The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost two straight games and yet have clinched a playoff spot. Now they have a chance to wrap up the AFC North title.
That can happen if Cleveland loses Sunday night against the Giants, so it could be decided before the Steelers play Monday night against the Bengals in Cincinnati. A Steelers’ win also gives them the title.
Either way, there are a couple things Pittsburgh (11-2) wants to work on against Cincinnati (2-10-1), which has lost five straight games, including a 36-10 decision Nov. 15 against the Steelers.
A key area for Pittsburgh is opening up the offense, something offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said has been difficult to work on with three games in a 12-day span that ended with Sunday night’s 26-15 loss at Buffalo.
Questions have swirled around veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and whether he is reaching the end of his career after the Steelers have come to rely on the passing game but almost exclusively without throwing downfield.
Roethlisberger, who is 38 and had reconstructive elbow surgery last year, dismissed the notion that he is no longer effective, and Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor believes him.
“It’s a Hall of Fame quarterback who is in full command of the system, so you really have to be on top of your game from a communication standpoint,” Taylor said.
Pittsburgh hopes to give Roethlisberger a chance to air things out more Monday against the Bengals.
“Having this week where we actually get back to a semblance of having a real week, we worked on that,” Fichtner said, calling the longer passes “an area of emphasis.”
“We know we have to get back to that. We know that in any one given year since I’ve been here, the opportunity to throw the ball past the sticks in possession downs is critical to us.”
Pittsburgh — which scored at least 20 points the first 10 games but has not reached that threshold the past three — also has been hurt by dropped passes, particularly the past three weeks.
“If you’re going to throw the football, you have to catch the football,” Fichtner said.
Both teams have had injury problems that have affected consistency — specifically linebackers and offensive linemen for Pittsburgh, the defensive front and offensive line for Cincinnati.
This week, the Bengals also are faced with a question at quarterback. Brandon Allen, who has made three starts in a row, did not practice Thursday because of a knee problem, although Taylor said Allen is “doing better” and is an option to play.
If not, second-year pro Ryan Finley is expected to face Pittsburgh.
It’s just another situation that pits Taylor’s innate optimism against the reality of coaching a two-win team in late December.
“It continues to evolve every week … and put your staff and players in position to be successful,” Taylor said.
For Pittsburgh, cornerback Joe Haden, who missed the Buffalo game because of a concussion, was a full participant Thursday at practice, but running back James Conner (quadriceps) and offensive lineman Kevin Dotson (shoulder) did not practice.
–Field Level Media