Updated: 6:35 p.m.
If the Bengals are playing better on defense and running the ball at a better clip than they did back on Oct. 21 when they lost to the Steelers, then Pittsburgh has a different look in the secondary.
The Steelers not only won't have cornerback Ike Taylor, the man that took away A.J. Green last time on just one catch, but the man that is supposed to shadow Green this Sunday in Pittsburgh (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), Kendall Lewis, is coming off Sunday's hip injury in Dallas.
Not only that, but Lewis told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac after practice Wednesday that he stepped in a hole during the workout and is more worried about his knee than his hip.
Meanwhile, before his own practice Wednesday, Green tried to remember the last time he had been held to one catch while playing an entire game.
"I don't remember; it was a long time ago," said the usually implacable Green, admitting his frustration at the coverage that either had a safety over the top or a linebacker underneath helping Taylor.
"It gets frustrating sometimes because of the tension of trying to stop 'take me away, take me away.' Hey, that comes with the territory, but I've got to make a play whenever my number is called."
The month of December has been almost Steelers tough. Green's only TD in the three games this month has been in the garbage time of last Thursday's 34-13 victory in Philadelphia. His longest catch has been 17 yards. He's got 18 catches in 31 targets for 10.3 yards per catch, nearly four below his season average. There have been no A.J. moon balls in December.
"I started off real hot; a lot of people were giving me a lot deep," he said. "I expected a lot of people to take away the deep game … a lot of cushion."
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton took one shot at Green deep in Philly and a leaping Green looked like he was going to alley-oop it away from the corner in the end zone until backup safety Colt Anderson came in at the last instant.
"The safety came right over the top. I didn't see the safety over there, so I thought I was just trying to hold the corner off," Green said.
The Steelers don't let anybody go long. They lead the NFL allowing the fewest passes of 40-plus yards (two) and 20-plus (25). Back on Oct. 21, they gave Green shots, but not many.
"There were a couple of opportunities, but like I said their scheme is so good it's hard to guess what they're doing," Green said. "We're playing against a sound defense. Nothing too complex. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times."
But even though Green hasn't exploded lately, he's simmered with greatness. On Cincinnati's go-ahead touchdown drive in Philly, Green stretched to Gumby a third-and-nine off the conversion list for an 11-yard gain that put the Bengals in the red zone.
"Just keep running the short stuff and the big stuff will open up later on," Green said.
While Green has the numbers (his 11 TDs lead the AFC and his 1,208 yards are seventh in the NFL), rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins may get the chances Sunday. In the four wins the Bengals have over Dick LeBeau's defense in the past nine seasons, the No. 2 and No. 3 receivers, and not the No. 1, have made the plays.
In the 38-31 win at Heinz in '05, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh each had five catches, but with LeBeau taking away Johnson for 54 yards, Houshmandzadeh had a 43-yard TD and 88 yards. The Bengals also won at Heinz in '06 when Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry each had two touchdown catches while Johnson had only one catch total.
Then in the '09 sweep of the Steelers, slot receiver Andre Caldwell caught the winning four-yard TD pass with 14 seconds left in Cincy, and at Heinz No. 2 receiver Laveranues Coles led the team with five catches for 67 yards while Johnson had two catches in a game the only TD came on Bengals running back Bernard Scott's 96-yard kick return.
NUGENT CAUTIOUS: For the first time since he injured his kicking calf two weeks ago Wednesday, kicker Mike Nugent returned to the field and he was listed as limited. But it sounded like he is still taking it slowly and it's unclear if he'll be ready for Sunday.
"Just lightly swing my leg," he said of where he is. "One-steps, mainly. Not really trying to be too aggressive. You don't want to have something react and things happen again and kind of go through the whole process for another however many days. One of those things I'm just being very patient with it."
It's not a normal injury. Josh Brown has kicked brilliantly in Nugent's absence and now the question is how long can the Bengals keep two kickers. The answer could be Sunday if they continue to stay healthy everywhere else. Nugent indicated the subject has come up.
"I don't want to use the word vague, because it sounds negative, but in a positive way we leave it vague," Nugent said. "It's one of those things like hey if I'm imitating a coach I'm saying just do what you can to get better and heal as fast as possible. It's one of those things where your schedule changes a little bit. You have to come in here and do extra treatment. You hate standing on the sideline and watching. As long as I keep getting better each day that's the way I'm looking at it."
This isn't Nugent's first rodeo. He lost his job with the Jets in 2008 when he suffered a quad injury on the season's opening kickoff and while he remained on the roster he was inactive the rest of the way as the club stayed with Jay Feely.
"You learn from it, but that was more long term and serious than this is," Nugent said. "Right when I came back Jay did just phenomenal, can't take anything away from how well he did and did that the rest of the season, so, that was one of those things that was earlier in my career and you sometimes can worry about things that are out of your control. I've learned now that it's completely out of my control. Only thing under my control—the timeline is even out of my control for me—but when it comes to working out or rehabbing or strengthening, I think that's the only thing I can really focus on.
DRE RETURNS: For the second time since he suffered a concussion in San Diego on Dec. 2, rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was marked as full go in practice Wednesday and he hopes he has no return of the symptoms that have kep him out of the last two games.
He said the last symptoms he had were Friday, where he had vision problems and headaches while driving. But he said he's had nothing since and feels confident he's overcome another Year One obstacle.
"The Bengals have taken the time to observe my injury and managing it well. I just think they're going a great job," Kirkpatrick said. "It's just a mental process. Just really messing with your head, especially for me for all the things I've gone through this season, not being on the field and wanting to play. All that takes place in the concussion because that's some of the things you're thinking about and they really don't want you to think a lot."
Kirkpatrick says he's taken the protocol test—matching it up with his healthy baseline—four or five times as he deals with his second concussion after getting one in college.
"The one at 'Bama, I was completely out. I don't remember really anything about the play," he said. "This one right here it seems like it's lingering on longer than the first one. Same symptoms but this one is lingering."
But Kirkpatrick says it doesn't phaze him ("I'm not worried about the head. It's football. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. This is my job, this is how I feed my family"), but he is thinking about trying a new helmet.
"It's more of a speed helmet," he said. "It's supposed to have extra cushioning. Just going to see how it works."
For Kirkpatrick, the club's No. 1 pick, it's another in a series of injuries that have limited him to five games this season. A bone spur near his knee wiped out training camp and pushed his NFL debut into November.
"Everything happening to me this year is just killing me inside. I'm just trying to hide it and deal with it on my own terms," he said.
SLANTS AND SCREENS:
» Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who got a concussion Thursday night in Philadelphia, said he's fine and ready to go and was limited Wednesday.
"Everything is back to normal," he said.
Running back Cedric Peerman, who hasn't practiced since injuring his ankle Dec. 2 in San Diego, eturned to practice Wednesday and was limited.
» Whitworth on what it all means: "It's not about a prove-it game. It's not a statement game. This is, 'This is on the line, how much does it mean to you, and how well can you play when everything is on the line?' That's the bottom line."
» If there was ever a Bengal that played big against the Steelers, it was the late Chris "Slim" Henry. When he and Carson Palmer got hurt on the same play of the '05 Wild Card playoff, they did it hooking up on the club's longest postseason pass, a 66-yarder.
In the next chapter in 2006, Henry caught two of Palmer's four TD passes in a 28-20 win in Pittsburgh. In the '06 season finale at PBS, the last time the Bengals played Pittsburgh in late December with a playoff berth on the line, Henry led a fourth-quarter rally with a 66-yard TD catch and drew a pass interference penalty on a long ball that set up Shayne Graham for a 39-yard field goal and the win to get into the postseason with 12 seconds left. He went wide right.
Three years later on Dec. 17, Henry died from injuries suffered in a truck accident while he was on injured reserve. Three years later, the Bengals still remember.
Each December since his death, defensive tackle Domata Peko's family offers a remembrance and this season he gave his teammates black stocking caps emblazoned with Henry's orange No. 15, as well as a memorial Christmas ornament.
Peko also gave a cap to Bengals president Mike Brown and it's been a staple for him during the last few weeks of practice. There are 16 players left from that '09 team and they remember.
"It's a great thing, an awesome thing to keep him in our memories and keep him alive," Whitworth said. "It's just a great opportunity to remember a guy that meant a lot to us and was a big part of us.
"It's a guy that we were all close with and still means a lot to us. With everything that's going around with some of the guys across the league, it's just an opportunity to remember a person special to us."
» Sunday is the 40th anniversary of Steelers running back Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception on fourth down that beat the Raiders in the playoffs in the last minute on a heaven-sent ricochet pass. Lewis, a Pittsburgh-area native of McDonald, Pa., knows exactly where he was. It happened to be at Carlynton High School in Crafton, Pa., the alma mater of former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher.
"The Carlynton High School wrestling tournament," said Lewis, then 14. "I don't think I was wrestling. I was wrestling JV or junior high or whatever I was then. We heard the Steelers beat the Raiders. Back then you had to go to someone's house to see it on television where we were from. There wasn't a TV out in the lounge."