stretch that starts with the New York Giants on Oct. 26. Then it's off to Washington before home dates against Indianapolis and San Diego.
The good news for the Steelers is they play four of five at home after their trip to Cincinnati.
The Steelers won their past two games without some key injured starters who should return this Sunday -- halfback Willie Parker, defensive end Brett Keisel, nose tackle Casey Hampton and fullback Carey Davis.
"Any time you have starters down and you're able to go in there and do well and get your guys back without having too much damage done to your record, it's good," linebacker James Harrison said.
Their past bye weekend came at an opportune time for Pittsburgh. Also expected back is left tackle Marvel Smith, who left the last game in the fourth quarter with cramps.
--WR Limas Sweed, a second-round draft choice, still has not played in a game and has dressed for only one of them. He preaches patience.
"Just tell 'em patience is a virtue," Sweed said. "I'm playing behind some guys on fire right now. It's their time right now, and I'm the younger guy. My time is coming."
--The Steelers say they are not concerned that they've had no rushing touchdowns in their past four games.
"It's too early for that," WR Hines Ward said. "It's not a concern for us. We're calling plays down there and scoring TDs in other areas."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB Willie Parker went through his first practice Monday since he sprained the MCL in his left knee Sept. 29. He said he's ready to resume play in Cincinnati on Sunday.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger, who missed both practices in the bye week, returned and went through a full practice Monday.
--K Jeff Reed, who came down with a calf injury in the Oct. 5 game against Jacksonville, did not practice Monday but said he will kick Wednesday and that he feels good.
--NT Casey Hampton (groin) did not practice Monday. He missed the past two games but is expected to return this week.
--LT Marvel Smith, who left in the fourth quarter vs. Jacksonville with cramps, did not practice Monday. He is expected back this week.
REPORT CARD AFTER 5 GAMES
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- The Steelers still do not throw much, so they don't accumulate much yardage and won't be ranked high in the league based on that. However, when they do throw, they're good at it. QB Ben Roethlisberger has completed 63.7 percent of his passes, has a 95.7 rating and thrown seven TDs vs. three interceptions. The biggest problem is he's been sacked 18 times.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- The team has been able to maintain after the loss of RB Willie Parker and RB Rashard Mendenhall, who is out for the season. The Steelers have only three rushing TDs, but Mewelde Moore ran for 99 yards in a victory at Jacksonville in the last game, and Parker and FB Carey Davis return this week. Parker was second in the AFC when his knee was sprained in the third game.
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Steelers are off to a good pace with 18 sacks, half of their total from all of last season. Opposing quarterbacks have a 71.2 passer rating and have thrown just four TD passes while getting intercepted four times, three times by Troy Polamalu. Their average per attempt is just 5.87, and their longest completion is 35 yards.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Steelers continue to do a great job against the run, even with Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton out the past two games and DE Brett Keisel out of the past three. They've permitted only 2.8 yards per rush, three touchdowns and a long run of 14 yards in their 334-yard total against them in five games. Hampton and Keisel return this week, which should boost that effort.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Jeff Reed is a perfect 9-for-9 on field-goal attempts, and their coverage teams have improved immensely since last season. They've allowed just 3.8 yards per punt return and 20.1 on kickoff returns, with no touchdowns. Conversely, they have no returns of their own to speak of with a 3.8-yard average on punts and 19.6 on kickoffs. Veteran P Mitch Berger, picked up this summer when Daniel Sepulveda was lost with a torn ACL, has been inconsistent, although 10 of his 25 punts have wound up inside the 20.
COACHING: B -- Except for some terrible offensive strategy during their only loss to Philadelphia, Mike Tomlin and his staff have done a good job. Their best came when the Steelers upset the Jaguars in Jacksonville despite having a handful of starters sidelined. "It shows the dedication and preparation every player on this team has, no matter if they're a starter or a backup," LB James Harrison said. And that speaks well of the coaches.