By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Heinz Field, with first place in the AFC North on the line:
STEELERS WRs HINES WARD AND SANTONIO HOLMES VS. BENGALS CBs LEON HALL AND JOHNATHAN JOSEPH: When the subject of shutdown cornerback tandems comes up, not too many people might be thinking about the Bengals, but based on the play of Hall and Joseph this season, that should begin to change. Hall (5-foot-11, 199 pounds) and Joseph (5-11, 193) have been playing press coverage, and they have been playing it very well. Against the Ravens last weekend, Hall and Joseph lined up against Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, and they effectively took the Baltimore wide receivers out of the game. Mason caught three passes for 31 yards, and Clayton had one catch for 15, and those totals were so low because Hall and Joseph jammed them at the line of scrimmage and refused to allow them to gain any separation. As a result, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco completed only 18-of-32 for 195 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Going into this weekend, Hines Ward is tied with Randy Moss for seventh in the NFL with 49 catches, and Santonio Holmes is averaging 16.4 yards per catch. The fact Holmes was held to one catch for 18 yards in the first meeting should provide him with some extra incentive.
STEELERS RUN DEFENSE VS. BENGALS RB CEDRIC BENSON: The goal of every defense is to make the opposing offense one-dimensional, and that has become more difficult to do vs. the Bengals because of the emergence of Cedric Benson. Signed by the Bengals last season in something of a last-chance situation, Benson has been one of the most productive running backs throughout this entire NFL season. He comes into Sunday's game with 837 yards rushing and a 4.2 average, and nothing on his resume is more impressive than the two 100-yard games he posted vs. the Ravens this season. But the Steelers long have been a tough defense against the run, and Marvin Lewis, who was the linebackers coach under Bill Cowher before moving on to the Ravens and then the Bengals, has an understanding of why. "It's a fundamental discipline that has been taught for years and years," said Lewis. "When a new guy comes in and is plugged in he understands the scheme because the other 10 guys around him already know. If you are going to play there you have to be able to tackle, you have to be a secondary who can tackle and will tackle and it is empowered to the whole unit. Obviously the constant has been Dick (LeBeau) and he has been there from the time I started there in 1992. They understand it and that's why it is the way it is." The Steelers have not allowed a back to go for 100 in 26 consecutive regular season games.
STEELERS RB RASHARD MENDENHALL VS. BENGALS OLB REY MAUALUGA: Mendenhall didn't play on offense in the game in Cincinnati because Coach Mike Tomlin determined his second-year back wasn't "on the details." But since then, Mendenhall has been one of the more productive backs in the AFC, and he posted his second 100-yard game of the season, and of his career, last Monday night in Denver. Like Mendenhall, Maualuga didn't open the season as a starter, but he is now, and he is fourth on the team in tackles. The Bengals play their linebackers as strong side and weak side, and so Maualuga will be lined up over the tight end for most of the afternoon. If either Cedric Benson or Mendenhall has a big day running the ball, he figures to be on the winning team.
STEELERS WR MIKE WALLACE VS. BENGALS WR ANDRE CALDWELL: Not a matchup in the traditional sense of one pairing players who actually compete against each other, this one is more about which of these guys will have more of an impact for his team. In the first meeting, Wallace caught seven passes for 102 yards – his first 100-yard game in the NFL – and Caldwell had six catches for 52 yards, including the game-winning touchdown in the final 14 seconds. Both Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer are capable of surveying the field and finding the open receiver, and so these guys could find themselves in the mix a lot of the time, because there expects to be a lot of attention paid to Ward and Holmes, and also to Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles. "I think (defenses are) still committed to taking away Hines on third down, and not letting Santonio get over the top," said Tomlin. "(Wallace is) still earning his stripes, his reputation doesn't precede him in that regard. He's got some Super Bowl MVPs that he plays with, he's got a rock-solid veteran tight end that he plays with. I'd imagine that he's down the to-do list for a lot of people when they play us, but he is making plays when given the opportunity." Based on what each of these guys did in the first meeting, they both may have moved up on those to-do lists.