Steelers try to avoid sweep
By Mitch Stacy
The Associated Press
CINCINNATI — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says every game against an AFC North opponent is an elimination game.
That starts Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who have already defeated the Steelers once this year.
His urgency is warranted.
The Bengals (6-4) are in second place in the AFC North after beating Las Vegas. The Steelers (5-4-1) are trying to rebound from two disappointing games — a tie with winless Detroit and then a loss Sunday night by four points in a shootout with the Chargers.
Cincinnati has already beaten the Steelers by double digits this season and is seeking a series sweep for the first time since 2009. Another victory such as the one the Bengals pulled off at Heinz Field in September could push Pittsburgh to the fringe of playoff contention.
“These games are big. They are,” Tomlin said. “You’re not going to backdoor your way into the single-elimination tournament. You’re not going to backdoor your way into division significance. You’ve got to go on the road and win games in this division, and that’s just the reality of it.”
The previous time the Steelers won was Nov. 8 when they edged the Bears 29-27.
“You see where the AFC is, you see where the AFC North is,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “(Cincinnati) came here and beat us last time. We’re coming off a loss, they’re coming off a big win. Every game now is starting to become more and more important.”
Bengals coach Zac Taylor cautioned his team’s upset victory on the road two months ago won’t matter this time around.
“We know this is going to be a dogfight on Sunday,” Taylor said. “We know what happened the last time we played them has no bearing on this game whatsoever. Just like when they beat us up there in Pittsburgh last year, and then they came here and we won it. We put all that stuff behind us.
“To be the team we want to be consistently you have to be strong in the division,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, we want our team to feel confidence every time we walk on the field that we belong and we’re going to win the game. This division is so strong.”
The names around Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward seem to change by the week. The production and effort level from the 11-year veteran does not.
Heyward has been the lone constant on a unit that’s seen linebacker T.J. Watt, cornerback Joe Haden, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive linemen Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt limited by injuries and illness. Tuitt has yet to play this season while recovering from a knee injury, Alualu went on injured reserve in September with a fractured ankle and Watt, Haden and Fitzpatrick all sat out last week against the Chargers.
Heyward spent most of the loss to Los Angeles fighting through double teams. He only had two tackles, but one of them was at the end of a 36-yard sprint by Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, a testament to the relentlessness that’s defined his season.
“He’s been dominant for a long time,” Roethlisberger said of Heyward. “He’s a Steeler. He’s one of those guys that could’ve played in any generation.”
Pittsburgh’s 27th-ranked defense needs some help from middle linebackers Joe Schobert and Devin Bush. The inexperience around Heyward along the defensive front is allowing opposing offensive lines to take aim at the second level.
Bush and Schobert have done little to make a difference. Bush in particular has come under fire recently for sluggish play. The 10th overall pick in the 2019 draft is 13 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee and has yet to regain the explosiveness he showed as a rookie.
Tomlin is preaching patience, but allowed Bush’s play has been “spotty.”
Steelers at Bengals
Records: Pittsburgh (5-4-1); Cincinnati (6-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS
Betting opening line: Bengals by 3.5, according to FanDuel SportsBook
Against the spread: Pittsburgh 4-6; Los Angeles 5-5
Series record: Steelers lead 67-37
Last meeting: Bengals beat Steelers 24-10 on Sept. 26 in Pittsburgh
Last week: Steelers lost to Chargers 41-37; Bengals beat Raiders 32-13
Steelers offense: OVERALL (22), RUSH (27), PASS (24), SCORING (20)
Steelers defense: OVERALL (23), RUSH (26), PASS (15), SCORING (14)
Bengals offense: OVERALL (14), RUSH (22), PASS (12), SCORING (9)
Bengals defense: OVERALL (T15), RUSH (5), PASS (25), SCORING (9)
Turnover differential: Steelers minus-2; Bengals minus-3
Steelers player to watch: LB Devin Bush. Thirteen months removed from a torn ACL, the 2019 first-round pick is still searching for the explosiveness he showed prior to the injury. With so many defensive starters ailing, Bush needs to be a difference maker, something he hasn’t been for the majority of the season. If Pittsburgh’s sagging run defense is going to improve, Bush needs to be part of the solution.
Bengals player to watch: RB Joe Mixon was the key to the win over Las Vegas last week. He — and the offensive line — just kept grinding and finally wore down the Raiders. After averaging just 2.4 yards on 11 carries in the first half, he pushed it up to 6.5 on 19 carries in the second. His 30 carries were a season high. It was a gritty rebound from the two previous weeks when he rushed for 64 yards against the Browns and just 33 against the Jets as the Bengals lost both games.
Key matchup: QB Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh passing game against Bengals’ defense. Big Ben threw for 273 yards and three touchdowns as Pittsburgh put up a season-high 37 points in losing a shootout to the Los Angeles Chargers. Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth each had scoring catches. Meanwhile, the Bengals limited the Raiders to 278 yards, the second time this season they held an opponent to fewer than 300 yards in a game. Cornerback Eli Apple had a key fourth-quarter interception.
Key injuries: The Steelers are holding out hope T.J. Watt’s hip and knee are good enough to play after he sat out last week’s loss to the Chargers. The status of cornerback Joe Haden’s foot is also uncertain. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick will be back after spending a week on the COVID-19 list. Tight end Eric Ebron and guard J.C. Hassenauer are both likely out.
Series notes: The Bengals have won the last two meetings, including the blowout victory two months ago in Pittsburgh. … Prior to that the Steelers had won 11 straight dating back to 2014. That string was broken with a 27-17 upset of the playoff-bound Steelers by moribund Cincinnati last Dec. 21. … The Bengals’ longest winning streak in the series was six, from 1988-90. … The Steelers came from behind to beat Cincinnati 18-16 in the AFC wild-card game Jan. 9, 2016. … Pittsburgh is 32-20 on the road against Cincinnati. … Cincinnati is trying to sweep Pittsburgh for the first time since 2009.
— The Associated Press