Special day in a lot of ways

>BR>Updated: 11-29-03, 7:40 a.m. Updated:
11-29-03, 1:20 p.m. Updated:
11-29-03, 6:15 p.m. 11-29-03, 1:25 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

From Power Point to power play.

Marvin Lewis has outlined in excruciating detail from Day One what his Bengals have to do to win the AFC North starting Sunday in Pittsburgh.

With three of the five games left in the division, a sweep gives the Bengals the best North record at 5-1 and the edge in the top tiebreaker if they finish tied for first.

At Pittsburgh Sunday. At Baltimore next week. Cleveland at home Dec. 28. Take care of the division and. . . ?

"I've never been in this situation, but I know all about it," said cornerback Artrell Hawkins. "(Lewis) has told us all about it. He talks to us and drives his points home. We haven't played in these kinds of games, but we know what to expect because he's told us. He's been there."

A victory over the Steelers puts the Bengals in first place in December, a first for Hawkins' class of 1998 and most of the other Bengals. It would be their first win on the road against the Steelers since 1999 and their first ever at Heinz Field as the Pittsburgh-bred Lewis head coaches a team at home for the first time.

And, if Lewis hasn't told them what to expect Sunday, Steelers coach Bill Cowher did when he said he's thinking of introducing the special teams before the game instead of offense or defense.

Which doesn't bother the Bengals because they're in the midst of their most solid teams play in recent memory, punctuated by the exhaustive effort on Chiefs' returner Dante Hall.

But the Bengals still have some hard feelings about teams and the 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh two months ago. The first score late in the first half

came only after quarterback Tommy Maddox pulled off a fake field goal for a 23-yard pass to wide open tight end Jerame Tuman that put the ball on the Cincinnati 7 and set up the game's first touchdown.

The Bengals were confused on the play. Some got the call for a block. Some didn't. If that wasn't bad enough, Cowher's post-game quote of "I'm glad we did it because somebody was going to do it at some point," raised some eyebrows and some ire.

Now, the Bengals expect to see the Steelers' special teams running through the tunnel.

"I guess he's trying to tell us something," said cornerback Reggie Myles, the special teams' leading tackler. "I guess we better be ready for their special teams because he's going to pull something out of his hat. That's the way we're taking it. We're going to be looking for stuff out the back door.

"Coach Lewis told us about it and told us we can step up to the challenge," Myles said. "We've been up for it every game this season. Why not this one?"

There have been comparisons between Hall and Pittsburgh returner Antwaan Randle El. Dating back to last year's playoffs, Randle El has returned three punts for a touchdown (two in the last five weeks), one more than Hall.

"Randle El might be a little more dangerous just because he's a little taller and a little heavier than Hall," Myles said. "But they're pretty similar. They're both quick and elusive and they can pop it at anytime. The way I approach it is, if I don't make the tackle, no one else will. And if this is the only way I can get on the field, then I'm going to do it with pride and to the best of my ability."

To a man, the Bengals would pretty much agree that attitude is team-wide and is the reason why their special teams are more of a help now than the hindrance they've been down through the years with players who thought special teams wasn't important enough.

After being at the bottom of the rankings for years, Peter Warrick broke open the Kansas City victory with a punt return for a touchdown two weeks ago, kicker Shayne Graham has hit 16 of 18 field goal tries, they are sixth in punt returns, and are in the middle of the AFC pack for holding teams on kickoffs

"It's the same reason we're better on defense and offense," said safety Kevin Kaesvihran. "Discipline and accountability. If someone isn't doing the job, he's taken out of there.

"Cowher is sending his team a message that he thinks special teams might decide it," Kaesviharn said. "The last five, six weeks, we've held up well and we have to keep playing that way."

The Steelers are good on special teams. They are fourth best on kickoffs in the AFC and fifth best in covering them. But the Bengals have a better punt return average, and the Browns had a return for a score called back on a penalty last week. Foes have also run one kick back against the Steelers, and Ranlde El has fumbled a kickoff as well as bobbled three punts.

"Coach Lewis told us right away what it was going to be like," Myles said. "He said if you can't play special teams, you can't play for him. He told us they're so important, that you won't make his team if you can't do it."

They know. Just like they know what they have to do to make the playoffs.

Starting Sunday.

"We need it," Hawkins said, " to propel us into December."

**

MATCHUPS:** The Steelers have bullied their way to division dominance the past decade with clever passes off running back Jerome Bettis' smash-mouth running game, a not-so subtle stingy run defense, and opportunistic special teams. The Bengals have used all those elements to reach first place in the AFC North for the first time in 13 years, but they know they must match Pittsburgh in all those categories Sunday to take control of the division heading into December.

Pittsburgh returned to its running roots last week and after doing a nice job against San Diego in the run game last week, Bengals LOLB Adrian Ross has to hold up again against Steelers RB Jerome Bettis and the blocking of Steelers LG Alan Faneca. Tommy Maddox is a different guy against a pass rush, so Bengals RE Justin Smith has to make hay against injured Steelers LT Marvel Smith. Bengals CBs Tory James and Artrell Hawkins have to match Steelers WR Hines Ward's versatility and physical play.

The Bengals try to keep their own running success of the past three weeks going when Bengals LG Eric Steinbach and RG Mike Goff go against Steeler ILBs Kendrell Bell and James Farrior. Bengals LT Levi Jones has to have a better game this week against Steelers ROLB Joey Porter than he did back in September. Bengals WRs Chad Johnson and Kelley Washington try to get Pittsburgh out of zone coverage and into one-on-one matchups with Steelers CBs Chad Scott and Ike Taylor. Bengals WR Peter Warrick tries to counter Steelers WR Antwaan Randle El on trick plays and punt returns.

**

ROSS VS. BETTIS, FANECA:** The Pittsburgh media made an icon of Faneca after his two jarring blocks on Ross in the fourth quarter of the Steelers' 17-10 victory back in September. On the first play, Faneca pulled from left guard and drilled Ross hard enough to send his helmet flying. Then, on a counter play, Faneca went right and put Ross on his back. Bettis got 13 yards on the plays, and his head coach ended up nominating Faneca for AFC Offensive Player of the Week.

But they were plays few and far between for the Steelers since then. Faneca has had to play five games at left tackle because of Marvel Smith's neck injury, and Bettis had just 80 carries in the next seven games.

But things are swinging back for the Steeler running game. Smith returned last week against the Browns, so Faneca was able to go back to left guard as Bettis went for a season-high 24 carries and 93 yards in the 13-6 victory.

All of which is no surprise to Bengals defensive tackle Oliver Gibson, Bettis' good friend.

"I don't know why they just weren't doing that before," Gibson said. "But you have a feeling it's always going to end up with Jerome. He's the most positive and upbeat player you'll ever meet." **

JUSTIN SMITH VS. MARVEL SMITH:** Two weeks ago, Justin Smith helped keep the Chiefs in check with a Game Ball effort, and last week he had a big, one-arm sack of Chargers quarterback Doug Flutie. Marvel Smith can't be at 100 percent, although the Steelers finally have their training-camp offensive line intact.

Give Maddox time, and he'll hurt you. Chase him, and he won't. He's also due for a good game because he's been extremely up and down. Since racking up a 80.5 passer rating against Cincinnati, he's hit that number just twice and that was earlier this month. He's been under 70 in four games. **

JAMES, HAWKINS VS. WARD:** Ward is tied with Chad Johnson for the AFC lead with 65 catches, but the Bengals did a good job on him last time in holding him to four catches for 48 yards. Still, Ward, the most physical and toughest receiver in the NFL, found a way to score on a seven-yard scrum that broke up 0-0 game late in the first half.

Plaxico Burress may be the biggest target, but Ward is the biggest big-play threat. He leads the Steelers with eight touchdowns and he's tied for seventh in the AFC with 16 third-down catches.

Hawkins has played well for the injured Jeff Burris, but the Bengals have to shore up the pass defense, where they have allowed four touchdown passes of at least 26 yards in the last five games. **

STEINBACH AND GOFF VS. BELL AND FARRIOR:Bell had two sacks against the Bengals last time and last week stoned Browns running back James Jackson on a game-turning goal-line stand. Farrior leads the team in tackles and each has 11.5 tackles for a loss. While Steinbach and Goff have helped pave the way for 665 rushing yards the past three weeks, the Steelers have allowed less than 100 in two of the last three games.

JONES VS. PORTER:Since Jones allowed two sacks to the Steelers last time, he's been very solid. He'll get a steady diet of Porter now that the Pro Bowler is pretty much staying at the same right outside spot on all three downs. That was Porter's first game back from a pre-season shooting and after getting a sack and one forced fumble against the Bengals, he's had just three sacks and no turnovers since.

JOHNSON, WASHINGTON VS. SCOTT, TAYLOR:** In the last three weeks, the Steelers have allowed three touchdown passes of at least 28 yards in games big-play receivers (Anquan Boldin had 118 yards and Terrell Owens had 155) hurt them. Johnson and Washington are fast enough on the outside that the Steelers are probably going to stay in a zone to protect their cornerbacks. Which is another reason why the Bengals have to run the ball: Get a defensive back involved in stopping Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson.

WARRICK VS. RANDLE EL: Warrick had more yards rushing than receiving last week, which Randle El did earlier in the season against the Rams. They even get criticized the same. Randle El is hearing what Warrick used to hear about going too much east and west and not enough north and south. He's also fumbled three punts. But Randle El has also popped two punt returns for scores in the past month. Warrick has returned one for a score, and actually leads Randle El, 12.1 – 9.9 in punt return average. But it could their role in trick plays that decide this one.

**

CALLS STILL COMING:** Bengals linebackers coach Ricky Hunley arrived in Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon convinced his unsuccessful bid to be the head coach at his alma mater of Arizona has opened up more doors. He confirmed he has had calls about other top jobs, but wouldn't elaborate.

"I'm not in this just to be a head coach. It's got to be a head coach at the right place. It's like Momma said. Things happen for a reason. The good Lord has never been wrong," Hunley said. "Everything about the experience was all good. Sitting down (earlier this week) with the athletic director and the president and the (search) committee was a great opportunity. Going through this process has made me a better man and coach."

Hunley, 42, one of the most popular players in the state's history after being named the Pac-10's Co-Player of the Year as a senior, said it was his impression he was a close runner-up to Oklahoma defensive co-coordinator Mike Stoops. While Stoops offered a national championship-type resume, Hunley brought a College Hall of Fame playing career for Arizona, as well as 10 years as a college assistant coach. He also played seven seasons in the NFL and is in his second year on a NFL staff.

"I've had some other calls, but we've got other fish to fry right now," said Hunley, referring to the Steelers.

FRIDAY's QUICK HITS: After naming game captains every week of the season, head coach Marvin Lewis decided to have his players vote for the captains to serve the last five games and revealed Friday the top vote getters were quarterback Jon Kitna, middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, cornerback Reggie Myles, and safety Kevin Kaesviharn.

"We gave all our veteran guys an opportunity and they did well," Lewis said. "I just felt at this point in the season, let the players speak for themselves."

Kitna has the numbers in a season he leads the AFC in touchdown passes. But he knows it's about more than that.

"You should feel pretty comfortable that your quarterback can be able to lead your team," Kitna said. "I'm just happy that the guys feel that way about me. People aren't going to follow somebody that can't play, but I think it's more just leadership qualities." . . .

Tight end Reggie Kelly (foot) has been upgraded to probable after missing the last four games:. "It gives us a guy with fresh legs," Lewis said. "He's been running the field well all week, and he'll help the other two guys."

**

NUMBERS GAME:** All the numbers you need for Sunday's game, including 60-14-1 and 4-0. The first stat is the Steelers' record under Bill Cowher when they have a 100-yard rusher. The second is the Bengals' record under Marvin Lewis when they have a 100-yard rusher.

11 _ Takeaways the Steelers' defense had going into last week's game against Cleveland.

12 _ Giveaways the Bengals' offense had going into last week's game in San Diego.

5 _ Turnovers the Steelers forced last week.

2 _ Turnovers the Bengals have forced in last four games.

79-20-1 _ Steelers' record under Cowher when they score first.

3-0 _ Bengals' record under Lewis when they score first.

31-19-1 _ Steelers' record in November since Cowher took over in 1992.

18-32 _ Bengals' record in November since 1992

3-1 _ Bengals' record this November

1981 _ Best season in November at 5-0.

10 _ 100-yard rushing games Steelers RB Jerome Bettis has against the Bengals.

2 – 100-yard rushing games Bengals RB Corey Dillon has against the Steelers.

1,580 _ Combined receiving yards by Bengals WRs Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick, second only to the Rams' Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt (2,143) in the NFL.

1,379 _ Combined receiving yards by Steelers WRs Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress, fourth in the NFL.

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