Countdown: Steelers at Bengals

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Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (8-3-1)
Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014
Paul Brown Stadium
1 p.m.; CBS

SERIES HISTORY:  Steelers lead, 54-34, including 24-19 in Cincinnati. Pittsburgh has won six of the last eight encounters.   

LAST MEETING: Steelers 30, Bengals 20, Dec. 15, 2013, Heinz Field: The Steelers sprinted to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and held a 30-7 advantage entering the fourth quarter. WR Antonio Brown had a 12-yard touchdown reception and a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Steelers also benefitted from a fumbled snap by P Kevin Huber that resulted in a Pittsburgh possession that began at the Cincinnati 1-yard line and a 1-yard touchdown run by RB Le'Veon Bell.    

LAST WEEK: The Bengals survived a three-interception game from QB Andy Dalton and won at Tampa Bay, 14-13. The Buccaneers were called for having 12 men on the field in the final 30 seconds, which negated a play that had put them in position for a potential game-winning field goal. Cincinnati won a third consecutive road game over a three-week span for the first time in franchise history. The Steelers surrendered five touchdown passes to Saints QB Drew Brees in a 35-32 loss to New Orleans at home.

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WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL**: There's a good chance they'll force-feed the Steelers a heavy diet of RBs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. The pair shared 23 carries at Tampa Bay and Cincinnati's rushing attack is averaging 125.7 yards from scrimmage in the nine games they've played together. Hill (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) has two 150-yards rushing games and Bernard (5-9, 208) had an 89-yard touchdown run against Carolina.

Dalton threw three interceptions in a first half for the first time and three or more in a game for the seventh time in his career in the Buccaneers game. He has 13 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions on the season (the versions referred to often in Cincinnati as "Good Andy" and "Bad Andy" have both been on display a great deal in 2014). But perhaps his defining statistic is career ratio of red zone touchdowns to interceptions. At 21.3:1 Dalton trails only Aaron Rodgers (27.8:1) and Russell Wilson (23.5:1) in NFL history (Tom Brady is fourth at 18.2:1). Dalton is also resilient in the face of mistakes and athletic enough to carry effectively on read-option runs.

WR A.J. Green is healthy again and scoring touchdowns again after missing three games (toe), but the offensive line is in a state of flux. RT Marshall Newhouse has started three of the last four games in place of Andre Smith (now on IR), but Newhouse was replaced briefly by Clint Boling, with Mike Pollak taking over for Boling at left guard against Tampa Bay. And the Bengals signed veteran OL Eric Winston this week. LT Andrew Whitworth, OG Kevin Zeitler and Boling are playing at a high level and helping to compensate for the RT issues and the presence of rookie Russell Bodine at center. Cincinnati is tied for No. 2 in sacks allowed (15).

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WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL**: Chances are they're going to have to drive it. The Bengals play in a manner that suggests they absolutely, positively are not going to let receivers get behind them and they're not going to let the ball get over their heads. Cincinnati has more interceptions (12) than touchdown passes allowed (11) this season. Only Buffalo (15-14) can also make that claim.

Some of Cincinnati's traditional measurables are pedestrian (25th in run defense, 14th in pass defense and 21st in total defense). But the Bengals are No. 7 in red zone defense, by allowing opponents to score touchdowns 47.7 percent of the time, and No. 7 in opponents' third down conversions (37.3 percent). The run defense has been stout (71.3 yards per game) in the three games since MLB Rey Maualuga returned from an extended absence.

Cincinnati has just 15 sacks (No. 30) but is long enough and deep enough up front to cause problems. And the defensive backfield boasts pedigree (six former first-round picks) and experience. If the Bengals ever get WLB Vontaze Burfict back onto the field (out since Oct. 29), they might really be onto something on defense. The Steelers are going to have to run through some tackles and dissect some zone-blitzes to have success.

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SPECIAL-TEAMS HEADLINERS**: Bengals CB Adam Jones is No. 2 in kickoff return average (31.4) and No. 5 in punt return average (11.7). Jones' fair catch in the fourth quarter at Tampa Bay snapped a streak of 96 returns without one. Huber is second in the NFL in gross (47.5 yards per) and in net (44.1) punting average. Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis tried an onside kick after taking a 14-10 lead in the third quarter at Tampa (the Buccaneers recovered). WR Markus Wheaton's 41-yard kickoff return against the Saints was the Steelers' longest of the season.       

THE X-FACTOR: What will Sanu do? Cincinnati WR Mohamed Sanu caught passes, ran the ball as a Wildcat quarterback, and threw a pass in Tampa. His career throwing statistics are 5-for-5 for 177 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a perfect passer rating of 158.3

THEY SAID IT: "Coach Lewis likes to call it a double-chinstrap game. We know what they're going to bring." – Bengals S George Iloka on playing the Steelers.

"He already started talkin' trash, from when I told him I was going to make it up there (to Pittsburgh) to now when I'm on the team; he's still talkin' trash. But it's all good, he'll see on Sunday." – new Steelers DL Clifton Geathers on dealing with his brother, Bengals DL Robert Geathers, this week.

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