BY GEOFF HOBSON
Scott Mitchell couldn't start Sunday, but that didn't mean he didn't try. In fact, he had a much improved day Saturday, dropping back and passing at a quicker tempo during the Bengals' morning walk through.
He also performed an impressive feat for the CBS-TV camera, jogging for 20 minutes on the club's underwater treadmill three days after he could only walk on it.
Mitchell said he could, "possibly," play with the current state of his sprained left knee ligament, but it turned out he couldn't go full speed. Trainer Paul Sparling said the decision comes down to Mitchell's confidence and comfort.
"He keeps improving and I'm not ready to rule him out," LeBeau said Saturday.
Working against Mitchell is that he didn't take a snap Wednesday, Thursday or Friday. Plus, Akili Smith had a sharp week of practice with some teammates observing he was getting rid of the ball quick, a la Mitchell, in last week's 16-13 loss in New England in the Bengals' most productive passing game of the season.
"Possibly, yeah," said Mitchell when asked if he could have played Saturday. "But I really don't know because I'm kind of afraid to really let it go because I don't want to set myself back. I'll let loose a little bit tomorrow and see where we are."
The Bengals have been expecting Smith to get the nod.
"From what we hear, Akili is going to be our quarterback this week," said center Rich Braham after Friday's practice. "I don't think Scott's ready. At least that's what they're saying. I don't see it and Akili is doing all right in practice."
Mitchell is encouraged with Friday's arrival of a fitted lightweight brace and the daily progress.
Mitchell threw crisply on the side Friday. But the key is if he can get into position to throw, which is why Saturday's ability to drop back gave him encouragement.
LeBeau has said the call is simple to make after he asks Mitchell Sunday morning, "Can you move? Can you set up? Can you throw and do the things you have to do in the game?"
"I don't see that being determined until that point," LeBeau said. "He's getting better every day. We don't think we want to rush him into anything that would retard his chances of being ready on Sunday."
Mitchell can remember leading the Lions to a win a few years ago this week when he didn't practice the week before Detroit won a Thanksgiving game.
"It might be a problem if he weren't a real veteran player who has been a starter most of his career in the league," LeBeau said. "I wouldn't necessarily preclude his ability to play off of that. What would be more important would be his movement skills, watch and see if he's rusty and (if he is) go back with the other guy."
But it looks like the other guy, Smith, is the man again at the moment.
"He got the reps in practice and he looked good," said tight end Tony McGee.
Meanwhile, Sparling watched Mitchell work on the underwater treadmill Saturday like a proud parent. The machine, complete with an underwater camera to monitor gait, is something out of H.G. Wells as Mitchell stood on a treadmill mechanically lowered to the floor of a pool filled with about four feet of water.
"We can get him moving so much faster in water because of the buoyancy and the reduction of the weight on the joints as well as the ligaments," Sparling said. "We're able to move him much faster. You still have the same healing time, it just allows you to move them a little quicker and there's a therapeutic benefit to the exercise." **
MATCHUPS:The key to this game for the Bengals is not letting the Steelers get ahead early so Pittsburgh can unleash its potent pass rush and running game.Bengals LG Scott Rehberg and RG Mike Goff* hve to handle Steelers ILBs *Levon Kirkland and Earl Holmes* in he running game. Bngals LT Rod Jones and RT Willie Anderson have o fend off the NFL's sack-leading linebacker tandem in Steler ROLB Joey Porter and LOLB Jason Gildon.
Bengals ILB Takeo Spikes has to get to RB Jerome Bettis through Steelers LG Alan Faneca or RG Rich Tylski. Bengals DE Vaughn Booker
pits his 59 NFL starts against Steeler RT Marvel Smith's five. Bengals WRs Peter Warrick and Craig Yeast have to get a hat on the eighth man in the box, most likely Steeler SS Lee Flowers.. Bengals DE Michael Bankston and OLB Steve Foley must keep Steeler QB Kordell Stewart from getting outside.
REHBERG, GOFF VS. HOLMES, KIRKLAND: Rehberg is making just his second start this year and Goff has struggled at times against quicker foes. Kirkland, 31, is getting long in the tooth and has bad ankles, but the man continues to produce after the past two seasons his teammates voted him MVP.
And won't they have something to prove a week after Jaguars running back Fred Taylor rung up 234 yards on them, most ever against Pittsburgh?
GILDON, PORTER VS. ANDERSON, JONES: Jones returns a week after suffering chest pains and shortness of breath, but Porter isn't a guy to get well against. Porter had two sacks last month working against Jones. But one may have been caused because quarterback Akili Smith held the ball too long. The other sack was a safety on backup quarterback Scott Mitchell, where Jones said he had trouble hearing on the Three Rivers Stadium goal line.
Gildon and Porter have at least one sack in the same game three times and have eight sacks each for the season, the most of any backer duo in the league. Gildon, who needs one sack to tie Steel Curtain member Dwight White with 46 for fifth place on the club's all-time list, has a sack in each of the last three games.
SPIKES VS. FANECA, TYLSKI: With Roger Duffy playing in place of injured Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson, the Steelers figure to send their guards at Spikes instead of the athletic Dawson. The Steelers have apparently changed their schemes with Dawson out and are keeping Duffy in on the tackle.
BOOKER VS. SMITH: The Bengals coveted Smith on Draft Day in the second round as they dreamed of putting him at left tackle for the next decade and moving Jones to left guard. But the need for a cornerback (Mark Roman) snapped them out of the reverie.
WARRICK, YEAST VS. FLOWERS: The Jags' Taylor did a number on Pittsburgh running the ball by getting to the outside on Gildon and Porter. Dillon does his damage more on the inside, but only if the Bengals can find the extra man at the line of scrimmage. Check the films of Dillon's record day against the Broncos and the receivers are flying down field.
BANKSTON, FOLEY VS. STEWART: Since Stewart rushed for 103 yards on seven carries against them Oct 11, 1998, the Bengals have held him to eight yards on eight carries in his last three starts against them.
But Foley saw Stewart's 45-yard touchdown run last week: "They design some plays for him to drop back to pass and then just take off. You can't just go across the field to pursue him because he can cut back in a minute and if you lose contain, the next thing you know he's 40 yards down field." **
BY THE NUMBERS:** All the numbers you need. Such as 16. That's the number of sacks by the Bengals this season, the same total logged by Steeler outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Gildon.
8 _ Interceptions by Steeler cornerbacks in the last nine games.
7 _ Interceptions by Bengal cornerbacks in the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
155 _ Points Bengals will score this season if they continue to average 9.7 points per game.
140 _ Points Seattle scored in 1992, the lowest ever in a 16-game season.
61.2 _ Yards Bengals running back Corey Dillon must average in the last five games to break James Brooks' club-record of 1,239 yards in a season.
70 – Yards Dillon has averaged in six games against Pittsburgh.
1,124 _ Bengals quarterback Akili Smith's passing yards this season.
1,077 _ Combined rushing yards for Dillon and wide receiver Peter Warrick
1,232 _ Yards caught by Denver receiver Rod Smith this season.
305 _ Carries by Steeler running back Jerome Bettis without a fumble, dating back to Dec. 2, 1999.
8 _ 100-yard games Bettis has against the Bengals.
16 _ Dillon's career 100-yard games.
THIS AND THAT: Richard Katz, the agent for injured left tackle John Jackson, said the Bengals have contacted him about a contract for next season and both sides appear interested, but talks have yet to begin in earnest. . .
Bengals reserve linebacker Marc Megna went long distance Thursday morning to give a pep talk to his high school team. Durfee High School of Fall River, Mass., needed a win over New Bedford High School in their annual Turkey Day clash to reach next week's Div. I Super Bowl in Massachusetts.
So before Durfee made the short jaunt to New Bedford, Megna called the school from the office of linebackers coach Mark Duffner and got hooked into an intercom.
Megna wrote out his speech, sprinkling in names of current players, and then kicked Duffner out of his room so he wouldn't be disturbed. Megna didn't emphasize history, instead he asked the players, "to look at your brother sitting on either side of you," and to remember "how hard you worked to get here. All the days in the weight room and on the practice field."
"It was a great honor to be able to do something like that," Megna said. "The biggest thrill was being a part of it."
Footnote: Durfee 24, New Bedford 0. No word if Megna makes another call before the Super Bowl against Boston College High School.
FRIDAY INACTIVES:** Bengals: LT John Jackson, FB Clif Groce, RB Curtis Keaton, WR Damon Griffin; Steelers: CB Jason Simmons, RB Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, LB Clark Haggans, C Dermontti Dawson.
With the Bengals down to three healthy backs Corey Dillon, Brandon Bennett and Nick Williams look for Williams to get plenty of work. He can play both running back and fullback.
WEATHER CALL: The weather gurus at Channel 12 are calling for showers on a clammy, damp day with game-time temperature about 45 degrees.