Make room for a new heavyweight

Bengals force their way into conversation as a player in the AFC North.

Heading into this season, most anyone you asked thought the Baltimore Ravens would be the main competition for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North.

Who dey would have thought it would be those Cincinnati Bengals?

But the Bengals have done what Baltimore really couldn't do in previous years, sweep the regular season series with the Steelers when Pittsburgh is good.

When the Ravens swept the Steelers in 2006, it was a season in which Pittsburgh was struggling to an 8-8 finish. You won't find anyone who thinks the Steelers will finish 8-8 this season.

Cincinnati has proven itself to be a formidable foe.

And how they have done that is what is truly surprising. In Sunday's 18-12 victory over Pittsburgh, the Bengals out-Steelered the Steelers.

Cincinnati did a nice job shutting down Pittsburgh's running game, limiting Rashard Mendenhall to 36 yards on 13 carries. Though the Steelers finished with 80 yards on 18 carries, 16 came from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and 21 came on two draws by Mewelde Moore.

When the Steelers lined it up to run the ball in obvious running situations, they were stoned.

The Steelers did their usual solid job of shutting down the run as well, giving up 61 yards on 29 attempts.

But Carson Palmer was nothing if not efficient, getting rid of the football to beat the Pittsburgh pass rush – when it was there – on several occasions.

The Steelers, meanwhile, never solved Cincinnati's multi-faceted blitz package and Ben Roethlisberger, for the first time this season, looked flustered.

That used to only happen against the Ravens.

Can the Bengals sustain this kind of play? We'll see.

But they've put the Steelers in a position where they now have to chase Cincinnati the rest of this season.

The feel in the locker room after this one was one of shock. The Steelers couldn't believe they had been played to a physical standstill by the Bengals.

But after the Bengals did the same thing twice this season to Baltimore, the Steelers should have been better prepared.

© A physical matchup such as Sunday's game should have been the perfect game for Hines Ward, the most physical receiver in the NFL.

Yet Ward managed just four receptions for 24 yards despite being targeted 10 times by Roethlisberger.

Some of that was due to the pressure. Roethlisberger overthrew Ward a number of times.

But the Bengals did a nice job of covering up Ward and forcing Roethlisberger to look elsewhere for his completions.

© Even though he had obviously struggled all day, when the Steelers got the ball back with just under two minutes to play, you expected Roethlisberger to mount some kind of drive.

Instead, he threw four incompletions.

Again, it was like the Steelers expected the Bengals, to be, well, the Bengals.

Instead, they closed the game out like the Steelers usually do.

© Head coach Mike Tomlin said following the game that he pulled Stefan Logan off kickoff return duties for one play, inserting Mike Wallace, because he wanted to take a look at Wallace there.

I'd believe that explanation a lot more if Logan hadn't been stopped at the Pittsburgh 15 after bringing the ball out from four-yards deep and then running sideways the length of the field on his previous return.

Tomlin said last week that he didn't mind Logan bringing the ball out of the end zone because Logan was trying to make a play.

But you also have to be smart about things and you've got to get vertical before you can go horizontal on kickoff returns.

© After converting their first two third downs into first downs, the Steelers went one-for-12 on third down the rest of the game.

That's just not winning football.

Cincinnati's blitz scheme was excellent and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer deserves some credit with coming up with a nice game plan.

The Bengals hit Roethlisberger as much as anyone has this season and batted down five passes at the line of scrimmage. Obviously, they saw something there they could exploit.

© Troy Polamalu's knee injury is a troublesome thing for this team, which hasn't been the same without him.

We just don't know the extent of it at this time, but when a player leaves the field and never returns, it's not a good thing.

Polamalu must have felt something pop in there - or at the very least, felt some looseness - or he wouldn't have left the game.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter

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