Steelers, Ben­gals re­new bit­ter ri­valry

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NFL - Michael Mid­dle­hurst-Schwartz

It’s rare for a ri­valry to face calls for both teams to ratchet down their ag­gres­sion, but the Steelers and Ben­gals have ac­knowl­edged a de­sire to keep things un­der con­trol ahead of their grudge match.

The sec­ond of last year’s show­downs was a flash­point for that an­i­mos­ity, as the teams com­bined for 20 flags, nine of which were for un­sports­man­like con­duct or un­nec­es­sary rough­ness. With the NFL fur­ther pro­hibit­ing the use of the hel­met, there will be less lee­way for the kind of hits lev­eled by Steelers wide re­ceiver JuJu Smith-Schus­ter, who knocked out line­backer Von­taze Bur­fict and cel­e­brated while stand­ing over him, and Ben­gals safety George Iloka, who doled out a head shot to wide re­ceiver An­to­nio Brown.

Re­gard­less of the bad blood, Sun­day could prove to be a defin­ing day in the AFC North race. The Steelers’ once of­fk­il­ter of­fense found its foot­ing in a 41-17 win over the Fal­cons, but the Ben­gals have jumped to a lead in the di­vi­sion due to an op­por­tunis­tic de­fense that has been able to over­come its de­fi­cien­cies.

Per­haps the big­gest matchup hinges on the health of Ben­gals cor­ner­back Wil­liam Jack­son III, the bur­geon­ing star who held Brown to zero catches on eight tar­gets when the two faced off in last year’s games. Jack­son is listed as ques­tion­able (knee), and his ab­sence would have a rip­ple ef­fect on a sec­ondary that also must ac­count for Smith-Schus­ter. Rookie Jessie Bates’ range in cov­er­age will be vi­tal, as Pitts­burgh’s re­ceivers pro­vide game­break­ing po­ten­tial.

Ben­gals de­fen­sive tackle Geno Atkins, who is tied for the league lead with six sacks and com­mands con­sis­tent dou­ble teams, will be counted on to con­tinue to cre­ate havoc up front. But of­fen­sive guard David DeCas­tro and the rest of the Steelers line haven’t flinched of­ten this year, rank­ing No. 4 in pass-block­ing ef­fi­ciency and al­low­ing pres­sures on just 24.8 per­cent of all drop­backs, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus. If Atkins and Car­los Dun­lap can’t gen­er­ate heat on Ben Roeth­lis­berger, it could spell trou­ble given that Cincin­nati ranks sec­ond-to-last in third-down con­ver­sion rate al­lowed (52.7 per­cent).

The wild card might be Bur­fict, who will be play­ing in his sec­ond game since suf­fer­ing a con­cus­sion in De­cem­ber’s melee. While the tal­ented line­backer has shown he can be a dif­fer­ence-maker, his pro­cliv­ity toward run­ning hot and gen­er­at­ing penal­ties could change the com­plex­ion of the game.

Here are more matchups that will de­fine Week 6 in the NFL:

Chiefs QB Pa­trick Ma­homes vs. Pa­tri­ots’ pass rush: New Eng­land coach Bill Belichick has been ef­fu­sive in his praise of Kansas City’s sec­ond-year stand­out and his arm strength, say­ing his abil­ity to get the ball down­field forces teams to de­fend much more space. But it’s Ma­homes’ mo­bil­ity that should be of more worry, as he could con­tinue to strain sec­on­daries by ex­tend­ing plays and cre­at­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties for his play­mak­ers. For New Eng­land, con­tain­ment might be a pri­or­ity over full-on pres­sure.

Ti­tans QB Mar­cus Mar­i­ota vs. Ravens sec­ondary: Still play­ing with a par­tial glove on his throw­ing hand, Mar­i­ota hasn’t been quite right for most of the year. He has been held to fewer than 130 pass­ing yards in all but one of his games. But with Der­rick Henry and Dion Lewis com­bin­ing to av­er­age 3.3 yards per carry, the Ti­tans don’t have much re­course for light­en­ing their reliance on Mar­i­ota. Await­ing Ten­nessee is a Bal­ti­more de­fense that ranks as the NFL’s best in com­ple­tion rate al­lowed (54.8 per­cent) and op­pos­ing passer rat­ing (71.8) and yards per at­tempt (5.9). The Ravens boast a deep and tal­ented sec­ondary, so Mar­i­ota might have to con­tinue to pro­vide a spark by tak­ing off out­side the pocket.

Dol­phins OT Ja’Wuan James vs. Bears LB Khalil Mack: In­juries have turned Mi­ami’s of­fen­sive line into a patch­work prod­uct, and the pres­sure al­lowed by the front last week in a loss to the Ben­gals led to two fourth-quar­ter de­fen­sive touch­downs. Now that unit has to ac­count for Mack, who has five sacks and four forced fum­bles in four games. And the stakes are clear: Quar­ter­back Ryan Tan­nehill has a 21.1 passer rat­ing when pres­sured, sec­ond worst in the NFL, ac­cord­ing to ESPN. The ex­pected re­turn of Laremy Tun­sil at left tackle should help, but James is the one who likely will face Mack for most of the day. Tan­nehill also seems par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to the strip-sacks that the pass rusher has made com­mon­place, as he has 51 fum­bles in 82 ca­reer games.

Jaguars RB T.J. Yel­don vs. Cow­boys LBs Jay­lon Smith and Leighton Van­der Esch: Yel­don will again shoul­der a sig­nif­i­cant load as Jack­sonville’s lead back, even af­ter the sign­ing of Ja­maal Charles. The fourth-year veteran has av­er­aged 86 rush­ing yards per game in the three con­tests that Leonard Four­nette (ham­string) has missed. The Jaguars also are likely in line for an of­fen­sive re­cal­i­bra­tion af­ter Blake Bor­tles threw 99 passes in the last two weeks. Dal­las’ de­fense, how­ever, has al­lowed just 3.4 yards per carry. Smith and Van­der Esch are among the bright­est spots for the unit, giv­ing the Cow­boys a tan­dem of lineback­ers with im­pres­sive range in cov­er­age and run sup­port. Dal­las will also ben­e­fit from the ex­pected sea­son de­but of de­fen­sive tackle David Irv­ing.

AARON DOSTER/USA TO­DAY

Steelers re­ceiver An­to­nio Brown caught a TD pass against Ben­gals cor­ner­back Dre Kirk­patrick, left, and George Iloka, right, and the free safety was flagged for un­nec­es­sary rough­ness for a hit on the play in De­cem­ber.

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