AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

One was an absolute wrecking ball on defense, consistently finding his way to the football. The other was eased into his team's offense before ultimately taking it over the second half of the season, and helping it earn a postseason berth.

But only one would be named the AFC North's Rookie of the Year.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Mosley
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesIn his rookie season, Ravens LB C.J. Mosley registered five or more tackles in every game.
That honor went to Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley, who barely edged out Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill. From the five-person voting panel, Mosley received 12 overall points to Hill's 11. Mosley also had three first-place votes to the two that went to Hill.

Out of the pair, Hill is the only one up for the NFL's Rookie of the Year award that will be announced this weekend in Arizona. He's the only AFC North representative, contending with a group made up of all offensive players. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Mike Evans and receiver Sammy Watkins also are up for the honor. No defensive player has earned the award since 2010, when Ndamukong Suh received it.

Mosley was seemingly everywhere for the Ravens this season. He had 129 tackles, the eighth-highest total for any defender in the league. He also was part of a defense that ranked eighth in the league.

In addition to the 129 tackles, Mosley also had three sacks, two interceptions and forced and recovered a fumble. The Alabama product also had 19 tackles in the Ravens' two playoff games, including 10 in the divisional-round loss to the Patriots. In a Week 5 loss at Indianapolis, he had a season-high 14 stops.

Hill became a threat for the Bengals starting in Week 9 when he rushed for a season-high 154 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-23 win against the Jaguars. It was his 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that helped ice the win, and firmly put him in his fan base's consciousness. That week, and for the two after it, Hill started in place of Giovani Bernard. The third-year running back was resting after experiencing a series of injuries following hard hits in previous games.

Also during Bernard's absence, Hill rushed for 152 yards in a homecoming game at New Orleans. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native and LSU product went on to become the Bengals' top option at running back after Bernard returned. Across the final nine weeks of the season, Hill rushed for 929 yards, more than any other back in that stretch.

In addition to their Rookie of the Year award, ESPN.com's AFC North reporters voted on four other honors for the division (Coach of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player). We've been handing out the awards daily since Monday.

Mosley finished third in the division Defensive Player of the Year voting, and Hill finished third in Offensive Player of the Year voting.

AFC North Rookie of the Year: Mosley, 12 points; Hill, 11; Joel Bitonio, 8, Cleveland; Martavis Bryant, 1, Pittsburgh.

Panel of voters: Scott Brown, Jeremy Fowler, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon.
The Pittsburgh Steelers made one of their best draft picks in franchise history in 2004 with the 11th overall pick when they selected a big, talented quarterback by the name of Ben Roethlisberger.

Might the Steelers’ need to upgrade at cornerback lead them back to Miami of Ohio?

There might not be a more intriguing prospect in the 2015 draft than Quinten Rollins, who starred four seasons for the Red Hawks and then started playing football at Miami.

In basketball, Rollins started four seasons as a point guard and finished second in school history in steals (214) and fourth in assists (391). With a year of eligibility remaining to play another sport, Rollins moved over to the football team.

And all the 6-foot, 203-pound Rollins did was intercept seven passes, third-most among FBS players, and win Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. He opened eyes at the Senior Bowl last week with a diving interception in the all-star game that is a showcase for NFL prospects.

ESPN NFL analyst Matt Williamson is a fan of Rollins and said the latter could move into the first round of the draft if he performs well in the pre-draft process.

The key, Williamson said, is Rollins running well at the NFL Scouting Combine next month, as the biggest question about him is his straight-line speed. But Williamson, a former NFL scout, loves Rollins’ quickness, athleticism and size and said he is physical enough to play free safety at the next level.

What intrigues Williamson most about Rollins is his upside, and he will be among those jockeying for position behind Michigan State’s Trae Waynes and Florida State’s P.J. Williams, who are widely considered the top two cornerbacks in the draft.

“There were times at the Senior Bowl when people ran by him, but part of that’s recognition, too, and not learning about double moves and things like that yet,” Williamson said of Rollins. “But he goes up and plays the ball really well, like you would think a basketball player would.”
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel criticized the New England Patriots' approach on Friday and did not just reserve his scorn for the AFC champions.

Keisel also took aim at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the wake of the controversy that has raised new questions about the lengths to which the Patriots will go to win.

Keisel
Keisel
"It's a damn shame what's going on right now in the league," Keisel said on WDVE Radio in Pittsburgh. "To me the one place you look is Goodell."

Goodell and the league have to sort through reports that most of the footballs supplied by the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game last Sunday were not inflated to NFL standards. The Patriots thumped the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but the shine from that victory quickly faded when New England came under scrutiny for what has been dubbed "Deflate-gate."

Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady each denied they had anything to do with what happened last Sunday at Gillette Stadium, and that the air pressure level in footballs would not have mushroomed into a national story if it was an isolated incident.

But in 2007, the Patriots were fined heavily and stripped of a first-round draft pick after Goodell ruled the team had illegally videotaped opponents.

"They are looking to win at all costs," Keisel said of the Patriots. "That's why they've been to the Super Bowl six times. There are rules and you're supposed to follow the rules, but sometimes the rules don't get followed and it's a shame."

Steelers president Art Rooney II said earlier this week that taking air out of footballs would not rise to the level of a major rules breach.

When asked if the NFL has to take a hard line if the Patriots tried to gain an advantage because of past transgressions, he said, "I think the league will have to impose some discipline if they determine what's being reported as fact. I have no idea what is reality and what is not at this point. But if it happened, it's a violation of the rules, and I'm sure the league will impose some kind of discipline."
video
PITTSBURGH -- What had been inevitable when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dick LeBeau parted ways became official Tuesday when the organization promoted longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler to defensive coordinator.

Good for Butler, who has patiently waited for his chance to run a defense.

And probably good for the Steelers, who get continuity with Butler as well as someone who brings his own ideas on how to run Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense.

The challenge facing Butler, who turned down a handful of opportunities to interview for other defensive coordinator jobs in past years, is considerable.

The iconic LeBeau casts a long shadow at Steelers headquarters. And he did some of his finest work in 2014 when he cobbled together a defense beset by injuries and not exactly overflowing with talent before some key players got hurt.

[+] EnlargeKeith Butler and Ryan Shazier
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicKeith Butler will likely lean on Ryan Shazier and other linebackers in his first season as the Steelers' defensive coordinator.
The Steelers finished 18th in both scoring (23.0 points per game allowed) and total defense (353.4 yards per game allowed), but the defense improved as the season progressed.

Butler has to build on that and will need help from young players such as linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier.

The Steelers' first-round draft picks in 2013 and 2014, respectively, have to succeed for Pittsburgh's defense to take a significant step forward next season.

The Steelers still don't know what they have in Jones, who has three career sacks and essentially lost the 2014 season when he dislocated his wrist in Pittsburgh's third game.

He has to emerge as a pass-rushing force since putting more pressure on the quarterback will be Butler's top priority -- and since Jones is the only outside linebacker on the 53-man roster who is signed for next season.

The speedy Shazier had his own injury issues this season -- the Ohio State product missed seven games with knee and ankle injuries -- but he has to become a playmaker in the middle of a defense that is in need of them.

Butler, who has to coax more out of Jones and Shazier, will give the Steelers a different dynamic as far as personality.

Whereas LeBeau was beloved by players, who didn't want to fail him because it would be like letting down their father, Butler is a straight talker with a Southern drawl who won't hesitate to be blunt with his players.

He bided his time as an NFL assistant, coaching the linebackers for four seasons in Cleveland and the past 12 in Pittsburgh.

Now it is his time for Butler to manage what LeBeau left in place with the Steelers while also putting his own imprint on the defense.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers fans still lamenting a season-ending loss to the Baltimore Ravens won't feel better about what running back Le'Veon Bell said Monday afternoon.

Bell
"I think I would have been able to play this weekend," Bell said following the Steelers' final meeting of the 2014 season. "It's unfortunate that we lost the game. I feel terrible about it."

Bell didn't play in the Steelers' 30-17 loss to the Ravens Saturday night because of a hyperextended right knee. The Steelers sorely missed the All-Pro back in both the running and passing game in their first playoff loss to the Ravens.

Bell said his injured knee feels good enough that he is planning to play in the Pro Bowl later this month. And he left little doubt he would have been a full-go Sunday had the Steelers advanced to the divisional round of the AFC playoffs and visited the Denver Broncos.

Bell set a Steelers' single-season record with 2,215 yards from scrimmage and the second-year man had 373 touches. The 6-1, 225-pounder said he is not worried about getting worn down by the Steelers running their offense through him.

"I'm a young guy. I feel like all of the training I've done prepares me for the season," Bell said. "I know next year I might not even need to play more."

As for what Bell can do for an encore next season after finishing second in the NFL with 1,361 rushing yards and leading the league in receiving yards (854) and total first downs (114), he said, "This is only my second year so I feel like I have room for improvement. There's still a lot of things I can work on and get better at. I just want to continue to try to be as productive as possible."
PITTSBURGH -- Mike Mitchell has a message for those who think the Pittsburgh Steelers are better off defensively without safety Troy Polamalu.

Polamalu
"You don't disrespect [future] Hall of Famers like that," Mitchell said. "That's just absurd."

Polamalu is expected to be healthy enough to play Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC) when a team he has tormented over the years visits Heinz Field. Polamalu has practiced both workouts this week and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said he anticipates the eight-time Pro Bowler suiting up against the visiting Baltimore Ravens in the AFC wild-card playoff.

Polamalu has missed the past two games because of a knee injury, and Will Allen has started in his place at strong safety.

The secondary has been a strength during that stretch and LeBeau acknowledged Thursday that Allen played one of his better games for the Steelers last Sunday night. The 11th-year veteran recorded seven tackles and made several key plays early in the Steelers' 27-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"There's only one Troy," LeBeau said, "but Will Allen is a very good football player. I think with both in there we have some good safeties."

What makes Mitchell, Pittsburgh's starting free safety, scoff is the notion that Polamalu is a liability on the field as the Steelers pursue a seventh Super Bowl title.

Mitchell, who is in his first season with the Steelers, said Polamalu has had a significant impact on him.

"His selflessness and his humility, that's what makes him a great football player," Mitchell said. "How can I make my teammate better? What can I do to put him in a better position? When you start thinking like that, giving more of yourself, more of your mind, more of your body you become a better player because you're thinking about something bigger than just yourself, and I think that's the one thing I've learned from Troy that's made me a better player.

"It's not about my jumping a route and getting a great interception. It's about me staying over the top and somebody else gets the interception because I took away the deep pass. That is what makes him a Hall of Famer."

Mitchell said any perception that Polamalu hurts the Steelers' defense by freelancing is way off base. He said there is a method to the perceived madness that is one of Polamalu's hallmarks.

"If you don't know him you think he's a guy making all kind of crazy plays but you talk to him and get to know him as a person and understand how he thinks you're thinking, 'Wow," " Mitchell said. "It's really mesmerizing."

When asked if Polamalu, who is 33 and in his 12th NFL season, can still play, Mitchell did not hesitate to answer.

"No question," he said. "No question."
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell said he did not have a problem with the hit that left him with a hyperextended right knee and clouded his status for Saturday's AFC wild-card playoff game.

Bell left the Steelers’ 27-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday night in the third quarter after safety Reggie Nelson hit him in the knee with his helmet after a 19-yard catch.

Bell
“It was a legal hit. It’s football,” Bell said. “It’s a dangerous sport. He got me down the way he could.”

The Steelers did not take issue with the hit after the game even though it might sideline Bell, who led the AFC with 1,361 rushing yards, for their third meeting with the Baltimore Ravens this season.

Bell had run over Nelson earlier in the game when the he tried to tackle Bell high.

“I don’t know why he did that later in the game,” Bell said of the hit that was a direct shot on his knee. “I feel like [defensive backs], a majority of them, they all go for my legs because I’m a bigger guy and they’re kind of smaller guys. To get me to the ground, they usually go for my legs.

“But a lot of times it’s different because I actually got the ball and I’m trying to run and I see them and start preparing for it. It was different this game because I didn’t see him. When I caught it, then he hit me in my legs. That was really the only difference. DBs usually go low on me all the time. There’s not anything new about it.”
PITTSBURGH – An introduction at a Pittsburgh Steelers team meeting turned into running back Ben Tate telling his new teammates that he is willing to do whatever it takes to help them win.

Tate
Tate
The Steelers signed Tate on Tuesday afternoon with Le’Veon Bell’s status for Saturday night uncertain. The fourth-year veteran was released twice this season, including last month by the Cleveland Browns after Tate groused about his diminishing role in the offense.

“He stood up in our team meeting room and said he’s just here to help us win,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “That’s [his] mindset and the attitude and we’re all for it.”

How much Tate can help the Steelers if Bell is unable to play against the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC wild-card game remains to be seen.

Roethlisberger said it is not realistic to expect too much from Tate.

“I don’t know how you could come in in a couple of days and learn a new offense,” Roethlisberger said. “I think if we can put together a specific package, a few runs here, a few passes there, I think he could help us if we need him to.”

That assessment confirms that rookie Josh Harris is in line to start at running back if Bell sits out the third meeting this season between the Ravens and Steelers.

Bell was in the Steelers’ locker room when it was open to the media Wednesday morning and the second-year man did not walk with a noticeable limp.

Bell is expected to address reporters after the Steelers' first practice of the week.

“He said he’s been feeling better and better and we’ll see how the week unfolds,” Steelers Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “I think he’s going to take the proper procedures [to play] because I know what this means to him.”
PITTSBURGH -- Strong safety Troy Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor were stalwarts on the Pittsburgh Steelers teams that played in three Super Bowls from 2005-10 and won two of them.

The two may be spectators Saturday night when the Steelers ratchet up their pursuit of another Super Bowl title.

Taylor has missed the last three games because of forearm and shoulder injuries while Polamalu has not played the last two weeks because of a knee injury, and there is no indication that either will return Saturday night for the Steelers' AFC wild-card playoff game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens.

[+] EnlargeTroy Polamalu
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsTroy Polamalu has missed the last two weeks because of a knee injury, and may also miss Saturday's wild-card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Coach Mike Tomlin said the two will be monitored this week but he has generally been vague about the status of Polamalu and Taylor for the last couple of weeks.

Asked on Tuesday whether Polamalu will play if he is medically cleared, Tomlin said, “The decisions are complex and they’re not going to boil down to just simply medical clearance. We’re too far on the journey for that to be the case. There are complexities to these things and we’re going to deal with them on a case-by-case basis at the appropriate time. The number one element of discussion is the overall health of the individual.”

The Steelers’ secondary is coming off one of its best games of the season. It accounted for all three of Pittsburgh’s turnovers last Sunday night. Cornerback Antwon Blake and safety Will Allen would probably be relegated to special-teams duty if Polamalu and Taylor return to the starting lineup.

Blake has emerged in the absence of Taylor -- the former undrafted free agent has played nickel back with Brice McCain starting for Taylor -- and his forced fumble and fumble recovery last Sunday night proved to be crucial in the Steelers’ 27-17 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Steelers have not allowed big passing plays in the last three weeks, something that had plagued them earlier.

The Bengals’ longest pass play was a 19-yard catch by H-back Ryan Hewitt. The previous week Chiefs wide receiver Albert Wilson registered a 33-yard reception but most of those yards came on the run after the catch.

“These guys have been on the [cusp] for a number of months and really they’re just getting solid,” Tomlin said of the Steelers’ defensive backs. “They’re minimizing big plays and they’re making plays of their own. I just think big picture wise they’ve had an upper trajectory over the larger part of the season. From time to time an incident or two happens that doesn’t allow you to see it or makes it convenient not to see it.”
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are meeting with Ben Tate on Tuesday and are expected to sign the veteran running back, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Tate
Tate
The Steelers had no interest in Tate in November after they released LeGarrette Blount because they had already committed to playing Le'Veon Bell almost every snap -- and because Tate had just been released by the Cleveland Browns because of unhappiness with his playing time.

Bell's status is a Primanti Brothers sandwich-sized question mark after the AFC's leading rusher hyperextended his knee Sunday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.

That is why Tate is in Pittsburgh and probably relocating here, if only temporarily. How much Tate can help the Steelers -- if they sign him -- remains to be seen.

Bell
The fourth-year veteran has less than a week to learn the offense and will get all of three practices with his new teammates if the Steelers sign Tate.

The 5-foot-10, 220-pounder does have 2,363 career rushing yards -- 2,307 more than the two current running backs on the Steelers' 53-man roster not named Bell -- and he scored a pair of touchdowns in Cleveland's 31-10 win over Pittsburgh in October.

Tate had most recently been with the Minnesota Vikings, and the fifth-year player can at least provide a veteran presence in the backfield if Bell is unable to play Saturday night against the visiting Baltimore Ravens.

Even if Bell is able to play in Saturday's prime-time AFC wild-card game -- and that is a big if for reasons ranging from pain tolerance to possible long-term risks of bringing the second-year man back so soon from a knee injury -- the Steelers will have to manage Bell's snaps.

If the Steelers hold Bell out of their third meeting this season with the Ravens, Josh Harris figures to get the majority of the carries.

The 5-11, 210-pounder opened eyes Sunday night when he ripped off a 59-yard run against the Bengals after Bell got hurt. A holding penalty wiped out the big run, but it proved to be a significant play, as Harris pointed out after the Steelers' 27-17 win against the Bengals.

"That's on tape," said Harris, who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted rookie in late July. "[The coaches] see that, 'OK, we can put him in and he can do things like that.'"

Both Harris and Dri Archer, a third-round pick who has played sparingly, said they are confident they can get the job done at running back if Bell is unable to play Saturday.

"I've had the privilege to sit behind a back who is one of the best backs in this league," said Harris, who has rushed for 16 yards on nine carries. "I know how hard I work, and being able to sit behind a guy who also works hard and see how he does things will also help me out."
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the AFC North title Sunday night, feel like they are back where they belong.

That means where they pick in the 2015 NFL draft will be determined by how far of a run they make in the postseason.

The Steelers won't pick in the top 20 after making the 17th and the 15th selections, respectively, in the last two drafts. The first 20 picks of the draft have been set based on the teams that did not qualify for the playoffs.

Steelers fans have been screaming for Pittsburgh to address the cornerback position with its first pick for years. This may be the year the Steelers take a cornerback with their first-round pick since they selected Maryland's Chad Scott in the 1997 draft. The Steelers have neglected the position for too long and they may be able to get one of the top cornerbacks in the draft late in the first round given the lack of top-end talent at the position.

Not that is a given that the Steelers go cornerback with their first pick. They are thin at outside linebacker and a pass rusher will tempt them as much as a cornerback. And general manager Kevin Colbert has maintained that the Steelers won't reach to fill a postition of need.
PITTSBURGH – There is a good chance the Pittsburgh Steelers will go into their AFC wild-card game Saturday night with rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer as their running backs and fullback Will Johnson, who has played more as a tight end this season, also available for duty.

Bell
Not that I would bet against Le'Veon Bell to play against the Baltimore Ravens.

The AFC’s leading rusher takes an incredible amount of pride in his durability -- Bell has played in 29 consecutive games -- and had never been hurt, in high school or college, before missing the first three games of his rookie season because of a mid-foot sprain.

The second-year man will do everything he can to play against the Ravens, which means the Steelers might have to protect Bell from himself.

Even if Bell doesn’t risk more serious injury to his right knee by playing against the Ravens, it makes little sense for the Steelers to play the freshly-minted Pro Bowl running back -- in what promises to be a hard-hitting game -- if it only further weakens him.

Winning a division title as well as game in the playoffs is fine for most franchises. It is not for one that has won six Lombardi Trophies, which is why the Steelers have to take a bigger-picture approach to Bell's injury.

They can’t make a legitimate run at a Super Bowl title without a healthy Bell, so why not rest him for a week and put the ball in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s hands?

Roethlisberger strafed the Ravens’ secondary for 340 passing yards and six touchdowns the most recent time the AFC North rivals played at Heinz Field. The Ravens allowed 249 passing yards per game in the regular season, and no team has had an answer for Antonio Brown, who has had one of the finest seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history.

Roethlisberger-to-Brown in front of a charged home crowd, with a defense that has made significant improvement in the second half of the season? It might not be that simple, as far as the Steelers advancing past the wild-card round for the first time since 2010.

But the Steelers have to be tempted to try that formula and bring Bell back the following week, if they beat the Ravens, in Denver.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not say much about the stomach virus that prevented him from warming up before a 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

And the 11th-year veteran flat-out ignored a question of how close he came to not playing Sunday night.

Roethlisberger
But several of his teammates attested that Roethlisberger had more than just a touch of the flu after getting sick on Sunday.

“I appreciate him because a lot of guys would have sat down in that situation,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “Tough dude. He didn’t bat an eye. Shocking that he played his butt off.”

Roethlisberger shook off the virus to throw for 317 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He achieved a slew of milestones in leading the Steelers to their fifth AFC North title since he became the starting quarterback in 2004. Among them:
  • Roethlisberger shared the NFL passing title with New Orleans’ Drew Brees (4,952 yards), becoming the first quarterback in Steelers history to accomplish that feat.
  • Roethlisberger became the 18th player in NFL history with at least 250 passing touchdowns after a 21-yard catch and run for a score by rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.
  • Roethlisberger established franchise records for yards, completions (408), completion percentage (67.1) and 300-yard games (nine) in a season.

His performance against the Bengals won’t go down as one of Roethlisberger’s best games this season. But that is how high the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has set the bar, and when you factor in the circumstances…

“He’s a true soldier to fight through that,” Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey said.

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victories in their final four regular-season games. It is the first time they Steelers have done that since 2005, when they won four more games in the postseason to capture the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.

“Hopefully the journey’s not over,” Roethlisberger said when asked if he has been on a team that has made the strides that the Steelers have following an uneven 3-3 start. “I think that we are getting better, and that was always the goal. We said that we have to get hot at the right time. I don’t think we’re hot, but we’re playing pretty good football and we just have to keep getting better.”

Bengals vs. Steelers preview

December, 26, 2014
12/26/14
8:00
AM ET
When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: NBC

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have each clinched postseason berths, but that won't prevent their Sunday night showdown from having a playoff feel to it. That is because the stakes are significant if not borderline enormous when the teams meet for the AFC North title. The winner will secure a No. 3 seed -- possibly a No. 2 seed in the case of the Bengals -- and assure themselves of a home game in the playoffs. The loser has to negotiate the wild-card route in the playoffs, which will only make it that much harder to win the AFC title.

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game.

Brown: Coley, is it to too simplistic to say that the outcome of this game will come down to how quarterback Andy Dalton plays in a second consecutive prime-time game? All this guy has done is take the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons yet he still battles the perception that Cincinnati wins in spite of him.

Harvey: I think it is probably too simplistic to say that, Scott. Now, will Dalton have a meaningful impact on the outcome of Sunday night’s game? Absolutely. He is, after all, the quarterback of the team. But something we’ve seen in the past two weeks in particular is that the Bengals can win in spite of, not because of him. Dalton had a relatively poor game at Cleveland two weeks ago when he notched a 27.3 QBR in a 117-yard passing performance that happened to come in a 30-0 win. Cincinnati’s swarming defense hounded Johnny Manziel throughout his first career start, and Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill’s 148-yard, two-touchdown day sparked the team’s 244-yard overall rushing performance. Similarly, Monday night against Denver, Dalton wasn’t very impressive, turning in a 29.0 QBR. Although his four high targets to A.J. Green, including one that resulted in an interception, weren’t very pretty, Dalton actually played a fairly clean game otherwise. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made it clear that he wasn’t going to put the game on Dalton’s shoulders, and again, the Bengals came through with a win. With all of this said, though, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Dalton very nearly played a big role in a potential Bengals win over the Steelers three weeks ago. His two-touchdown, no-interception, 302-yard, 93.8-QBR performance almost was enough. Had it not been for a fumble on a handoff from Dalton to Hill at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bengals might have won. Instead, Pittsburgh rattled off 25 unanswered points on a defense that couldn’t stop it.

Simple question for me to start off, Scott. What is the mood in Pittsburgh right now? There’s been a buzz in Cincinnati since Monday night’s win. Is this what’s supposed to happen after a team wins in prime time? It’s a new experience around here, and the Bengals still like their chances Sunday given how competitive they were for three quarters against the Steelers three weeks ago.

Brown: Business as usual, Coley. At least that is what the players are saying. I think it is human nature for the Steelers to let up just a bit after saying they have been in playoff mode since the beginning of the month and then clinching a postseason berth last Sunday. We will see how coach Mike Tomlin and the veterans in that locker room are able to keep the young players focused, and certainly the Steelers know that there is a huge difference between winning the AFC North and entering the playoffs as a wild-card team. Steelers fans are excited about Pittsburgh returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but I’m not sure they know what to make of this team. Steelers fans are used to rugged, hard-hitting defense defining their favorite team, but if Pittsburgh is going to make a lengthy postseason run the offense is going to have to lead the way.

Le'Veon Bell ran wild against the Bengals earlier this month, but he has been held to 110 rushing yards in the Steelers’ past two games. Do you expect the Bengals to load the box to stop Bell as the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs did? Or will the Bengals show a bunch of different looks as they did against the Broncos to try to confuse Ben Roethlisberger and keep the Steelers’ offense from getting into a rhythm?

Harvey: I’d expect the Bengals to do whatever they need to in order to stop Bell. The priority for the Bengals in the two games since Bell gashed them for 185 yards has been to shut down the run first. Granted, a lot of Bell’s yards came late, but the Bengals’ thought process has been that if they can get to ball carriers early with hard hits, they can turn opposing offenses one-dimensional. Teams are then forced to pass, which might not necessarily be a bad thing for Roethlisberger. One thing to note: The weather is expected to be a factor Sunday, with snow and/or rain in the long-range forecast. If any precipitation comes, you know both teams are going to want to keep the ball on the ground, meaning the seven- and eight-in-the-box scheme might be one Cincinnati employs. As much as the disguised coverages and different looks worked against Denver on Monday, they might not be necessary against Roethlisberger. Besides, the Bengals don’t believe rhythm is an issue for him. They’re more focused on Big Ben’s ability to scramble and extend plays, completing passes in those seemingly broken, out-of-sync moments.

Obviously Bell was the big difference-maker in the last meeting, including more than 100 yards in the fourth quarter. But what gives the Steelers confidence their offense still will be OK if he does get shut down as he has been the past few weeks? I know Roethlisberger will play the biggest role in that, but I guess I’m asking do the Steelers need a good rushing attack to thrive?

Brown: The Steelers have scored just 47 points in two games since their 42-point outburst against the Bengals. Take away cornerback William Gay’s third pick-six this season against the Atlanta Falcons and the Steelers have managed just four offensive touchdowns in their past two games. Is it a coincidence that Bell has rushed for just 110 yards in those two games combined? Probably not, and the Steelers need to get their team MVP going again. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, however, has too much of a defensive background to let Bell beat the Bengals again after he trampled them for 185 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and three touchdowns, so I expect Cincinnati to crowd the line of scrimmage and show Roethlisberger some different looks to get him to check into running plays. Roethlisberger said he expects the Bengals to try to disguise things and confuse him, as they did with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. The hope for the Steelers, Roethlisberger said, is that they play well enough to force the Bengals to adjust to what they are doing, not the other way around.

How is the Jeremy Hill-Giovani Bernard dynamic working at running back? The Bengals look like they have two really good backs, and I’m wondering if both are happy sharing carries. How do you expect the Bengals to use them Sunday night?

Harvey: Scott, it has worked tremendously well since Jackson told the two coming out of the Steelers' loss that he wanted Hill to take on the starting, feature back role. Jackson’s preference all along has been to have one primary rusher, with another as a complement. It didn’t work out that way earlier this year. The two-man routine that had been employed just simply wasn’t as effective as he had hoped. I’ll say this. I’m sure deep down Bernard isn’t too pleased with having to take a backseat after being a rising star as a rookie himself just a year ago, but he isn’t showing that he’s upset. He’s saying all the right things about the new backfield breakdown, and he’s still viewed as a happy, contributing member of the locker room. On the field, it has been a benefit for the Bengals. Hill now has a defined role and is shining in it. Bernard still is effective in the short passing game and as a runner who can be used in space. The two will be used in this same capacity Sunday night, with Hill continuing to serve as the bell-cow back who also can rip off runs like his 85-yard rumble Monday.

It’s the time of year when players are banged and bruised and playing through pain. I know Pittsburgh had a few injuries in the secondary last weekend. How healthy are the Steelers on the back end entering this game? I ask in part because the Bengals’ A.J. Green is nursing a bruised biceps and could be iffy. If he plays, that might be an advantage for Ike Taylor.

Brown: I’m not sure Taylor or strong safety Troy Polamalu plays Sunday night. Coach Mike Tomlin has opted for healthy players over more pedigreed ones during the stretch run and that might not bode well for Taylor or Polamalu suiting up against the Bengals. Will Allen has been solid at strong safety and the return of Taylor would relegate Antwon Blake, who has made some big plays as a nickel back, to special teams. Whoever plays in the defensive backfield Sunday night will make containing Green a top priority. Blake told me earlier this week that the Steelers defensive backs have to keep Green in front of them -- something they did not do earlier this month in Cincinnati. The Steelers also have to do a better job of tackling the catch. That is critical in Dick LeBeau’s scheme and is one of the areas in which the defense struggled at times in the Steelers’ 20-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday.

SPONSORED HEADLINES