AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
ATLANTA -- Here are the marks after the Pittsburgh Steelers improved to 9-5 with a 27-20 win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger showed sublime patience for the second week in a row, taking what the defense gave the Steelers. He didn't miss many throws even with the Falcons blitzing early and often. Roethlisberger again threw for well over 300 yards while completing just over 77 percent of his passes. Grade: A

Running backs: The Falcons held Le'Veon Bell to 47 yards -- his second-lowest total this season -- and just 2.4 yards per carry. The Falcons were determined to shut down the run and left very few openings for Bell. He did score a 13-yard touchdown on the Steelers' favorite running play, following blocks by pulling right guard David DeCastro and Will Johnson, who had lined up as a tight end, into the end zone. Grade: C

Receivers: Antonio Brown caught all 10 passes thrown his way and finished with 123 receiving yards. The two-time Pro Bowler showed tremendous footwork in making a 28-yard sideline grab near the end of the first half, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Bell. Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller each made timely grabs and Bell chipped in 72 receiving yards. Grade: A-

Offensive line: The Steelers did not get enough of a push against a defense that had been allowing just under 123 rushing yards per game. But the Steelers ran the ball when they had to and the line allowed just one sack in a noisy stadium and against a defense that blitzed Roethlisberger on 40 percent of his throws. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Steelers allowed 4.9 yards per carry and did not get enough of an inside rush when they played their nickel package. Defensive end Cameron Heyward had one of the Steelers' four quarterback hits, but Ryan had too much time to throw and was not sacked in a game for the first time this season. Grade: C

Linebackers: Vince Williams and Sean Spence continued to play ahead of rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier at weakside inside linebacker and they showed why at the Georgia Dome. The two combined for 10 tackles, and Williams made the biggest stop of the game when he buried Harry Douglas after a third-down catch in the fourth quarter, 2 yards short of the first-down marker. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds got robbed of what could have been a game-changing sack in the second quarter. Grade: B

Defensive backs: William Gay starred for the defense, returning a pick 52 yards for a touchdown and setting a franchise record with his third interception return for a score in a season. Gay also broke up two passes but it was a pretty rough day for the rest of the Steelers' cornerbacks, especially nickel back Antwon Blake. The Steelers did not get enough out of their safeties as neither Troy Polamalu nor Mike Mitchell broke up a pass. Gay's big day saves the grade here. Grade: C

Special teams: Shaun Suisham made both of his field goal attempts. Brad Wing averaged 43.0 yards per punt and dropped two of his three kicks inside the 20-yard line. Antonio Brown returned a punt 31 yards and Markus Wheaton averaged 25.0 yards on both of his kickoff returns. Take away a 43-yard kickoff return by Devin Hester -- and that was erased by Gay's interception -- and the Falcons' return man did very little. The Steelers would take a performance like this one from their special teams every week. Grade: B+

Coaching: The Steelers handled the Falcons' blitz and stuck with the run enough to make the passing game effective from start to finish. The defensive statistics weren't pretty but the Steelers consistently made stops and twice forced field goals. The Steelers did not play to lose at the end of the game and Mike Tomlin won a key challenge. Grade: A-
ATLANTA -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 27th and final completion in a second consecutive impressive performance -- and in December, no less -- may have been one of his easier ones Sunday.

It came right after the two-minute warning of a game in which the Steelers had controlled but also let the Falcons hang around until the end. With the Steelers facing a third-and-one from the Falcons' 39-yard line, Roethlisberger faked a handoff to running back Le'Veon Bell and rolled to his right.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger didn't throw for a single TD pass against Atlanta, but as long as Pittsburgh won the game, he says he's fine with that stat.
The Falcons had gone all in on stopping the run, allowing Heath Miller to slip into the secondary. Roethlisberger hit the veteran tight end in stride for the catch that allowed the Steelers to run out the rest of the clock in a 27-20 win at the Georgia Dome.

The play covered 25 yards, but it was worth much more than that, even if it did give the Steelers a game-preserving first down, because of what preceded it.

At the two-minute warning with the Steelers needing to make one more play, Roethlisberger chatted with Todd Haley on the sidelines. The Steelers' offensive coordinator gave the veteran quarterback his choice of two plays and Roethlisberger opted for the one that closed out the Falcons.

That Haley did not insist on a run with the Steelers needing only a yard for a game-clinching first down or try to talk Roethlisberger into handing off to Bell shows how good of a good place the strong-willed offensive coordinator and equally strong-willed quarterback are right now.

The dynamic Bell has a knack for many things, especially showing both patience and power behind his underrated offensive line to get a yard seemingly whenever the Steelers need one.

Twice earlier in the game the Steelers had given the ball to Bell on third-and-one. Those plays netted a touchdown and a first down.

But Haley trusted his quarterback -- just as he had done the previous week in Cincinnati after calling for a deep pass with the Steelers backed up on their own 6-yard line in the fourth quarter of a close game.

Roethlisberger's 94-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant broke open the Bengals game. His 25-yard pass to Miller kept the ball away from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who overcame a slow start to throw for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"We anticipated them to really try to stop the run on third down and we had a good play," Roethlisberger said of his final completion of the game, "and I got outside of the pocket. I figured worse-case scenario I'd just go down and use up clock."

He didn't need to slide or curl up in the fetal position after Bell's presence allowed Miller a free run in the Falcons' secondary. And Roethlisberger made Atlanta's defense pay one final time for its aggressiveness, something he had done all afternoon.

The Falcons blitzed Roethlisberger on more than a third of his pass attempts. He responded by completing 12 of 14 passes for 191 yards on plays in which the Falcons rushed him with at least five players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helped Roethlisberger that he has so many options as far as spreading the ball around.

"Antonio Brown gets a lot of recognition. Le'Veon Bell gets a lot of recognition, but those guys are able to do what they do because when other guys are called upon they deliver," Coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 9-5. "We have a nice group of complementary guys that don't get a lot of volume in terms of opportunity but when they get the opportunity they deliver."

What also bodes well for the Steelers in their final two games is Haley and Roethlisberger operating on the same wavelength and both operating at a high level.

And then there is this: Roethlisberger could not have cared less that a big statistical game -- he completed 77.1 percent of his passes for 360 yards -- did not add any touchdown passes to his season total.

"That's what's special about this team," Roethlisberger said. "I don't care about stats. All I want to do is win a football game. I'm sure Le'Veon doesn't care if he gets 100 yards or not. [Antonio Brown] no touchdowns? Doesn't matter. We just want to win football games and by any means necessary."
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:
  • The Steelers’ final road game of the regular season seemed like a home contest at times -- and the players and coaches noticed. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Steeler Nation,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 9-5. “They were special in the building today. We are used to seeing it, but it never gets old. Terrible Towel-waving fans were noticeably loud -- whether Steelers players were trotting onto the field for pregame warm-ups or the Steelers were making a big play on offense or defense. Steelers fans were loud enough that some of the Falcons players were asked if they felt like they had a home-field advantage Sunday. “I know that Pittsburgh fans travel well since I am from Philadelphia and I know that Philly fans travel well, too,” Falcons cornerback Robert McClain said. “The fans were there for us. We did not execute.”
  • Worilds
    The Steelers were generally tight-lipped about a penalty that went against outside linebacker Jason Worilds and helped the Falcons get back into the game. With the Steelers leading 13-0 in the second quarter, Worilds sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for an 11-yard loss. The play was wiped out, however, after Worilds was called for roughing the passer, even though it appeared to be a legal hit. Three plays later, Ryan threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester. Worilds declined to answer questions about the call after the game. So did Tomlin. “I’m not going to talk about that call because it was horrendous,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. The Falcons weren’t entirely happy with the officiating, either. A questionable holding call on Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant with just over three minutes left in the game saved the Steelers from punting. And the Steelers were able to run out the rest of the clock. “You guys question a number of things. We have the same thing about the game as well, and officiating is one [part] of it,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after his team fell to 5-9. “Unfortunately that’s not anything that we can talk about as the head coach in the National Football League.”
  • Several Steelers sustained minor injuries during the game, including inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (back), strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and free safety Mike Mitchell (groin). All, however, returned to the game. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed his third consecutive game despite practicing every day last week. Gilbert, who is working through ankle and knee injuries, had been listed as probable on the Steelers’ final injury report of last week. Tomlin said Gilbert did not have a setback Saturday that caused him to miss the Falcons game but that, “We’ve got to go with the most healthy bodies.”

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Steelers finally took care of business against an NFC South team, and at just the right time, as their first victory in Atlanta since 1996 kept them in control of their own destiny in the AFC North. If the Steelers (9-5) win their final two games -- and both are at Heinz Field -- they will win their division and receive no worse than a No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Steelers, as they usually do against teams with losing records, made it more interesting than it needed to be after opening up leads of 13 and then 14 points. But the defense made enough stops and put a touchdown on the scoreboard. The Steelers were also able to win even though the Falcons held Le’Veon Bell to 47 yards on 20 carries.

Stock watch: Bell didn't find a whole lot of running room against a defense that had given up more total yards than any in the NFL. The second-year running back did rush for a pair of touchdowns against a Falcons defense that was determined not to let him beat them. Bell also caught five passes for 72 yards.

Flagging a bad flag: Jason Worilds -- and the Steelers by extension -- got jobbed by a roughing-the-passer call in the second quarter. Worilds obliterated Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for what would have been the outside linebacker’s third sack of the season. But the jarring hit that left Ryan temporarily woozy drew a flag, even though Worilds did not hit the seventh-year veteran in the helmet or below the knees. The impact of the hit caused Ryan’s head to snap back and the penalty forced the Steelers’ defense to stay on the field. The Falcons were given a first down at the Steelers’ 21-yard line instead of facing a third-and-22 on their own 46. Three plays later, Ryan threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester to cut the Steelers’ lead to 13-7.

Quite a hat trick: William Gay set a Steelers record when he returned a third interception for a touchdown this season. Gay again lived up to the “Big-play Willie Gay” moniker, jumping a deep in-route on the first play of the second quarter and weaving his way 38 yards for a touchdown. Gay’s score gave the Steelers a 13-0 lead, and it came after the Steelers had to settle for a pair of field goals despite dominating the first quarter. Gay previously returned interceptions for touchdowns this season in victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans.

Game ball: Roethlisberger picked up where he left off last week in Cincinnati, playing another magnificent game on the road. Roethlisberger completed 27 of 35 passes for 360 yards and he did not throw an interception for the second consecutive game. Roethlisberger controlled the game from the outset and his 25-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller on third-and-1 with less than two minutes left in the game sealed the Steelers' win.

What’s next: The Steelers play their last two regular-season games at home, starting next Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. They close the regular season Dec. 28 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers will likely be without cornerback Ike Taylor on Sunday when they visit the Atlanta Falcons.

Taylor did not practice all week because of shoulder and forearm injuries and the 12th-year veteran is listed as doubtful for the 1 p.m. ET game Sunday on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week.

Outside linebacker James Harrison is listed as questionable after he practiced on a limited basis Friday for the second consecutive day. Harrison did not play last Sunday in Cincinnati because of a knee injury.

All of the Steelers’ players on the injury report are listed as probable for Sunday, including right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The fourth-year veteran practiced all week after missing the last two games because of ankle and knee injuries.

Gilbert will start at right tackle Sunday, barring a setback.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, who hurt his hip last Monday night in Green Bay, is listed as questionable. The status of Jones, who had 259 receiving yards and a touchdown before leaving the game against the Packers on Monday, will be a game-time decision.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor did not practice for the second day in a row, adding more questions to his availability for Sunday.

Taylor did not play in the fourth quarter last Sunday in Cincinnati because of a knee contusion. He is questionable to play against the Atlanta Falcons because of shoulder and forearm injuries.

If Taylor does not play against the Falcons, William Gay and Brice McCain will start at cornerback, with Antwon Blake serving as the Steelers’ nickel back.

Gay practiced Thursday after missing drills Wednesday because of a quadriceps injury. Outside linebacker James Harrison, who did not play against the Bengals because of a knee injury, practiced on a limited basis.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert practiced for the second day in a row, keeping the fourth-year veteran on track to play Sunday in Atlanta. Gilbert has missed the last two games because of ankle and knee injuries.

Center Maurkice Pouncey surfaced on the Steelers’ injury report as he was limited in drills because of an ankle injury.

In other Steelers news, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell were voted the NFL FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Week, respectively.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert practiced Wednesday, putting the fourth-year veteran on track to play Sunday in Atlanta.

Gilbert, who has missed the past two games because of ankle and knee injuries, was a full participant in drills a day after coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers need to see how well he moves in practice before deciding on his availability for Sunday.

A handful of Steelers players did not practice because of injuries Wednesday, including outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) and cornerbacks Ike Taylor (shoulder, forearm) and William Gay (quadricep).

Tomlin did not mention Gay Tuesday when he gave a Steelers' injury report. Gay's health is worth monitoring for several reasons. He is the Steelers' best cornerback and Taylor is questionable to play Sunday against the Falcons.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller and defensive end Cameron Heyward were all given veteran's days off as far as practice.
PITTSBURGH – Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones did not participate in a walk through Wednesday but coach Mike Smith sounds optimistic that Jones will play Sunday against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.

Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown on Monday night in a 43-37 loss at Green Bay. The fourth-year receiver did not finish the game after hurting his hip in the fourth quarter.

“He’s made a good turnaround [and] we’re not even 48 hours from the end of the game,” Smith said during on a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters. “We anticipate that he’ll continue to progress as the week goes on. We all know when you have your best players you have a better opportunity to go out and compete, and we’re certainly hoping that the turnaround continues and that we will have [Jones] on Sunday. Julio is one of the most competitive guys that I’ve ever been around.”

Jones supplanted the Steelers' Antonio Brown as the NFL leader in receiving yards despite missing the end of the Packers game.

The 6-3, 220-pound Jones has 1,428 receiving yards – Brown is second in the league with 1,375 yards – and to say that Steelers could be a favorable matchup for Jones is an understatement.

The Steelers gave given up four passing plays that have covered at least 67 yards in their last four games and they are allowing 248 passing yards per game.

The Steelers allowed 224 receiving yards to Cincinnati’s A.J. Green last Sunday and Jones is as much of a matchup problem as Green.

“He’s got the physical skill set that you want to see,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of his top target. “He’s as big as anybody, he’s explosive, he’s got great top-end speed, he comes in and out of his cuts really well and he’s really versatile. We can move him all over. He can play outside. We can move him into the slot and he excels there.”
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell accomplished another first in what has been a breakout season for the second-year player.

Bell won AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 185 yards and scoring two touchdowns in the Steelers’ 42-21 win at Cincinnati. Bell also caught six passes for 50 yards and a score.

It is the first time Bell has won the award and the first time a Steelers running back has won the award since Rashard Mendenhall in 2011.

Bell, who is a lock to make his first Pro Bowl, is second in the NFL with 1,231 rushing yards. His 1,924 yards from scrimmage trails only Dallas’ DeMarco Murray (1,998).

Bell has the most yards from scrimmage (3,183) of any NFL player since the fourth week of last season.

The 2013 second-round draft pick missed the first three games of his rookie season because of a mid-foot sprain.
PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 42-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.

What it means: The Steelers improved their position in the AFC North immeasurably by winning a shootout and improving to 8-5 while dropping the Bengals to 8-4-1. The offense overcame a slow start to overwhelm the Bengals on their own turf as Cincinnati could not stop Pittsburgh’s balanced attack. Running back Le'Veon Bell rushed for 185 yards and scored three touchdowns and Ben Roethlisberger picked the Bengals apart after throwing for just 19 yards in the first quarter. Now comes the hard part for the Steelers after their most impressive road win of the season: Not falling on their faces next week when they have to go on the road to play a team with a losing record.

Stock watch: You had a feeling Roethlisberger was due to break out after three consecutive outings in which he was pedestrian or worse. The Bengals had the unfortunate timing of facing Roethlisberger after a bit of a slump and he again tormented his home-state team. Roethlisberger completed 25 of 39 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns to improve to 10-2 lifetime against the Bengals. Roethlisberger's 94-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant in the fourth quarter gave Pittsburgh a 35-21 lead, and the Steelers never looked back.

Ain’t easy covering Green: Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, who had been relatively quiet against the Steelers prior to Sunday, needed just one half to go over the 100-yard receiving mark. The three-time Pro Bowler finished with 11 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown and tripled his career average of 63.2 receiving yards per game against the Steelers. Green made a big catch after the Steelers had taken a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter, hauling in a 56-yard pass in front of strong safety Troy Polamalu. The Bengals caught the Steelers in a less-than-ideal coverage and Polamalu did not get help from free safety Mike Mitchell in time. He badly beat veteran cornerback Ike Taylor for an 81-yard touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Taylor did not play the rest of the game and it was announced that he had left the contest because of shoulder and knee injuries.

Game ball: Bell continues to play at a ridiculously high level and he joined elite company while trampling the Bengals. Bell piled up 235 rushing and receiving yards and he joined the late, great Walter Payton as the only players in NFL history to record at least 200 all-purpose yards in three straight games. Roethlisberger could have been the pick here, too, but it is too tough to overlook Bell after he was the Steelers’ best player for the third game in a row.

What’s next: The Steelers play their final road game next Sunday when they visit the Falcons for a 1 p.m. ET game. The Falcons, who are 5-7, will be coming off a Monday night game against the Packers in Green Bay.
CINCINNATI -- The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without two starters today against the Cincinnati Bengals and rookie running back Dri Archer is among the five players who are healthy scratches for the 1 p.m. ET game.

Outside linebacker James Harrison will miss his first game since re-signing with the Steelers in September because of a knee injury. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert will miss his second consecutive game because of ankle and knee injuries.

Archer is the surprise on the Steelers’ seven-man inactives list as Pittsburgh will go with Josh Harris, who has yet to carry the ball in an NFL regular-season game, and fullback Will Johnson behind starting running back Le’Veon Bell.

Archer practiced all week and was not listed on the Steelers' final injury report last week. Not dressing Sunday is another step back for the third-round draft pick who lost his job as the primary kickoff returner earlier this season and has been a non-factor on offense.

Joining Archer as healthy scratches for the Steelers are wide receiver Justin Brown, cornerback B.W. Webb, defensive end Clifton Geathers and quarterback Landry Jones.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier will return to action after missing the last three games because of a high-ankle sprain. Nose tackle Steve McLendon is back after missing the last two games because of a bad shoulder.

Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones will play in his first game since dislocating his right wrist on Sept. 21 in a win at Carolina.
PITTSBURGH –Stephon Tuitt's wait is almost over.

The rookie defensive end said he has been taking snaps with the Pittsburgh Steelers first-team defense, and he will play extensively Sunday in Cincinnati.

Tuitt could play most of the snaps at left defensive end if Steve McLendon misses a third consecutive game because of a shoulder issue and Cam Thomas starts in his place at nose tackle. Even if McLendon plays against the Bengals, Tuitt figures to take Brett Keisel ’s spot as one of the tackles in the Steelers’ nickel defense.

Keisel, who had been blocking Tuitt from significant playing time, hurt his triceps last Sunday and is out for the rest of the season.

“You don’t ever want anything like that to happen to any of your teammates, but I’ve worked hard all season and worked under his wing,” Tuitt said. “It’s time for me to take that step and grow as a player and keep it going. Play for him, play for the Steelers and do what we have to do to get to the playoffs.”

There are a lot of reasons to think that Tuitt just needs an opportunity to show why the Steelers were so excited last May when he was available at their pick in the second round of the draft.

The 6-foot-5, 303-pounder already has an NFL body and Tuitt caught defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s attention early in training camp with how well he moved for someone his size.

"He’s going to get more snaps, without a doubt. I think he’ll do well,” LeBeau said Thursday. “He is a developing young football player who I think has a very solid future. There’s nothing he’s done that we’ve been unhappy with.”

Nor has Tuitt been unhappy with having to bide his time, as most Steelers rookies do.

“I trained as if I was starting every week. I didn’t once complain because I knew there would be an opportunity for me,” the former Notre Dame standout said. “I’m ready. At the same time, I’ve still got stuff I’ve got to learn. The best thing about me is I compete against myself every day.”

Tuitt has shown flashes, especially as an inside pass rusher, in the limited snaps he has received.

As he prepares for a bigger role, teammates such as McLendon and Heyward have simply told Tuitt to trust in himself and the technique he has been honing since he joined the Steelers.

“I’m not expecting him to play like a young guy,” Heyward said. “We’ve talked about it a little bit and this is a moment where you can excel and take a hold of it or regress. I look for him to play sound and know he's not going to understand [the defense] all right now, but don’t be overwhelmed by it.”

When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati. TV: CBS

December football is here.

In the regularly contentious AFC North, close games turn competitive and there's an added concern that weather could play a role in dictating schemes and the outcome. Forget the "12th Man," in this part of the country Old Man Winter is the extra element that can either be a benefit or a detriment in these always physical late-year contests.

Ahead of the first of two end-of-season meetings between these longtime foes, we turn to ESPN Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Scott Brown and ESPN Cincinnati Bengals reporter Coley Harvey to preview Sunday's matchup:

Harvey: We'll let you answer the first one, Scott. With December's unpredictable weather now here, the big question is should teams run more or pass more? Running back Le'Veon Bell has been an answer for Pittsburgh much of the season, but I seem to remember something about Ben Roethlisberger throwing 12 touchdowns in two games. How heavy might the Steelers lean on his arm the rest of the season, especially if conditions are poor?

Brown: I expect the offense to run through Bell here in December and not just because the weather will add varying degrees of difficulty to throwing the ball extensively. Bell has been an absolute stud and he is the only player in the NFL with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards. Bell is so valuable to the Steelers that they cannot take him off the field, leading to questions of whether they are going to wear him out. They will deal with that problem after the season since there is no proven depth behind Bell at running back, and since the Steelers need to win three of their last four games to give themselves a realistic shot of making the playoffs. Roethlisberger has been mired in a bit of a slump, but he is too good of a quarterback not to play well down the stretch. The Steelers would love to strike a balance between running and throwing that will keep defenses on their heels, and that is probably the formula to them finishing strong and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Speaking of the playoffs, Coley, the Bengals are in excellent position to reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive year, but there are still questions about how far Andy Dalton can take them. What's your assessment of where he is at this point of his career and whether he is the guy to lead them deep into the playoffs?

Harvey: While the Bengals won't admit it, Scott -- their extension of his contract earlier this summer is a sign of that -- there is uncertainty about whether he's the guy upon whose shoulders you can ride a deep postseason run. He keeps showing signs of inconsistency. One week, he's the best quarterback this side of the Ohio River, and the next, he looks like the worst to have played the game. Cincinnati's 10-4 December record since Dalton became the starter in 2011 is a testament to him knowing how to win with a lot of pressure on the line. But he still hasn't shown he can consistently handle the big, prime-time stage. He can take a big step toward proving that in three weeks when the Bengals play the Broncos on a Monday night. As for where Dalton is in his career, I'd say he's taken significant leaps this season, both as a player, and a leader. While he didn't play his best Sunday at Tampa Bay, the fact he gutted out a winning performance while feeling sick earned a lot of respect in the locker room.

Brett Keisel's loss earlier this week was a big blow to a defense that rallied around the vet. In what ways will his absence affect Pittsburgh, namely with the Bengals still tinkering with the right tackle position following Andre Smith's own season-ending injury? Keisel certainly would have exploited a Bengals' weakness there.

Brown: It's a shame what happened to Keisel, not only because of how well he had been playing but also how much he has meant to the Steelers for so long. Keisel embodies their blue-collar ethos and he is the consummate professional in everything he does, including dealing with the media. He is a huge loss, especially on a defensive line that may be without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon for another week as he works to regain strength in the shoulder that has been a recurring problem for the fourth-year veteran. With Keisel out, it is time for rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt to assert himself. The second-round draft pick already has an NFL body and is immensely talented. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau raved about him during training camp and has continued to say Tuitt is going to be a big-time player in this league. Keisel had blocked Tuitt from playing time but now that he's out, the former Notre Dame standout has to emerge in the last quarter of the season.

Coley, like Bell, Jeremy Hill is another young back who has emerged this season. Has he overtaken Giovani Bernard as the Bengals' top back, and what are their respective roles?

Harvey: That appears to be the case looking strictly at numbers from last week's game -- Hill had 17 touches and Bernard only had 11. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson contends he's still easing Bernard back into the flow of things after a series of injuries kept him out for three games earlier this season. This will be Bernard's third game since his return. As far as their roles, the Bengals use both in similar ways. Both can run between the tackles. Both can hit the edge and go. Bernard has the edge in receiving, although he hasn't been used in that regard much lately. I think you'll see the backs alternate drives through the first three quarters, but by the fourth, Hill will reprise his role grinding out late yards as "the closer," especially if the Bengals are leading.

Scott, how prepared is LeBeau's defense for the possibility of misdirection and gadget plays? The Bengals used three consecutive such plays to get their offense on track last Sunday, and it worked. Many here thought that by running them, the Bengals may also have been trying to get LeBeau to think about a few extra things this week.

Brown: Unfortunately for LeBeau, he has enough to worry about following a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints. The run defense sprung major leaks in that game, and the Steelers did not build on a strong start as far as pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who torched them for five passing touchdowns. Dalton is not Brees, but if the Steelers cannot stop the run their defense just doesn't work, and the Bengals will burn a suspect secondary with play-action passes. The Steelers certainly have to be on guard for gadget plays, especially since the Bengals have a very capable thrower in receiver Mohamed Sanu. But, again, if the Steelers cannot stop the run, they have no chance of winning unless they outscore the Bengals.

Steelers fans were screaming for Pittsburgh to use its first-round draft pick on a cornerback. They bypassed Darqueze Dennard and he ended up in Cincinnati. How has he looked, and a bigger picture question, what is the biggest reason for why the Bengals have allowed an NFL-low 11 touchdown passes?

Harvey: Steelers fans wanted a corner and Bengals fans wanted linebacker Ryan Shazier. Looks like the two players are in the wrong cities! Dennard has looked great in the time he's been on the field -- which has been seldom. He's only played 46 defensive snaps all season, and he missed two games due to various injuries. In his brief defensive action, he has six tackles, one sack and a deflected pass. Special teams is where he's been a star. One of the Bengals' featured gunners, he has regularly gotten downfield to help keep Cincinnati's net punting yards in check. You won't see much Dennard this season because the Bengals have four other former first-round pick cornerbacks who were already here. As for why Cincinnati's kept its passing touchdowns low? The Bengals' defense, namely safety George Iloka, has done a great job clinging to its philosophy of not letting passes get over their heads. Solid pressure up front has helped, too.

CINCINNATI -- Ahead of his first game at Paul Brown Stadium since his one-year stay with the Cincinnati Bengals ended in March, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was reflective Wednesday when asked about his brief stint in stripes.

He called the 11 months he spent in the Queen City "good."

"It was a new learning experience, meeting new people and making new friends," Harrison said on a conference call with Bengals media. "It was a good experience."

On the field, he didn't appear to have gained much from his time as a Bengal.

It was his worst season statistically since 2004, and a year in which he had his lowest participation numbers since ESPN Stats & Information started tracking snaps in 2008. He wasn't necessarily bad in Cincinnati, he just had a tough time finding his role and carving out a niche in the Bengals' 4-3 defensive scheme. Before last year, the majority of his career had been spent in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme that's been managed since 2004 by defensive coordinator and former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau.

As part of LeBeau's scheme, Harrison flew around his quadrant of the field making plays seemingly at will. He was an enforcer both in coverage and against the run, and an adept pass-rusher in blitzing situations. In 2008, he had 16 sacks.

But in Cincinnati, as a "Sam" linebacker in a defense that spent much of last season in nickel, he wasn't as productive. Harrison's pass-rush opportunities were nonexistent, and he was primarily asked to pitch in and stop the run. As a result, he had trouble getting into the flow of the defense and didn't contribute quite the way he and the Bengals had hoped.

After the season was over, he was released, and retirement seemed a certainty. That is, until a group of Steelers started putting the seed in his ear: we want you back.

Veterans Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were among those who started pleading for Harrison not to give up on playing just yet.

"I didn't want to feel like I was letting them down," Harrison said.

So, on Sept. 23, he came back. In the nine games he has played since, he already has passed some of the stats he achieved while in Cincinnati and is on pace to finish the season having blown past others. He has 34 tackles this season (four more than last year) and four sacks (two more than last year).

Harrison said he had been content to stay out of the NFL because it allowed him to be close to his children, who stayed in Pittsburgh last year. When his teammates started yammering in his ears, though, it was time to consult his proudest fans to see if it were OK to play again.

"If they had said no then it would have been no," he said. "I asked them and they said no at first, and then they realized that I would be home and that they would get to see me every day."

So it ended up being a "yes."

"Basically I had a 4- and 5-year-old making the decision," Harrison said.

Harrison said he isn't sure what insight he'll be able to provide the Steelers about the Bengals. After all, Cincinnati has two new coordinators in Hue Jackson and Paul Guenther, even if they were both on staff in other roles when he played there.



Sunday, 12/21
Monday, 12/22