PITTSBURGH (AP) — The bad blood between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals is palpable, built on years of animosity and antagonism, hits that straddled the line between clean and dirty and others that leapfrogged across it all together.
The AFC North’s nastiest rivalry renews Sunday with familiar stakes. The first-place Steelers (4-2) trying to give themselves some breathing room over the rest of the division.
The Bengals (2-3) hoping to take another significant step forward following an 0-3 start that threatened to end the competitive portion of their season before it really began.
“It’s going to be highly contested, it’s going to be emotional,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s going to be AFC North football.”
Translation: anything goes.
“Obviously, Bengals and Steelers is always going to be nitty gritty,” Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell said. “It’s football. It’s a little smack talk, maybe some plays on one side or another side where the other team may think it’s dirty or uncalled for. But it’s football … and that’s expected.”
Bell talked openly about taking extra precautions to protect himself, particularly from volatile Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who ended Bell’s season in 2015 on a sideline tackle that left Bell’s right knee mangled.
Burfict celebrated in the aftermath, with karma perhaps repaying him later in the season when Pittsburgh went to Cincinnati in the wild-card round and pulled out an ugly 18-16 victory aided by a personal foul penalty on Burfict that helped the Steelers’ last-gasp drive reach field goal range.
Pittsburgh has taken seven of the past eight in the series. Making it eight of nine would stall Cincinnati’s surge. The Bengals have won two straight since Burfict returned from a three-game suspension.
His presence practically guarantees extracurricular activity at some point. The familiarity between the two clubs breeds the kind of contempt hard to find elsewhere in the NFL.
Still, even that familiarity has limits.
“Naw, they’re not brothers,” Cincinnati safety George Iloka said. “It’s that cousin that your parents invite over that you’re not really cool with. That’s what that is. They’re there for Thanksgiving dinner and you’re like, man, why did you all invite them this year? That type of thing.”
Some things to look for, well, besides a busy day for the officials.
STOPPING A.J.: The Steelers held Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green to two catches for 38 yards in their only game last season — he missed the second one with a hamstring injury.
That ended a streak of Green’s big games against the Steelers. In his previous six, he’d averaged 8.3 catches and 120 yards with four touchdowns, including scoring plays of 81 and 66 yards.
Twice, he caught 11 passes in a game. The Bengals have made it a priority to get Green the ball since Bill Lazor took over as offensive coordinator, and they’re likely to keep at it against the top-ranked pass defense in the NFL.
“We got back to playing how we know we can play,” Dalton said. “We’ve had a good connection. Anytime I can get him the ball, I’m going to try and do it. I think it’s part of who we are — what we’ve done — and we’ve gotten better over the course of the last couple of weeks. We just want to keep doing it.”
ON THE RUN I: Pittsburgh’s roller coaster season reached a high point in a 19-13 victory over previously unbeaten Kansas City last weekend.
The Steelers, who have won nine straight October meetings with the Bengals, appear to have settled on an offensive identity: give the ball to Bell and get out of the way.
Pittsburgh is 9-0 since Bell arrived when he has at least 25 carries, including a season-high 32 for 179 yards against the Chiefs. Any apparent rust from Bell’s decision to skip training camp appears to be gone for good.
“There were consequences (for missing camp), and maybe we’re through them,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know that, but he’s playing extremely well.”
ON THE RUN II: The Steelers finally got their ground game moving in the win over Kansas City. The Bengals are hoping to follow their lead at Heinz Field. They have only one rushing touchdown, tied with Buffalo for second-fewest in the league.
Their average of 3.2 yards per carry is second-worst, trailing Arizona’s 3.1 yards. Lazor took a closer look at the running game during the Bengals’ bye week and is determined to get more out of it. They’ve used three different backs without much success. Rookie Joe Mixon leads with 187 yards, averaging only 2.8 yards per carry.
“I’m committed that we’ll get the run game going better,” Lazor said.
STILL GOING STRONG: Longtime Steelers linebacker James Harrison found himself a healthy scratch in Weeks 4 and 5.
Tomlin put the 39-year-old back in the rotation and he responded with a late sack that helped seal the win at Arrowhead. Tomlin didn’t rule out expanding Harrison’s playing time so long as Harrison remains productive.
“I know that he’s capable,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes the circumstances might be ideal. Sometimes they might not be.”