1:00 PM ET, December 7, 2014
Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
It's tough to find a specific area the Cincinnati Bengals can point to and reasonably say they're an elite football team.
They'll be happy to direct those questioning their credentials to the top of the AFC North standings.
A second straight division title is squarely in the Bengals' sights, but the Pittsburgh Steelers also control their fate in the North as they visit Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday for the first of two high-stakes December meetings with Cincinnati.
Baltimore has the far better point differential, Pittsburgh the top-five offense and Cleveland an early-November road rout of the Bengals to point to, but Cincinnati (8-3-1) is in control of the NFL's most competitive division over those 7-5 clubs.
The Bengals bounced back from that 24-3 loss to the Browns on Nov. 6 to sweep a three-game road swing. Even an under-the-weather Andy Dalton throwing three interceptions last Sunday against Tampa Bay -- just as he did against Cleveland -- wasn't enough to derail a 14-13 win that, while hardly pretty, was the North's only victory in Week 13.
"We've just got a little more breathing room," safety George Iloka said. "It always helps when we win a game and other teams lose. Guys were definitely happy about that."
Iloka is part of the Bengals' best unit, a secondary that allows 6.31 yards per pass -- third-lowest in the league -- and has surrendered an NFL-low 11 passing touchdowns. Overall, Cincinnati's defense ranks 21st, allowing 364.0 yards per game, while its 18th-ranked offense averages 343.6.
"Their secondary is playing as good as any secondary in the NFL right now," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "... (They have) a lot of different looks, double-barrel stuff (and) things that we've seen in the past. But we'll always anticipate something new."
Pittsburgh's offense (417.3 ypg) is third, but many of its 538 yards in last week's 35-32 home loss to New Orleans felt quite hollow. Down 19 in the fourth quarter after two Roethlisberger interceptions, the Steelers put together two 95-plus-yard scoring drives in the final minutes to account for the final margin.
Since his 12-touchdown barrage over a two-game stretch at Heinz Field, Roethlisberger -- who banged his right wrist on a Saints defender in the first quarter -- has four touchdowns, five picks and a 79.3 rating in Pittsburgh's past three.
"He hasn't been as accurate as he has been," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Some of it is due to some pressure created in the pocket. Some of it is due to game circumstance. Some we lacked cohesion in some instances. None of those things happen in a vacuum when you're talking about quarterback play. It's usually unit-play oriented. He can play better, we all can play better, and we're looking forward to doing it this week."
The Steelers' offense averages 26.7 points overall to rank eighth in the league, but the home-road disparity is stark. Pittsburgh is putting up 35.0 per game at Heinz Field and just 18.3 away from home, where Roethlisberger has thrown only six of his 26 TDs.
Second in the league with 31 passing plays of 25-plus yards, Roethlisberger has only hit nine of those big plays in six road games. Finding Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton or Martavis Bryant downfield this week doesn't figure to be easy against a secondary that's allowed only 15 of those -- tied for fourth.
"It takes 11 guys combined in those situations all the time, no matter what," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said of his defense's penchant for taking away big plays. "It's whatever the coverage is, and making sure we're playing the coverage to the best of our abilities, and everybody in the right spots. The rush has to work with the coverage, and the coverage has to work with the rush."
Cincinnati has allowed just 3.06 yards per carry since Cleveland racked up 170 yards, but it will be tested by Le'Veon Bell, who's on pace to join Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson as the only running backs with 1,200 rushing yards and 800 receiving.
Bell, second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, is more concerned with the Steelers' chance to win out, which would give them their first division title since 2010.
"We've got to take care of business," Bell said. "We can't look forward to four or five weeks ahead."
That's a statement echoed by the Bengals, who have gone 4-1 in December in each of the past two years. Dalton was terrific in the cold weather last season, throwing 12 touchdowns with five picks and posting a 97.2 rating.
Dalton will certainly be looking for A.J. Green on Sunday, but he might want to spend time looking Mohamed Sanu's way. Pittsburgh kept Drew Brees from even targeting Jimmy Graham last week but was torched for 162 yards by second option Kenny Stills.
Sanu, who had a pair of 100-yard games when Green was hurt, has totaled 110 on 12 catches in the past four games.
Though Dalton has been sacked just 14 times -- fewer than only Peyton Manning -- he's been dealing with uncertainty at right tackle since Andre Smith went down with a season-ending injury. The Bengals this week signed NFLPA president Eric Winston, who started every game from 2007-13 but hasn't played in the league this season.
Pittsburgh's pass rush, already hardly fearsome with just 21 sacks, just lost perhaps its most consistent player. Brett Keisel was put on IR after tearing his triceps against the Saints, and in his place the Steelers signed veteran Clifton Geathers -- brother of Bengals defensive end Robert.
Pittsburgh had won 11 of its last 12 visits to Cincinnati before the Bengals' 20-10 win in September 2013.
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|Avg Points Allowed||1.6||3.2|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||PIT|
|Rush Yds Allowed||PIT|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 21-8|
|Dec 15, 2013||PIT 30, CIN 20|
|Sep 16, 2013||PIT 10, @CIN 20|
|Dec 23, 2012||PIT 10, CIN 13|
|Oct 21, 2012||PIT 24, @CIN 17|
|Dec 4, 2011||PIT 35, CIN 7|
|Nov 13, 2011||PIT 24, @CIN 17|
|Dec 12, 2010||PIT 23, CIN 7|
|Nov 8, 2010||PIT 27, @CIN 21|
|Nov 15, 2009||PIT 12, CIN 18|
|Sep 27, 2009||PIT 20, @CIN 23|
|Nov 20, 2008||PIT 27, CIN 10|
|Oct 19, 2008||PIT 38, @CIN 10|
|Dec 2, 2007||PIT 24, CIN 10|
|Oct 28, 2007||PIT 24, @CIN 13|
|Dec 31, 2006||PIT 23, @CIN 17|
|Sep 24, 2006||PIT 20, CIN 28|
|Jan 8, 2006||PIT 31, @CIN 17|
|Dec 4, 2005||PIT 31, CIN 38|
|Oct 23, 2005||PIT 27, @CIN 13|
|Nov 21, 2004||PIT 19, @CIN 14|
|Oct 3, 2004||PIT 28, CIN 17|
|Nov 30, 2003||PIT 20, CIN 24|
|Sep 21, 2003||PIT 17, @CIN 10|
|Nov 24, 2002||PIT 29, CIN 21|
|Oct 13, 2002||PIT 34, @CIN 7|
|Dec 30, 2001||PIT 23, @CIN 26|
|Oct 7, 2001||PIT 16, CIN 7|
From Elias: Since 2002, the Steelers are 10-2 at the Bengals. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, a win in this game would tie them for the best road record vs a division opponent since 2002 realignment. The Patriots are 11-2 at the Bills over that period.
Ben Roethlisberger can pass Boomer Esiason on the all-time TD pass list and pass yards list this weekend in Cincinnati. He needs 3 TD passes and 111 pass yards.
The Bengals sack opponents on 3.0 pct of dropbacks, the worst percentage in the NFL.
The Bengals are 8-2 in December since 2012 season, tied for 2nd-best in the NFL.
Andy Dalton had a 93.8 Total QBR today, the highest by any QB in a loss this season (min. 30 action plays).
Andy Dalton's 20-yard TD rush was his longest career TD run. he had one previous 20-yard rush (Week 6 this year against the Panthers).
Le'Veon Bell had 26 rushes for 185 yards and 2 touchdowns, and added 6 receptions for 50 yards and a receiving TD. How good was Bell's day? Bell was the 1st Steeler since Mewelde Moore in Week 7 of 2008 with multiple Rush TDs and a Rec TD in the same game. Moore's opponent that day was also the Bengals. Bell rushed for a career-high 121 yards before contact, the 4th-highest total in a game this season. Only DeMarco Murray, C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles rushed for more yards before contact in a game this season, and no Steeler in the last 6 years gained more rush yards before contact. Bell's 4.7 yards before contact per rush was the 2nd-highest average of his career (5.0, Week 3 vs Panthers). Bell had 110 rush yards and 2 TD in the 4th quarter alone, the highest 4th-quarter rushing total in a game since LeSean McCoy in Week 14 of 2013 (148 vs Lions). Bell's the 4th player in the last 5 years with at least 110 rush yards in a 4th quarter.
-Ben Roethlisberger today: 341 yards (9.2 yards per att), 3 TD, 0 Int -Roethlisberger on road entering today: 244 yards per game, 6.7 yds per att, 6 TD, 5 Int -Roethlisberger: 5-of-7 for 147 yds and 2 TD on play-action passes
20th career 100-yd receiving game for A.J. Green, tied with Isaac Curtis for the 2nd-most in Bengals history. Only Chad Johnson (31) has more.
Andy Dalton's 11th career Rush TD. That breaks a tie with Jeff Blake for 2nd-most by a QB in Bengals history. Ken Anderson has the most with 20
Andy Dalton was 11-14 for 224 yards and a TD targeting A.J. Green, the 1st game over 185 yards in Green's career. Green was easily Dalton's most productive weapon Sunday. Green caught an 81-yard touchdown pass that was thrown 47 yards downfield. It was the 16th catch of Green's career (2011-14) thrown at least 40 yards downfield, most of any player in that span.[+]
Bell's big day opened up play-action passing for Ben Roethlisberger, who had his best road game of the season (25-of-39, 350 yards, 3 TD). Roethlisberger was 5-of-7 for 147 yards and 2 TD on play-action passes Sunday. Roethlisberger finished with 350 yards, 3 TD and 0 Int Sunday at Cincinnati. Entering Week 14, Roethlisberger averaged 244 pass yards per game on the road with 6 TD and 5 Int.[+]
Ben Roethlisberger By Pass Type Sunday
ESPN Stats & Information