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Punter search punctuates Monday mourning; Cassel returns to another crucial Game 15; Battlelines


While the NFL office mulls what many believe is the illegal hit that ended Kevin Huber's season with a fractured jaw, the Bengals have to find a guy off the street to replace one of the league's top punters for the two biggest games of the year.

And, of course, the man they pick out of Tuesday's auditions goes against the NFL's two top-ranked punt returns teams in the Vikings (No. 2) and the Ravens (No. 1).

Huber stayed overnight in Pittsburgh getting additional tests, where it's believed a small fracture in his neck was also found, but that appears to be a minor issue. The major injury is the fractured jaw and he'll soon undergo surgery.

Scrutiny now no doubts turns to the Pittsburgh's Terence Garvin, a, 6-3, 221-pound rookie linebacker blocking on Antonio Brown's 67-yard punt return touchdown. The consensus, led by Pro Football Talk, is it should have been flagged and many are expecting a fine. It does not appear to be a violation of the Hines Ward Rule, but because a punter and kicker are always considered defenseless players, it is illegal to go helmet-to-helmet on those players.

If the penalty flag had been thrown, it would have negated the first punt return TD against the Bengals since Brown went 60 against them two years ago at Heinz Field.

Ward is the former Steelers wide receiver who in 2008 broke the jaw of Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers in a peelback block toward the line of scrimmage; a play deemed illegal the following offseason after the injury.

This injury not only eliminates one of Cincinnati's best weapons this season with Huber going into the game fifth in NFL net punting and a week removed from his first AFC Special Teams Player of the Week award, but it also impacts the field-goal operation. Huber has been the holder for all of Mike Nugent's 100 field-goal tries as a Bengal.

Quarterback Andy Dalton held on two extra-points Sunday, but that's not the perfect scenario. The best backup holder is probably wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, but he has been inactive the last few games.

The Bengals can only hope they come close to replicating what happened when they lost Nugent for the last month of last season with a leg injury. Josh Brown came off the street to win AFC Special Teams Player of the Month and kicked in the Wild Card playoff game.

The irony is that Huber literally started the ball rolling in the direction of his injury when he failed to pin Brown on the sideline with a 38-yard punt he mistakenly put in Brown's wheelhouse down the middle of the field. Just last week special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons talked about how well Huber has adjusted to kicking directionally this season when he began to emphasize that philosophy.

Huber also didn't have a lot of help on the play. The two rookies who have been key in the Bengals going into the game sixth in the league in punt coverage, linebackers Jayson DiManche and safety Shawn Williams, whiffed on Brown, and cornerback Brandon Ghee got flattened in the vise when Steelers cornerbacks Antwon Blake and Cortez Allen obliterated the perimeter. YIKES THE VIKES: Sunday's 1 p.m. game against the 4-9-1 Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium is far from a walk in the park. Minnesota is playing inspired behind the play of quarterback Matt Cassel, 2-2 as the starter and the Vikings are coming off a huge win over the Eagles at home with wide receiver Greg Jennings going off for a career day on 11 catches for 163 yards.

The Vikings will also have a motivated head coach in Leslie Frazier. It will be recalled that Frazier was Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's first defensive coordinator in 2003 and 2004, and Frazier was surprised when he wasn't asked back in 2005 even though the club's defensive ranking improved.

Frazier is thought to be on his way out in Minnesota, but as was the case in Cincinnati his players have high regard for him. It's believed to be the first time a former Bengals coordinator has returned to Cincinnati as a head coach since Jets rookie head coach Bruce Coslet lost the 1990 opener at Riverfront Stadium.

"All we can do is play for him right now. What we say is not going to carry any weight. I love him as a head coach," Jennings told The St. Paul Pioneer-Press after Sunday's victory.

"I think he's doing an outstanding job keeping the team together. We're going to continue to fight. That's just the locker room. It doesn't have anything to do with the coaching staff. I think they've done an outstanding job. When it comes to winning games, we have to win games on the field. This locker room is never divided. We've never split. We've stayed together, and that's what you saw today."

Small world? When the Bengals clinched the 2009 AFC North title in a 17-10 victory over the Chiefs in the next-to-last game of the season at PBS, the Bengals held Cassel to 180 yards passing despite 37 attempts for one touchdown and two interceptions.

BATTLELINES: James Harrison's return to Heinz Field on Sunday was spoiled by a concussion that limited him to 11 snaps a week after he played a season-high 52. With Harrison out of the pass rush rotation, the Bengals weren't able to substitute as freely and they ended up with their four base people on the D-line (ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap and tackles Domata Peko and Brandon Thompson) all playing at least 65 percent of the snaps.

The Bengals just didn't get much pressure on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (a sack and two hits) and Harrison's injury also meant that rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche got a career-high 20 snaps.

The Bengals held the Steelers to 2.9 yards per rush, but rookie running back Le'Veon Bell proved to be a handful even though he had just 57 yards on 24 carries. In the second half the 230-pound Bell stiff-armed Johnson under the helmet and finished off the run by bowling over the 240-pound DiManche.

Then on the next snap Bell made cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick miss on a perimeter run to the other side.

But in the end, the defense held the Steelers to two field goals in four tries in the red zone, where the Steelers had scored eight straight touchdowns coming into the game, and held Pittsburgh eight out of 10 times on third down while giving up just one touchdown drive.

NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth observed the Bengals played less man-to-man with cornerback Terence Newman out and that it affected their pass defense. But the lack of pressure on Roethlisberger also seemed to be a factor.

The most perplexing aspect of the game besides the special teams meltdown may have been the play of the offensive line after a stellar three-game stretch it had been adept at both run blocking and protection. But quarterback Andy Dalton didn't have much time against the Steelers with the big deficit and the 21-point first quarter wiped out the club's strength of late, the running game.

The Bengals O-line was working against a front seven limping with injury (right end Brett Keisel was out and outside backer LaMarr Woodley left early) and they had a tough time blocking backup nose tackle Al Woods, a waiver claim from Seattle a few years ago. The Steelers came into the game ranked 24th in run defense, but the Bengals couldn't get much movement in the run game when they did try it (five runs in the first quarter out of 13 snaps) as Woods gummed up the third-and-one on Cincinnati's third snap of the game. Of course, there's nothing like a 24-0 hole and a 23 mile-per-hour wind when trying to sap an offense.

With right guard Kevin Zeitler practicing full for the first time since his Nov. 10 foot injury, the thinking was he'd rotate some with his replacement over the last four games, Mike Pollak. But Pollack played every snap and, like the rest of the line, struggled at various junctures Sunday after he played well the past two weeks.

Whether it was because he missed the first two days of practice with an intestinal bug or because of the score or something else, BenJarvus Green-Ellis got only 16 snaps at running back. Rookie Giovani Bernard has been getting the bulk of the snaps, but he got his most work Sunday taking 77 percent of the snaps and getting 13 carries to BJGE's four.

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