BY GEOFF HOBSON
Bengals quarterback Scott Mitchell didn't practice again Friday with his sprained left knee, but coach Dick LeBeau said his status will come down to a game-time decision Sunday.
Yet after Akili Smith finished the week taking the bulk of the practice snaps, the Bengals have been told to expect Smith to get the call. Word is Mitchell could be healthy enough to play next week against Arizona if he doesn't play Sunday.
"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."
But Mitchell, a week removed from delivering the Bengals' most prolific passing day of the season, said he was encouraged by a few things Friday. A lightweight brace fitted for his knee arrived to protect the sprained medial collateral ligament.
And, for the first time this week, Mitchell could twist and turn his knee ever so slightly to simulate handing off and dropping into the pocket. Mitchell threw crisply on the side Friday, but the key is if he can get into position to throw.
"I wasn't able to turn and try to drop back (Thursday), but I was able to do that today," Mitchell said. "Not at full speed, but at least I was able to do something. It was kind of encouraging. I couldn't play today, but I'm better than I was yesterday and there's still two days to go."
LeBeau 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.
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.
BAND TOGETHER: There's a bonus in store for the first 30,000 fans to enter the gates Sunday for Chevrolet Day. A fleece headband featuring the Bengals logo and the Chevrolet "bowtie" logo will be given to the first 30,000 arrivals. Gates open at 11 a.m..