PITTSBURGH – It has been a topsy-turvy season in the NFL.
How much so?
Coming into the week, road teams had a 45-44 record. Since the NFL merger in 1970, road teams have never finished with a winning record.
Perhaps that will work itself out. Perhaps the home teams will begin to exert their typical control.
But it’s a trend the Steelers will try to go against today when they host the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers (4-2) were one of eight road teams to win last week when they handed previously unbeaten Kansas City its first loss, 19-13, at Arrowhead Stadium.
That victory came one week after the Steelers lost 30-9 at home to Jacksonville. Since winning their first two games, the Steelers have fallen into a win-one, lose-one trend over the past four games – something they need to break if they hope to become the team to beat in the AFC North.
“We can’t keep winning one and then losing one,” said Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward. “This is the time of year when you need to start putting together some wins, get a little more consistent.”
The Bengals (2-3) know all about that. After Cincinnati failed to score a touchdown in the first two games, offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was fired and replaced by Bill Lazor.
The Bengals lost, 27-24, in overtime at Green Bay in their first game with Lazor but have since rolled to wins over Cleveland and Buffalo. Cincinnati has scored 75 points in its past three games after putting up nine in their first two.
“Everyone has their own likes and dislikes,” said Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler. “They still do a lot of the same things they did before they made the change. There’s some minor things that he likes to do that maybe they have not done in the past. For the most part, they’re very similar to where they were before they made any change.”
One thing Lazor did was simplify what the Bengals were doing. Instead of a rotation of Jeremy Hill, Giovanni Bernard and rookie Joe Mixon at running back, he phased out Hill and started getting the ball to Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green more often. Green had 10 receptions over the first two games. He has 22 receptions and three touchdowns in the last three games.
“He’s super dangerous,” said Steelers cornerback Joe Haden, who faced Green 10 times as a member of the Cleveland Browns. “He’s 6-4. He can run a 4.3 (40-yard dash). He can jump. He’s just a very prolific receiver.”
The Steelers planned to have second-year cornerback Artie Burns shadow the opposing team’s top receiver this season before signing Haden following his release by Cleveland in August. They don’t plan to use either cornerback to exclusively follow Green today. They’ll play him straight up.
“(Haden) knows him. Artie knows him, too,” said Butler. “Artie has been covering since last year at least. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
The Steelers have the league’s top-rated pass defense. No. 2 is Cincinnati.
Neither team figures to get a lot going through the air. That means the running games should be key.
And in Bell, the Steelers have a huge advantage over Mixon, who is averaging only 2.8 yards per carry.
But Cincinnati is 2-0 this season when linebacker Vontaze Burfict plays. Burfict was suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the season for a flurry of illegal hits.
He’s drawn 16 personal foul penalties in 60 career games. Three of those personal fouls have happened against the Steelers and that doesn’t include Burfict ending Bell’s 2015 season with a tackle that left the running back with a torn MCL and PCL.
The Steelers are familiar with Burfict’s antics but can’t concern themselves with them.
“I’m going to go out there and play football, protect myself and play hard,” said Bell.
Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, a McDonald native, is 8-20 against the Steelers but six of those wins have come in Pittsburgh. ... The Bengals limited Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown to seven catches for 97 yards in two meetings last season but the Steelers won both of those games. ... Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (back) is out for the Steelers. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (hamstring) is doubtful to play. ... The Steelers are 19-7 against the Bengals when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starts. ... The Steelers have won their past nine games played in October against the Bengals.