<
>

Steelers-Bengals matchup should be intense

Chris Carter, a current Cincinnati Bengals linebacker who began his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, has the perfect way of describing the rivalry between the teams.

While Baltimore may be Pittsburgh's biggest overall rival, he said, the Bengals are the Steelers' most physical rival. He said for years Steelers players were told to spend extra time in the weight room during Bengals week because the hitting in the subsequent game was going to be among the most intense they'd feel in their careers.

With the Bengals one win away from snatching back the AFC North crown after losing it in last year's finale at Pittsburgh, there will be even more intensity Sunday afternoon when the old enemies square off inside Paul Brown Stadium.

You pumped yet?

Here to preview the game and to get you ready to run through a steel wall are ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey:

Harvey: Jeremy, the last meeting between these teams featured several hard hits, including the one that ended Le'Veon Bell's season. What are the Steelers saying about the animus that was built up following that physical November game?

Fowler: Gosh, this game is going to be good. Both teams are balling, both teams absolutely hate each other. Sunday needs to get here now. The Steelers seem to know it, and they don't want to have their names plastered on the Bengals' bulletin board (do teams still use bulletin boards?). As guard David DeCastro said, the Steelers and Bengals don't like each other, but that's as far as it goes. Guard Ramon Foster was the one guy who spoke out strongly against Vontaze Burfict appearing to celebrate after the hit on Bell, but that was after the game and I doubt he'll revisit that. The Steelers are actually more mad at themselves for not playing better in that matchup. Ben Roethlisberger had just returned from injury and was rusty with three interceptions. Offensive linemen say they weren't finishing blocks. Time to finish.

Coley, how do you attack this Bengals D? Save for the Arizona game, this group has been solid.

Harvey: I'm totally with you, Jeremy! This game needs to hurry up and get here. I used an exclamation point (and I hate those things) to drive that point home. As for this Bengals defense, the best way to attack it is to tell your offensive linemen that on every play -- pass, run, it doesn't matter -- go forward. Because the instant a center or guard loses leverage to Geno Atkins, you may as well go on and consider that play over. The Bengals' front four has made a habit of getting to quarterbacks this year. According to Pro Football Focus, Atkins had 11 quarterback hurries (11!) alone at Cleveland last week. With such an intense rush, quarterbacks are best advised to get rid of the ball quickly for shorter throws against the Bengals. Doing that might work for a team with the shifty playmakers the Steelers have, and create yard-after-catch opportunities.

Bell may be done for the year, but Roethlisberger and this passing game has navigated his absence just fine. What has clicked so well to allow Pittsburgh to score more than 30 points in each game since the injury?

Fowler: Coley, that's 152 points in the past four games. This might be the NFL's best offense as it stands this week. The catalyst is health. Save for Bell, everyone is healthy now. The offensive line is in a good rhythm. Roethlisberger is big on quarterback-to-receiver chemistry, which he has always had with Antonio Brown, but he's getting it with Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant, too. The Steelers might have the best overall speed at the receiver position. DeAngelo Williams is rejuvenated at age 32. And Bryant is ridiculous. His downfield ability opens up things for everyone else. What holds this team back are turnovers. That's the case with most teams, but the Steelers disrupt their own rhythm when they give it away.

Which player on the Steelers' offense do the Bengals fear the most?

Harvey: Fear is such a strong word. With personalities like Burfict's and Adam Jones' on their defense, I don't think that F-word registers for the men in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's meeting room. Which offensive Steeler most has Cincinnati's attention, though? It's a toss-up between Roethlisberger and Brown. You mentioned above the tight relationship the two have. That was no more evident than on what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass in Pittsburgh in last year's finale. Dre Kirkpatrick had blanket coverage on Brown, but Roethlisberger threw the ball at the perfect instant and in the perfect spot over Kirkpatrick's shoulder as Brown expertly altered direction at the last possible moment. Their savvy held the Bengals' attention coming into November's game. It's a big reason why the Bengals eventually held Brown to only two second-half catches after he caught three, including a touchdown pass, on the game's opening drive. Across the final two quarters, Roethlisberger was picked off twice targeting Brown. Stopping No. 84 is a key part of Cincinnati's game plan.

Nine of the 11 passes A.J. Green caught in last month's game traveled 10 yards or less in the air. How important will it be for Pittsburgh's corners to jam him at the line of scrimmage?

Fowler: Actually, not that important. The Steelers rarely press. They are designed to give cushion, then go make the tackle. The problem is Green is hard to tackle in the open field. Difficulty handling receivers in the open field is partly why the Steelers have inserted Brandon Boykin into the lineup as part of a four-man cornerback rotation. This should help keep everyone fresh. But fundamentally, the Bengals are not a great matchup for the Steelers' defense, which has weak spots for tight ends in the middle of the field and athletic wideouts converting short passes for big gains. The Steelers need to clean up their tackling to have a chance.

What tricks might Hue Jackson have this week? Mike Tomlin calls Jackson's playcalling "thoughtfully non-rhythmic," which means he'll keep the Steelers' D guessing.

Harvey: Grammar snobs just threw their dictionaries in disgust. "Thoughtfully arrhythmic," they'd quip. Whatever. The fact is, that's an apt way of describing Jackson's offense. The second-year coordinator's scheme hinges upon throwing opposing defenses curveballs in formation and play design, and does so on a play-to-play basis. You never know when rookie offensive tackle Jake Fisher will be passed to -- like he was the past two games. You also never know when other tackles will go in motion and flank out wide, putting Andy Dalton behind a three-man pocket. Jackson's offense is rhythmic in one sense. The Bengals are fond of running their offense uptempo.