Steelers wary of struggling Bengals

Published 11:33 pm Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers know all too well how difficult these supposedly easy games against non-contending teams can be.

A close-escape 19-16 overtime win against the Bills (2-10) nearly derailed their chances of winning the AFC North, even before they came back to beat Baltimore 13-10 last weekend and seize the division lead.

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Last season, losses to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns — with six victories among them — kept the reigning Super Bowl champions out of the playoffs.

Up next: the bungling Cincinnati Bengals, losers of nine in a row amid a mishmash of penalties, missed field goals, squandered opportunities and way too many locker room distractions.

The late Myron Cope, the longtime Steelers broadcaster who was fond of calling them the Bungles, no doubt would have guffawed over the latest way they lost — allowing Saints quarterback Drew Brees to draw a lineman offside so he could throw a decisive touchdown pass in the final minute.

Yep, the same old bad news Bengals. Can’t get out of their own way, can’t seem to win, can’t seem to get along. Wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco have their own weekly TV show, but the one topic that almost never gets discussed is a Bengals victory.

So did someone in the Steelers locker room go “Uh, oh?”

The Steelers (9-3) have an offensive line that’s badly thinned by injuries, two tight ends with concussions, a quarterback — Ben Roethlisberger — with a broken nose and a walking cast on his injured right foot. Their pass defense is one of the NFL’s worst. And one of the league’s best linebackers, James Harrison, probably feels like there’s a price tag attached to every quarterback because he keeps piling up fines for hitting them.

No, the Steelers know they can’t overlook any opponent, regardless of record, especially one that won in Pittsburgh last season and narrowly missed rallying from a 27-7 deficit in the fourth quarter last month in Cincinnati before losing 27-21. Three years ago, the Steelers nearly lost the division after losing to the one-win Jets.

Three of the Steelers’ final four opponents — the Bengals (2-10), Panthers (1-11) and Browns (5-7) — have losing records.

“We can’t go out and think we’re going to roll over these teams, because if we do that, we’ll lose,” wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Remember that inexplicable 13-6 loss last season to the Browns, who were 1-11 at the time? Ward recalls a desperate team that was willing to do anything to win because it was so tired of losing.

So what could happen in this game?

“An onside kick, like they did in the first game,” Ward said. “Going for it on fourth down. Blitzing a lot. When you play a team like that, it makes it dangerous. We have to prepare for everything, because their approach to the game might be different from somebody else who’s in contention for a playoff berth. I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out with an onside kick to start the game.”

Ochocinco, though his statistics are way down, and Owens give the Bengals the ability to exploit the Steelers’ primary weakness, a pass defense that ranks only 24th. Owens had 10 receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns against Pittsburgh last month, and he needs 39 yards to join Jerry Rice and Randy Moss as the only NFL receivers with 10 1,000-yard seasons.

“It seems like every week we play, I am reaching some kind of milestone and I am not really aware of it until after the game,” Owens said. “I will get some tweets or a text message or an e-mail congratulating me, and I am like, ‘For what?’ “

What Owens is aware of is what a miserable season it’s been for a team that went 10-6 and won the division only last season. The Steelers, by contrast, could wrap up their seventh playoff spot in 10 seasons by winning and getting some help from multiple teams.

“It’s not like we can’t play,” Owens said. “It’s not like we are not a good team. We’ve been in every ballgame we played. Again, it’s the penalties and the turnovers that have obviously killed us.”

With a freshly resodded playing field to run on, the Steelers are hopeful of getting more production from a running game that was limited to 54 yards by Baltimore. Over the last 10 seasons, they’re No. 4 in rushing during the final month of the season. And the Bengals have allowed a run of at least 20 yards in every game.

Since 1992, the Steelers have never lost a division after being ahead at this stage of a season. But they’ve had so many injuries, they must be wondering how much longer their offensive line can keep going if one more key player goes down.

“I’m not saying we’re a hot team right now, but we have to win games coming down the stretch,” Roethlisberger said. “And that’s what we didn’t do last year.”

Roethlisberger himself looks so beaten up, he said, “Mario Lemieux told me I finally look like a hockey player.”

Asked what his problems were after the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata smacked his nose during Pittsburgh’s opening series, Roethlisberger said, “Breathing, vision, blood running down my mouth and throat and face the whole game. So just little things like that.”

Sounds like just another Ravens-Steelers game. What the Bengals want to do Sunday is make it a typical Bengals-Steelers game.

“They’ve got a good record,” Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. “We’ve got a bad record. … We’re going to go in there and try to spoil what they’ve got going on right now.”