Steelers wary of Bengals despite record

Published 2:17 am Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Bengals are coming off the NFL’s first tie in six years, the Steelers are only a few days removed from the league’s first 11-10 game since, well, never.

With little time for either team to recuperate or prepare, might something curious happen again when AFC North rivals Cincinnati (1-8-1) and Pittsburgh (7-3) play Thursday night? Like, perhaps, the Bengals actually making a game of it?

The NFL brags anything can happen on any given Sunday, but this is only Thursday, so maybe that’s too much to expect.

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Maybe not.

‘‘I’ve learned to expect the unexpected,’’ Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

Pittsburgh losing to a Bengals team that didn’t win until midseason would be more than surprising, given the Steelers’ four-game winning streak in the series and their 38-10 win in Cincinnati last month.

Still, recent history presents a reason for the Steelers to be wary. A year ago this week, they had a 7-2 record before they played another one-win team, the Jets, yet lost 19-16 in overtime.

With the Steelers up by a single game over Baltimore (6-4) in the division, attempting to coast against a team that recently beat Jacksonville and surprised the Eagles by tying them 13-all Sunday might be risky.

‘‘It’s a rivalry game and it’s a division game, so it means to a lot to us in a tight division,’’ left tackle Max Starks said. ‘‘Baltimore is not too far behind. You look at last year when we took (the Jets) for granted, and you saw what happened in that game.’’

The Steelers own the advantage of playing at home for the fourth time in five games, yet they lost there to the Giants (21-14) and Colts (24-20) and went to the final minute before beating San Diego 11-10 Sunday on three field goals by Jeff Reed and a safety.

Despite having a 300-yard passer (Ben Roethlisberger), a 100-yard rusher (Willie Parker) and a 100-yard receiver (Hines Ward), the offense kept getting pushed back by penalties — 115 yards in all — and never reached the end zone. Overall, the Steelers have gone nearly seven quarters without a touchdown.

That’s reason enough for worry, even if the Bengals’ league-worst offense looks unequipped to do much against a Steelers defense that is No. 1 against the rush, pass and overall and is allowing the second-fewest points.

Even with playmaking receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, er, Ocho Cinco around to stretch defenses, it might be too much to ask inexperienced quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to get much going.

Subbing for the injured Carson Palmer, Fitzpatrick was sacked eight times by Philadelphia, seven times last month by Pittsburgh and has the fewest passing yards (1,050) of any quarterback who has attempted more than 200 passes.

Worse still, Cincinnati’s offensive line is an injury-riddled mess, with left tackle Levi Jones (back) and left guard Andrew Whitworth (ankle) out. Rookie tackle Anthony Collins is expected to make his first NFL start alongside guard Nate Livings, a practice squad player most of the last 2 1/2 years.

Pittsburgh pass rushers James Harrison (12 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (9 1/2) probably can’t wait to get at Fitzpatrick, short week or not, given the team’s league high-tying 36 sacks.

For those scoring at home, the Steelers’ single-game record for sacks is 10 reached four times, once against Cincinnati’s David Klingler.

‘‘That’s their game, they try to make sure you’re uncomfortable back there,’’ Fitzpatrick said. ‘‘And with their rush, and how hard they come sometimes, it’s uncomfortable.’’

Roethlisberger also expects the Bengals to throw everything at him in an attempt to force mistakes like the eight interceptions he had during a recent three-game stretch.

‘‘We have to be prepared for anything,’’ Roethlisberger said. ‘‘They’re going to bring all kinds of blitzes, who knows what.’’

The problem is — and they have many, given their record — the Bengals have only 11 sacks, the second fewest in the league.

One extracurricular issue is whether the Bengals will target Ward for his crackback block that broke rookie linebacker Keith Rivers’ jaw and ended his season.

Ward’s block was legal and he was not penalized or fined, but Bengals coach Marvin Lewis promises the NFL competition committee will address whether to outlaw such blocks.

‘‘Unfortunately our player was injured and you know there will be some revisions, I’m sure, to the rules, after the season,’’ Lewis said. ‘‘It’s an unfortunate incident and it occurred and it’s done.’’

Unfortunately or not, the Bengals’ season series with the Steelers isn’t over yet. Pittsburgh has won four in a row, five of six and 13 of 17 against Cincinnati, yet Tomlin didn’t go lightly on his players during the short work week.

Tomlin made them practice outdoors, with no sideline heaters, in anticipation of a gametime temperature around 30, a wind chill in the 20s and possible snow flurries.

‘‘I guess he’s trying to teach us a lesson,’’ Parker said.

One Tomlin undoubtedly hopes his players learned when they met the Jets last season.