Steelers bring healthy respect

Even though things couldn't be worse for the winless Cincinnati Bengals, they have the Steelers' full attention as they come off the bye with a 4-1 record.

CINCINNATI – To make certain his players won't overlook an 0-6 team that's starting its Harvard-trained backup quarterback, Coach Mike Tomlin reminded his Steelers early in the week about what happened last year.

Last year, the 4-1 Steelers, off a shutout win over Seattle, and a bye week, lost to a struggling Denver team that was coming off its worst home loss in team history.

"He reminded us right off the bat," said linebacker James Farrior. "He remineded us that we're doing well now, but we were doing well last year coming off the bye."

The Steelers are 4-1 and working with a two-game lead in the AFC North Division, but they still have some critical injuries. Marvel Smith will likely sit this game out. He'll be replaced at left tackle by the best-paid backup in the league, Max Starks. And Willie Parker will sit a third game, and Mewelde Moore would start in his place. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is also looking at missing his third game. He'd be replaced by Chris Hoke, he of the 13-1 record as a starter in regular-season games.

The depth is there for the Steelers. Apparently, so is the focus.

"Oh, definitely," Farrior said. "We feel we've got a good group of core guys who make sure everyone understands that this team can't be overlooked. We know that they're going to give us their best shot."

For the Bengals, it may be their last and only big game of the season. But without Palmer, the Bengals turn to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the fourth-year pro out of Harvard.

Last week against the New York Jets, Fitzpatrick completed 20 of 33 passes for 152 yards without an interception. For the season, he's thrown one touchdown pass and three interceptions and ranks second on the team with 64 yards rushing on 10 carries.

"He's definitely a good scrambler in the pocket. That stood out to me," Farrior said. "And he can throw the ball. I don't think he understands the offense as well as Carson does; you can tell that. So they'll probably stress the things he can do, like rollouts, get him on the move, scramble. I don't expect him to stay in the pocket."

Fitzpatrick will have at his disposal the three Bengals receivers who led the team to the 2005 AFC North Division title: T.J. Houshmandzadeh leads the team with 38 catches for 400 yards and three touchdowns; Chad Ocho Cinco (formerly Chad Johnson) has 19 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown; and Chris Henry, who only came off the suspended list last week, has one catch for 13 yards.

But this year's edition of the Bengals' offense is a shell of that great 2005 unit. The Bengals are dead last in yardage this season. The elbow injury to Palmer is one reason. So, too, perhaps, is the loss of bulldozing tailback Rudi Johnson, who was released Aug. 30 in favor of Chris Perry, a former second-round draft pick who's stayed healthy long enough this season to rush for 253 yards on 96 carries (2.6 avg.).

"I'm glad he's gone," Farrior said of Johnson. "I think he was the toughest runner to tackle on that team. I'm not saying the other backs aren't good, but he was definitely the hardest one to tackle. Perry has fumbled a couple times, but he'll run the ball well. (Kenny) Watson's a pretty good back too. They've got two backs who can do the job."

Defensively, the Bengals allow their typically poor 4.3 yards per carry. Tackle John Thornton is expected back after missing last week's game. Strong safety Dexter Jackson is also expected to return. Changes from last season include linebackers Dhani Jones (leading tackler) and Keith Rivers (No. 2 tackler), and defensive end Antwan Odom (team-high 2 sacks). But the additions haven't helped the Bengals win a game yet.

"I really don't view them as an 0-6 team," Farrior said. "A lot of things happened in those game at points where the game could've gone either way. They just haven't come up with the right plays at the right time. We have to make sure they don't make those plays this week, because we know we'll get their best effort."


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