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Game Preview: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem (42) in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Frank Victores)

Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. Eastern.

Television: The game will air on CBS-TV. In the Bengals’ home region, it will be carried by WKRC-TV (Ch. 12) in Cincinnati, WHIO-TV (Ch. 7) in Dayton and on WKYT-TV (Ch. 27) in Lexington. Broadcasters are Kevin Harlan (play-byplay), Rich Gannon (analyst) and Steve Tasker (sideline reporter).

Radio: The game will air on the Bengals Radio Network, led by Cincinnati flagship stations WLW-AM (700), WCKY-AM (ESPN 1530; all sports) and WEBN-FM (102.7). Broadcasters are Dan Hoard (play-by-play) and Dave Lapham (analyst).

Setting the scene: The Cincinnati Bengals travel this week to Pittsburgh to close out their 2018 season against the Steelers at Heinz Field.

Already eliminated from the playoff contention, the 6-9 Bengals look to play the role of spoiler to their AFC North Division rivals from the Steel City. The 8-6-1 Steelers need a win and help elsewhere to make the playoffs. Cincinnati last week lost 26-18 to the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. The Bengals’ offense struggled in the contest, particularly early. In first half, the Bengals totaled just 36 net yards, including minus-15 yards passing, and failed to convert any of their five third downs en route to a 16-0 halftime deficit. Not until early in the fourth quarter did Cincinnati complete a drive that ended in a score, a 51-yard field goal by K Randy Bullock. But by then, the 23-0 lead the Browns had mounted prior to that FG proved too much for the Bengals to overcome.

The Bengals did their best to close the gap late in the game. Down 26-3, QB Jeff Driskel hit TE C.J. Uzomah for a 14-yard TD pass with 4:56 left. Then, after Cincinnati held Cleveland on the following drive, Bengals S Clayton Fejedelem blocked a Browns punt to give Cincinnati the ball on the Browns’ 23-yard line. Driskel hit WR John Ross for a three-yard TD pass three plays later, and then connected with WR Cody Core for a two-point conversion to pull to within eight points, 26-18 with 2:56 left. However, just before the two-minute warning on the third play of the ensuing drive, Cleveland took a short pass 66 yards to end any possibility that Cincinnati, which had no timeouts left, could regain possession and attempt to tie the game.

Driskel finished the contest completing 13 of 19 passes for 133 yards, two TDs and no INTs (123.4 passer rating) while HB Joe Mixon had 68 yards rushing on 17 attempts (4.0-yard average). While those were numbers were respectable, they were not enough to counter the production of two Browns rookies — QB Baker Mayfield, who completed 27 of 37 passes for 284 yards, three TDs and no INTs (121.9), and RB Nick Chubb, who had 112 yards rushing on 19 carries (5.9). For the Browns, who outgained the Bengals in total net yards by a margin of 264 (493 to 209), the win completed their first series sweep over Cincinnati since 2002. For the Bengals, the loss cemented their first last-place finish in the AFC North since 2010.

Entering last weekend, Pittsburgh was in the driver’s seat of the AFC North, but a close 31-28 road loss to the New Orleans Saints put them in the position of having to beat or tie the Bengals and receive help elsewhere to qualify for postseason.

Pittsburgh currently is a half-game behind the 9-6 Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North standings. The Steelers would win the division if they beat the Bengals and the Browns beat or tie with the Ravens at Baltimore, or if they tie with the Bengals and the Browns beat the Ravens. Pittsburgh also is a half-game behind both the 9-6 Indianapolis Colts and 9-6 Tennessee Titans in a bid for the second of two AFC Wild Cards. So, even if the Ravens beat the Browns to win the AFC North, the Steelers still have a small, albeit unlikely, chance to secure the final Wild Card spot if they beat the Bengals, and the Colts and Titans tie at Tennessee.

Series Info: Pittsburgh owns a 63-35 all-time series lead over Cincinnati. The Steelers are winners of seven straight meetings, as well as 10 of the last 11, 15 of the last 18, 20 of the last 25, and 30 of the last 40. A win for Cincinnati this week not only would stop a series skid for the Bengals and eliminate the Steelers from playoff contention, but it would help alleviate the Bengals’ disappointment in their 2018 season.

More On The Series: The Steelers lead 63-35 overall and 32-16 as the home team. The series includes two postseason games, both Steelers wins in Wild Card round contests at Paul Brown Stadium, after the 2005 and ’15 seasons. The Bengals have played more games against the Steelers (98) than any other foe. Cleveland is second in that category at 91, and Tennessee (formerly Houston Oilers) is third at 75. 

Bengals’ O excels in red zone: The Bengals’ offense this season has scored TDs on 32 of its 44 trips to the red zone, good for a 72.7 percentage that ranks second in the NFL. The No. 1 team in red-zone percentage is this week’s opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have scored 35 TDs on 46 red-zone trips (76.1).

Of Cincinnati’s 32 red-zone TDs, 20 have come by pass and 12 have come via the running game. Five of the passes have gone to WR Tyler Boyd, five have gone to WR John Ross, four have gone to WR A.J. Green, and three have gone to TE C.J. Uzomah. TE Tyler Eifert, TE Matt Lengel and HB Joe Mixon each have one TD reception apiece. Mixon also has eight of Cincinnati’s 12 rushing TDs in the red zone, while HB Giovani Bernard has three and QB Jeff Driskel has one.

The Bengals scored TDs on both of their trips to the red zone last week at Cleveland. 

Bengals-Steelers connections: Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis grew up in McDonald, Pa., near Pittsburgh. Lewis’ first NFL coaching job was with the Steelers as LBs coach from 1992-95 under head coach Bill Cowher. He also coached at the University of Pittsburgh from 1990-91 ... Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was defensive backs coach for the University of Cincinnati from 1999-2000 ... Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is from Findlay, Ohio (Findlay High School), and played at Miami (Ohio) University ... Bengals WR Tyler Boyd is from Clairton, Pa. (Clairton High School) and played at the University of Pittsburgh ... Bengals QB Tom Savage played at the University of Pittsburgh ... Steelers DT Cameron Heyward and LB Ryan Shazier (Reserve/PUP) played at Ohio State University ... Steelers LB L.J. Fort spent time on the Bengals practice squad in 2014 ...Bengals K Randy Bullock was with the Steelers in 2016 ... Steelers LB Bud Dupree played at the University of Kentucky ... Steelers P Jordan Berry played at Eastern Kentucky University ... Steelers FB Roosevelt Nix is from Reynoldsburg, Ohio (Reynoldsburg High School) ... Bengals quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt is from Pittsburgh and played for the Steelers from 1989-92 ... Bengals linebackers coach Jim Haslett is from Pittsburgh, played at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and coached for the Steelers from 1997-99 ... Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes grew up in South Fayette, Pa. and played TE for the Steelers from 1994-96 ... Bengals defensive assistant/assistant defensive line coach Matt Raich is from Monaca, Pa., played (1989-92) and coached (1993-94) at Westminster College, and coached at Robert Morris University (1996-98, 2000-02), Glenville State College (1999) and Duquesne University (2013). Raich was also on the Steelers’ coaching staff from 2003-06. ... Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is from Scranton, Pa. ... Bengals LB Brandon Bell played at Penn State University ... Steelers LB Keith Kelsey (Reserve/Injured) and WR Eli Rogers played at the University of Louisville ... Bengals strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton coached at Penn State from 1987-91 ... Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake is from Louisville, Ky. 

Mixon tops AFC in rushing yards: Despite missing Games 3-4 with a knee injury, Bengals HB Joe Mixon leads the AFC this season in both rushing yards (1063) and attempts (224). If his rushing yardage lead holds, Mixon will become the first Bengals player to ever lead the AFC in rushing in a season (RB Paul Robinson led the AFL in rushing in 1968). The second-year pro out of Oklahoma currently stands 26 yards in front of Denver RB Phillip Lindsay (991), and 91 ahead of Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (972). The only other AFC rusher with at least 200 attempts is Pittsburgh’s James Conner (201).

League wide, Mixon ranks fifth in rushing yards and eighth in attempts, with Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott holding significant leads in both categories — 1434 rushing yards, 304 attempts.

Mixon’s total of 1357 yards from scrimmage ranks fifth in the AFC and 15th in the NFL. Chiefs WR Tyreek Hill (1514 yards) owns the AFC lead in yards from scrimmage, while Elliott (2001) holds the top spot overall. Mixon this season has scored a team-high nine TDs (eight rushing, one receiving) He has three games of 100 or more yards rushing, and six games of 100 or more yards from scrimmage. 

Bates vying for Bengals’ tackle title as rookie: With a team-high 108 tackles this season, rookie S Jessie Bates is in line to become only the sixth rookie to ever lead the Bengals in tackles, and the first to do so since LB Vontaze Burfict in 2012 (127 tackles). Each of the previous five rookies to earn the tackle crown were linebackers.

Bates’ closest competitor this season is fellow S Shawn Williams (100), who trails by eight tackles with one game remaining. In a season in which the Bengals have been severely hampered by injuries, Bates, a second-round draft pick (54th overall) out of Wake Forest, has started all 15 games at FS for Cincinnati and been among the team’s most reliable defenders. Bates’ five passes defensed include three INTs (second on team), one of which he returned for a TD — a 21-yarder off of Jameis Winston in Game 8 vs. Tampa Bay. 

A stat that matters: During the full term of head coach Marvin Lewis (2003-present), a plus-differential in turnovers is linked to a big plus in wins. And the reverse has gone for a minus. The Bengals are 80-20-1 in regular season under Lewis with a plus (.797 winning percentage), but they are only 19-73-2 with a minus (.213).

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