By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — With a 6-2 record, the Cincinnati Bengals lead the AFC North, but they also have the top mark in the Conference at this season’s midpoint.
Still, Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton refused to acknowledge the Bengals as his club’s rival. A straw poll in the locker room determined that his teammates were somewhat split on that topic. Usually, a rivalry game pits two fairly equal opponents. But since an overtime win in 1991, the Steelers are 30-11 against the Bengals with a 7-2 mark in the past nine games.
The Bengals have a chance to change that trend when they play host to the Steelers Sunday at 1 p.m. at Paul Brown Stadium. It’s the team’s first sellout this season and thus the initial game that can be televised locally after an NFL-high seven straight blackouts.
“No, not really a rival, but it’s football and every year there’s somebody different who can rise up,” Hampton said. “It’s almost always the Steelers and the Ravens in the AFC North, but the Bengals have been there before. Only every few years or so, but they’ve been there before.
“And it’s not over, yet. There’s eight or nine games left for everybody, so we’re only halfway done. There’s a lot of football left to play, and you can’t really rest on anything right now. This time last week, we were the best team in the AFC, and now we’re not even being considered in that talk.”
The Bengals had a nice comeback win against the Tennessee Titans last week, but they are only 1-0 in the AFC North and have yet to play the Steelers or Ravens. Hampton was quick to give the Bengals their due, however, since they have done well to this point. And as is usually the case in this division, defense leads the way.
The Bengals’ defense is ranked fourth overall and second against the run in the NFL so far this season. So, with defensive-minded head coach Marvin Lewis and new coordinator Mike Zimmer leading the way, the Bengals turned things around.
“It’s not strange, to me, to see the Bengals defense ranked so high because their guys are playing hard,” Steelers wideout Mike Wallace said. “They’re running to the football and never quitting. They didn’t finish games before, but they do now. And they’re really hustling, so that makes up for a lot of things.
“Obviously, they’re 6-2, so they’ve made all the right moves on defense. They’re motivated, and they really playing hard. So, we expect them to come out and play the same way that they’ve been playing. We won’t take them lightly at all. We think they’re playing very well on both sides of the ball.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had his own take on the Bengals and the situation his club is in this week.
“We’ve got to come out and establish who we are and play some good football,” Roethlisberger said. “I think a lot of the people kind of doubted them because of Carson (Palmer), but (Andy) Dalton has come in and done a great job. I always thought he was one of the better ones, quarterbacks, coming out (of college) from last year. And he’s done a great job making plays.
“(A.J.) Green, the wide receiver, and their defense are just really good. They’ve revamped (the defense), and they’re doing a lot of great things. (Dalton) played four years (at TCU) and played in a pro-style offense where it wasn’t look to the sideline for every play and let the coach check. (So), Dalton is making plays and taking what the defenses give him.”
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor likely will get the primary job covering the Bengals rookie receiver, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and he expected a game-long battle from Green.
“He’s a beast, a freak of nature, and pretty good for a rookie,” Taylor said. “So, he’s one of Dalton’s go-to guys. They do it all, short routes, intermediate and long, so he’s their go-to guy. Sometimes, you like to ween a rookie in, to get into the flow, but he’s doing it all right now. Green’s a player.
“He can do it all for a rookie, a special rookie, and I’ve been feeling him since his days at Georgia. I’m a college fan in general, so I watch college football and like I’ve said I’ve been watching him the past couple years at Georgia. When Sunday comes, time will tell what we’re going to do with him, but he’s tough.”
Green leads with 40 catches for 599 yards (15.0 average) and five TDs.