The Cincinnati Bengals have an opportunity to prove themselves Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Doubters have pointed to the Bengals weak schedule and insisted that they'll start believing when the Bengals beat a high caliber team like the Steelers. While I'm sure the Bengals will take the kudos with a victory Sunday, the Steelers being used as the measuring stick might be giving them a bit too much credit.
The Steelers are defending AFC champs and come into Paul Brown Stadium with a 6-3 record, trailing the Bengals and Ravens by just half a game. But a closer look at the Steelers reveals a team that has struggled to do those things that have been a major part of their winning ways in the past.
Ben Roethlisberger comes in perhaps enjoying his best season yet. He's had to. The Steelers have not protected him well at all. He has been sacked 26 times in nine games and hit countless other times. Even the 6'5" 250 pound frame of Big Ben can't withstand the type of punishment he's been getting. Twice he's left games this season to be checked out in the locker room. Both times Steelers fans sighed in relief when he returned.
Roethlisberger's not been getting much help from the running game either, which ranks a pedestrian 18th in the league. Rashard Mendenhall was on the verge of losing his starting job before exploding against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers aren't to be taken lightly and will no doubt test the Bengals on the ground, but this isn't the fearsome Steelers running attack of old that once went an entire second half against Cincinnati without having to throw a pass. Against the second ranked Bengals rush defense, Pittsburgh might be looking at some trouble there.
On defense, Pittsburgh has always prided itself on being run stoppers. If a running back could reach 100 yards against the Steelers, that was a great feat. This season, Pittsburgh is allowing 4.2 yards per carry for opposing running backs. They've surrendered 100 yards rushing four times and 90 plus on two other occasions. James Harrison returned from injury last week and James Farrior is likely to play this week, but Troy Polamalu is questionable with a rib injury and LaMarr Woodley will be out again. The Steeler defense is aging and it looks like Father Time is limiting their ability to recover quickly from the physical style they like to play.
Despite all this, look for Sunday's game to be the typical war that takes place between these two team. The problem for Pittsburgh is they're coming off of back to back wars against New England and Baltimore. Just how focused and healthy will they be for the game on Sunday.
The Steelers still represent a formidable opposition for any team, but they're hardly the team of old that struck fear in team across the league. The young Bengals may not have the hardware yet that Pittsburgh has, but they shouldn't be intimidated lining up against them on Sunday.
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